V. S. Naipaul
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- A writer is in the end not his books, but his myth. And that myth is in the keeping of others.
- "Steinbeck in Monterey" (1970), in Daily Telegraph Magazine (3 April 1970), later published in The Overcrowded Barracoon, and other articles (1972)
- India has been very lucky in the Nehru family. Nehru was unique in recent world history: a colonial protest figure, a folk hero who did not appeal to fanaticism but was a reasonable, reasoning man. A man committed to science, religious tolerance, the rule of law and the rights of man. Indira Gandhi, his daughter, carried on this way of looking at things. In Britain, she might have had the reputation of being domineering, harsh, even ruthless. And you can easily make a case for her being authoritarian, antidemocratic, stamping out protest. But it isn't enough just to do that. One must consider what was on the other side. In 1975, some opposition parties wanted India to go back to some pre-industrial time of village life. Piety can take odd forms.
- Everybody is interesting for an hour, but few people can last more than two.
- One isn't born one's self. One is born with a mass of expectations, a mass of other people's ideas — and you have to work through it all.
- One always writes comedy at the moment of deepest hysteria.
- As quoted in "V.S. Naipaul in Search of Himself: A Conversation" with Mel Gussow, The New York Times, (24 April 1994)
- To this day, if you ask me how I became a writer, I cannot give you an answer. To this day, if you ask me how a book is written, I cannot answer. For long periods, if I didn't know that somehow in the past I had written a book, I would have given up.
- As quoted in "V.S. Naipaul in Search of Himself: A Conversation" with Mel Gussow, The New York Times, (24 April 1994)
- What is happening in India is a mighty creative process.... But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening. Deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging to their historical humiliation. … It is not enough to abuse these youths or use that fashionable word from Europe, 'fascism'… There is a big, historical development going on in India. Wise men should understand it and ensure that it does not remain in the hands of fanatics.
- As quoted in International Herald Tribune (8 May 1996); also quoted in The Saffron Swastika (2001) by K Elst, Ch 1
- What matters in the end in literature, what is always there, is the truly good. And — though played out forms can throw up miraculous sports like The Importance of Being Earnest or Decline and Fall — what is good is always what is new, in both form and content. What is good forgets whatever models it might have had, and is unexpected; we have to catch it on the wing.
- Reading and Writing : A Personal Account (2000), p. 62
- I have told people who ask for lectures that I have no lecture to give. And that is true. It might seem strange that a man who has dealt in words and emotions and ideas for nearly fifty years shouldn't have a few to spare, so to speak. But everything of value about me is in my books. Whatever extra there is in me at any given moment isn't fully formed. I am hardly aware of it; it awaits the next book. It will — with luck — come to me during the actual writing, and it will take me by surprise. That element of surprise is what I look for when I am writing.
- It [Islam] has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say 'my ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn't matter'... This abolition of the self demanded by Muslims was worse than the similar colonial abolition of identity. It is much, much worse in fact... You cannot just say you came out of nothing.
- We knew nothing but despotism. That is why the very rich Mughal empire could break up into nothing. Turn to dust at the merest touch of a foreign power. There was no institution, there was no creative nation, no university, no printing press, there was nothing but personal power. … How do you ignore history? But the nationalist movement, independence movement ignored it. You read the Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru, it talks about the mythical past and then it jumps the difficult period of the invasions and conquests. So you have Chinese pilgrims coming to Bihar, Nalanda and places like that. Then somehow they don't tell you what happens, why these places are in ruin. They never tell you why Elephanta island is in ruins or why Bhubaneswar was desecrated. So history has to be studied, it is very painful history. But it is not more painful than most countries have had. … It isn't India alone that has had a rough time, that has to be understood. But the rough time has to be faced and it cannot be glossed over. There are tools for us to understand the rough time. We can read a man like Ibn Battuta who will tell you what it was like to be there in the midst of the fourteenth century, terrible times. An apologist of the invaders would like to gloss that over. But it would be wrong to gloss that over, that has to be understood. … But I would like to see this past recovered and not dodged.
- If a writer doesn’t generate hostility, he is dead.
An Area of Darkness (1964)
- It is like reading of a land periodically devastated by hordes of lemmings or locusts; it is like turning from the history of a coral reef, in which every act and every death is a foundation, to the depressing chronicle of a succession of castles built on the waste sand of the sea-shore. This is Woodruff on the difference between European history and Indian history. He has chosen his images well. But the sandcastle is not quite exact. The sandcastle is flattened by the tide and leaves not trace, and India is above all the land of ruins.
