HE WAS struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house, the audacity of it: to walk down a farm track in Wiltshire to his own front gate, to close his doors and windows on his own space, privacy and neatness, to walk on cream carpet through book-lined rooms where, still in a towelling robe at noon, he could summon a wife to make coffee or take dictation.
Outside, he could wander over lawns to the manor house, or a lake where swans glided, or visit the small building that served as his wine cellar. Vidia, his friends called him; he disliked his name, but liked the derivation, from the Sanskrit for seeing and knowing. He looked hard, with his eagle stare, and saw things as they were.
The house, which he rented, was paid for by his books, more than 30 of them. He had not taken up writing to get rich or win awards; that was a dreadful thought. Dreadful! To write was a vocation.
Nonetheless his fourth book, “A House for Mr Biswas”, based on his father’s search for a settled place, had luckily propelled him to fame, and in 2001 he had won the Nobel prize for literature. He had been knighted, too, though he did not care to use the title. Hence the country cottage, as well as a duplex in Chelsea. For, as Mr Biswas said, “how terrible it would have been…to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth.”
Which portion of the earth, though, was the question. Mr Naipaul’s ancestors were Indian, but that part lay in darkness, pierced only by his grandmother’s prayers and quaint rituals of eating.
Journeys to India later, which resulted in three books excoriating the place, convinced him that this was not his home and never could be. He was repelled by the slums, the open defecation (picking his fastidious way through butts and twists of human excrement), and by the failure of Indian civilisation to defend itself. His place of birth and growth was Trinidad, principally Port of Spain, the humid, squalid, happy-go-lucky city, sticky with mangoes and loud with the beat of rain on corrugated iron, that provided the comedy in “Biswas” and “Miguel Street”.
But he had to leave. England was his lure, as for all bright colonial boys who did not know their place, and his Trinidadian accent soon vanished in high-class articulation; but Oxford was wretched and London disappointing. He kept leaving, travelling, propelled by restlessness. Books resulted, but not calm. Not calm.
Much of his agitation, even to tears, came from the urge to write itself; what he was to write about, and in what form. The novel was exhausted. Modernism was dead. Yet literature had taken hold of him, a noble purpose to his life, the call of greatness.
He had moved slowly into writing, first fascinated by the mere shapes of the letters, requesting pens, Waterman ink and ruled exercise books to depict them; then intrigued by the stories his father read to him; then, in London, banging out his first attempts on a BBC typewriter.
For a long time he failed to devise a story. Beginnings were laborious, punctuation sacred: he filleted an American editor for removing his semicolons, “with all their different shades of pause”. Once going, though, he wrote at speed, hoping to reach that state of exaltation when he would understand himself, as well as his subject.
Truth-telling, defying the darkness, was his purpose. His travels through the post-colonial world, to India, Africa, the Caribbean and South America, made him furious: furious that formerly colonised peoples were content to lose their history and dignity, to be used and abandoned, and to build no institutions of their own, like the Africans of “In a Free State” squealing in their forest-language in the kitchens of tourist hotels.
He mourned the relics of colonial rule, the overgrown gardens and collapsed polo pavilions, the mock-Tudor lodges and faded Victorian bric-à-brac he saw in Bundi or Kampala; but even more than these, the loss of human potential.
Many people were offended, and he cared not a whit whether they were or not. It was his duty and his gift to describe things exactly: whether the marbled endpaper of a dusty book, the stink of bed bugs and kerosene, the way that purple jacaranda flowers shone against rocks after rain, or the stupidity of most people. He resisted all editing, of writing or opinions. Without apology, he also slapped his mistress once until his hand hurt. Severity and pride came naturally to his all-seeing self.
To the plantation
The further purpose of writing was to give order to his life. He carefully recorded all events, either in his memory for constant replays or in small black notebooks consigned to his inside jacket pocket. Converting these to prose imposed a shape on disorder; it provided a structure, a shelter, protection.
His rootless autobiographical heroes often dreamed of such calm places: a cottage on a hill, with a fire lit, approached at night through rain; a room furnished all in white, looking towards the sea; or in “The Mimic Men” the most alluring vision, an estate house on a Caribbean island among cocoa groves and giant immortelle trees, whose yellow and orange flowers floated down on the woods. Though he ended his days in Wiltshire, more or less content, it was somebody else’s sun he saw there, and somebody else’s history. His deep centre remained the place from which he had fled.