In a Free State (1971)
- The only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves.
India: A Wounded Civilization (1977)
- India is for me a difficult country. It isn’t my home and cannot be my home; and yet I cannot reject it or be indifferent to it; I cannot travel only for the sights. I am at once too close and too far.
- While the Ottomans moved into South-East Europe, the Moghul invasion of India destroyed much of Hindu and Buddhist civilization there. The recent destruction by Moslems in Afghanistan of colossal Buddhist statues is a reminder of what happened to temples and shrines, on an enormous scale, when Islam took over.
Among the Believers (1981)
- The time before Islam is a time of blackness: that is part of Muslim theology. History has to serve theology.”
The Enigma of Arrival (1987)
- Vintage, 1988, ISBN 0-394-75760-2
- I also bought a copy of The New York Times, the previous day's issue of which I had seen the previous day in Puerto Rico. I was interested in newspapers and knew this paper to be one of the foremost in the world. But to read a newspaper for the first time is like coming into a film that has been on for an hour. Newspapers are like serials. To understand them you have to take knowledge to them; the knowledge that serves best is the knowledge provided by the newspaper itself. It made me feel a stranger, that paper.
- "The Journey", p. 115
- Men need history; it helps them to have an idea of who they are. But history, like sanctity, can reside in the heart; it is enough that there is something there.
- "The Ceremony of Farewell"
A Turn in the South (1989)
- Vintage, 1990, ISBN 0-679-72488-5
- The family feuds or the village feuds often had to do with an idea of honor. Perhaps it was a peasant idea; perhaps this idea of honor is especially important to a society without recourse to law or without confidence in law.
- Ch. 5, p. 162
- Religion now had to have its compartment, almost its social place.
The frontier had ceased to exist. And the religions it had bred were beginning slowly to die. In the old days, when men, often of little education, had needed only to declare themselves ministers, people would have seen themselves reflected in the expounders of the Word. This quality of homespun would have made the religions appear creations of a community, personal and close and inviolable. Now a certain distance was needed.
- Ch. 6, p. 244
Our Universal Civilization (1990)
- I never formulated the idea of the universal civilization until 11 years ago, when I traveled for many months in a number of non-Arab Muslim countries — Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan — to try to understand what had driven them to their rage. That Muslim rage was just beginning to be apparent.
I thought I would be traveling among people who would be like the people of my own community, the Trinidad Indian community. A large portion of Indians were Muslims; we both had a similar 19th century imperial or colonial history. But it wasn't like that.
Despite the history we had in common, I had traveled a different way. Starting with the Hindu background of the instinctive, ritualized life; growing up in the unpromising conditions of colonial Trinidad; I had gone through many stages of knowledge and self-knowledge. I had been granted the ideas of inquiry and the tools of scholarship. I could carry four or five or six different cultural ideas in my head. Now, traveling among non-Arab Muslims, I found myself among a colonized people who had been stripped by their faith of all that expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world that I had been growing into on the other side of the world.
- One of Joseph Conrad's earliest stories of the East Indies, from the 1890's, was about a local raja or chieftain, a murderous man, a Muslim (though it is never explicitly said), who, in a crisis, having lost his magical counselor, swims out one night to one of the English merchant ships in the harbor to ask the sailors, representatives of the immense power that had come from the other end of the world, for an amulet, a magical charm. The sailors are at a loss; but then someone among them gives the raja a British coin, a sixpence commemorating Queen Victoria's Jubilee; and the raja is well pleased. Conrad didn't treat the story as a joke; he loaded it with philosophical implications for both sides, and I feel now that he saw truly.
In the 100 years since that story, the wealth of the world has grown, power has grown, education has spread; the disturbance, the "philosophical shriek" of men at the margin (to use Conrad's words), has been amplified.
- The universal civilization has been a long time in the making. It wasn't always universal; it wasn't always as attractive as it is today. The expansion of Europe gave it for at least three centuries a racial taint, which still causes pain.
In Trinidad I grew up in the last days of that kind of racialism. And that, perhaps, has given me a greater appreciation of the immense changes that have taken place since the end of the war, the extraordinary attempt to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world's thought.
Because my movement within this civilization has been from Trinidad to England, from the periphery to the center, I may have felt certain of its guiding principles more freshly than people to whom these things were everyday. One such realization — I suppose I have sensed it most of my life, but I have understood it philosophically only during the preparation of this talk — has been the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue.
This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don't imagine my father's Hindu parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.
- Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can be easily set on the boil.
- The Hindus, especially in Bengal, welcomed the New Learning of Europe and the institutions the British brought. The Muslims, wounded by their loss of power, and out of old religious scruples, stood aside. It was the beginning of the intellectual distance between the two communities. This distance has grown with independence; and it is this—more even than religion now — that at the end of the twentieth century has made India and Pakistan quite distinct countries. India, with an intelligentsia that grows by leaps and bounds, expands in all directions. Pakistan, proclaiming only the faith and then proclaiming the faith again, ever shrinks.
It was Muslim insecurity that led to the call for the creation of Pakistan. It went at the same time with an idea of old glory, of the invaders sweeping down from the northwest and looting the temples of Hindustan and imposing the faith on the infidel. The fantasy still lives; and for the Muslim converts of the subcontinent it is the start of their neurosis, because in this fantasy the convert forgets who or what he is and becomes the violator.
Half a Life (2001)
- Life doesn't have a neat beginning and a tidy end, life is always going on. You should begin in the middle and end in the middle, and it should be all there.
- I could scarcely bear to look at her eyes. They promised such intimacies.
- I thought how terrible it would have been if, as could so easily have happened, I had died without knowing this depth of satisfaction, this other person that I had just discovered within myself. It was worth any price, any consequence.
- And whenever I saw Luis, Graça's husband, I dealt with him with a friendship that was quite genuine, since it was offered out of gratitude for Graça's love.
- Before comfort had been squeezed out of the hard land, like blood out of stone.
Quotes about V. S. Naipaul
- In alphabetical order by author or source.
- Naipaul is essentially a writer of discovery. He tries on occasion to look into the past through the evidence of the present. That’s what he did in writing about the ruins of Vijayanagar in India: A Wounded Civilisation. He is not a professional historian, but his insights and perspectives on Indian history are unique and as startling in their accuracy as the observations of his travel.
- (TB: Do you read V. S. Naipaul? Do you like Naipaul?) NH: I read his earlier short story collection Miguel Street over and over when I was a kid. I really liked it. I think it still holds up fairly well, but I haven't read his newer work. He is, of course, notorious amongst his fellow Caribbean writers and everyone else for his outrageously racist and sexist statements. I don't like those. But I find him easy to ignore.
- 2012 interview included in Conversations with Nalo Hopkinson edited by Isiah Lavender III
- Naipaul seems to have made himself the spokesman for the permanent, and one's tempted to say, the professional, expatriate from the Third World. His characters savour their marginality. I write about New Americans and New Canadians, about belated homesteaders from nontraditional countries. My characters grow and change with the change in citizenships.
- 1987 interview in Conversations with Bharati Mukherjee Edited by Bradley C. Edwards (2009)87
- Naipaul’s legacy will never be entirely straightforward – which does not mean he should not be read, enjoyed, debated and critiqued. Salman Rushdie’s brief tribute to Naipaul indicates the complexities: “We disagreed all our lives, about politics, about literature, and I feel as sad as if I just lost a beloved older brother,” he wrote on Twitter. In an era that yearns to render life in black and white, the complications of VS Naipaul are a reminder that it is more wisely seen in shades of grey.
- I think that there are writers who I don’t necessarily agree with in terms of their politics, but whose writings are sort of a baseline for how to think about certain things — VS Naipaul, for example. … His A Bend in the River starts with the line, "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." And I always think about that line, and I think about his novels when I’m thinking about the hardness of the world sometimes, particularly in foreign policy, and I resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world. And yet, there are times where it feels as if that may be true.
- Let us add one more complication success brings: the illusion of predestination. In this regard I cannot help recalling a long conversation with V. S. Naipaul in which he insisted that he could not have failed as an author, and that recognition, even immediate recognition, of his genius was inevitable, simply because he was so good. I could not persuade him to accept that he only believed this because he had in fact been successful and that it must have been possible, given the world’s perversity, for recognition to have eluded him. The conviction of predestination came after the event.
- Tim Parks, in "Stifled by Success", The New York Review of Books (12 March 2015)
- The World Is What It Is was a fitting title for the biography of a writer who struggled all his life between poles. On the one hand, there was social and personal anomie, on the other a commitment to vocation. He had a mutated Hindu view that all the world was illusion and only the self was real, and yet his writing showed him observing and reporting the external world with precision. He was a difficult man to get to know. His meaning for the island of his birth, and for the world after the centuries of empires and colonies, “everything of value”, as he put it in his Nobel lecture, was in his books: "I am the sum of my books." In time, that will be seen as his most appropriate epitaph.