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V.S. Naipaul on the Arab Spring, Authors He Loathes, and the Books He Will Never Write

And also his dead cat.

“IT WAS CALAMITOUS for me. I feel a deep, deep grief.” Sir V.S. Naipaul is talking about his dead cat. We are sitting in the spacious two-story London flat in Kensington where the author and his welcoming second wife, Nadira, stay when they are not at their Wiltshire country residence. “Now that Augustus has died, I want to spend more time in London,” he continues, slowly picking at the meal Nadira has provided. “It is too painful to be [in Wiltshire]. I think of Augustus. He was the sum of my experiences. He had taken on my outlook, my way of living.”

Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001, is known for what one commentator described as a “terrifying honesty”—but not so much for his sensitivity. As his first wife, Patricia Hale, battled breast cancer, Naipaul left her alone for long periods, carrying out serious affairs with other women. When Hale was temporarily in remission, in 1994, Naipaul discussed his past visits to prostitutes in an interview with The New Yorker. “I think she had all the relapses after that,” he told his official biographer, Patrick French. “All the remission ended.” Of her death two years later, he added, “It could be said that I killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.” The day after the cremation, Naipaul invited Nadira, a Pakistani journalist, to move into the Wiltshire home he had shared with Hale.

“I must thank Nadira for bringing Augustus into my life,” Naipaul continues. He is visibly upset, and I ask when the cat passed away. “This last September,” he replies. It is October 1, and I offer a cliché about time healing all wounds. “No, no, the previous September 26th,” he explains, sounding deeply wounded. “A year ago. The terrible part of it is that people suggest to me that I get a new cat, that I invite this new cat into the home I shared with Augustus. As if this one should just be replaced so soon. It shows a lack of understanding.”

It is impossible to read Naipaul’s tremendous body of work without becoming entranced by the man himself: irascible, inquisitive, and acutely attuned to the ways in which his own background has shaped his outlook. I had sought out Sir Vidia, who turned 80 this year, because his writing seemed newly relevant in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Many of his books are set in post-colonial societies—from Africa and South America to Iran and Pakistan. At a time when many were cheering the end of the age of empire, the Trinidad-born Naipaul showed a skepticism about revolutions and social change that gave him a reputation for pessimism and prescience. Embedded in his writing is both a generous curiosity about the lives of ordinary people and a bleak view of the societies they inhabit.

At times, Naipaul’s views have provoked controversy, from his past comments on Islam (“There probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs”) to his dismissal of women writers (“I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me”). Our conversation ranged from the state of the Islamic world to his dislike of British literature and his apathy toward President Barack Obama. Nadira was present for most of the discussion; when she disappeared, even momentarily, he seemed aggrieved, and he listened to her occasional interjections with an admiration bordering on reverence.

Isaac Chotiner: Are you working on anything at the moment?

V.S. Naipaul: I am far too old [laughs].

IC: So no more?

VSN: When you are eighty, you don’t have much more to say. Do you know any writers of eighty?

IC: I’m thinking. No.

VSN: Exactly. How can one? If a man begins writing at thirty, by the time he is fifty or sixty, the bulk of his work has been done. By the time he is eighty, he’s got nothing more, you know?

IC: You wrote a number of books after age sixty, though.

VSN: Yes, yes, I had to. There were things I had to say.

IC: Martin Amis said that, when he went back to read his early work, he found a certain energy in it that was absent in his later work, but he also said that, in terms of form, he thought his later work was stronger, at the sentence level.

VSN: Who said this?

IC: Martin Amis.

VSN: Oh, Martin Amis.

IC: He’s only sixtysomething.

VSN: He’s quite a young man.

IC: What do you make of the Arab Spring? Do you see it as inevitably a reactionary, illiberal movement, or are you hopeful about it?

VSN: Not at all hopeful. I think it’s nothing. You saw how it ended in Libya. It ended in a kind of mess, you know. It will happen elsewhere, too.

Nadira Naipaul: [To Isaac Chotiner] I can see why my husband thinks we have seen you before.

VSN: It is probably your great quality. People think they know you.

IC: You were saying you see no hope in the Arab Spring.

VSN: I didn’t say that. You asked me whether I thought it was a great thing. I thought it was nothing really. It would come and go, and we’ll be back where we started.

IC: And where is the place that we started?

VSN: Chaos, one-man rule, which is how these things usually end in the Muslim world.

IC: Are there areas of the Muslim world where you have more optimism?

VSN: I don’t think that these terms of optimism and pessimism are ... One just looks at what there is. I liked Indonesia very much when I went there [in 1980]. Very attractive civilization, and I got on well with the people I met. But since that visit, they have become more religious, more concerned with Islam, and this is taking them down a bit.

IC: You don’t consider yourself a religious believer, is that correct?

VSN: I am not religious, no.

IC: Are you interested in atheism?

VSN: Oh no, no. Not interested. How can you be an atheist and have an ideology to go with it? To be an atheist is to be free of some areas of belief. I don’t see how that can become an ideology. Do you understand what I am saying? ... Where’s Nadira? She’s gone away again?

IC: Can I get you something?

VSN: No, no, I wanted her to be around. She prevents me from saying wicked things [laughs].

IC: I was wondering what you thought of the president. He has a very interesting life story and background—mixed race, grew up in different environments. Have you thought about his story and any similarities with your own?

VSN: No. He is too far away from me.

IC: Is there anything that interests you about him?

VSN: Not really. I don’t like the way he talks. ... I don’t like ... [sighs] I have heard too much of him now. I don’t want to get mixed up in American politics.

IC: You have spoken of coming from a place “without a canon.” What does it feel like to now be part of the canon?

VSN: I don’t feel that.

IC: You don’t feel you are part of the canon?

VSN: No, I think it is something you have said, in your letter to us about what you wanted to write about. You are bringing very fixed ideas and applying them to me instead of seeing what is and how I am reacting.

IC: OK, can I ask you a question about your father?

VSN: It depends what the question is.

IC: In an essay, you talked about your father, that he had been part of a reforming movement on the subjects of Hinduism and caste. Not a revolutionary impulse, but that he wanted to push for change. Do you ever feel those same impulses?

VSN: I think that is too grand for what my father felt really. He had very simple ideas on things. He was not a revolutionary or reformer. A little bit of reform at the beginning, but not later, not as a writer.

IC: Is there anything in your travels that you have wanted to reform or felt passionately about?

VSN: I wouldn’t go around thinking like that, no. I would be much more observing and say: “This is how they do it here. This is how they think here.” I wouldn’t want to reform. Reform has to come from the people. It cannot be imposed on them.

IC: You said that you traveled to places in some way connected to your background. Is there any place you wanted to travel that you didn’t get a chance to go to?

VSN: Not really, no. I mentioned traveling to places linked to Trinidad because they gave me a starting point, to the extent that, when I was in the Congo, I could just see the people coming in Kinshasa by the train and feel I had seen these people before and knew them a little bit. That is the limit of my concern with my background. It opens up the doors to me. Is that enough for you?

IC: I was curious, because you wrote three books about India. Do you have some sense of—

VSN: I don’t follow the news of India. I don’t know about India now.

IC: In some ways, it seems like a very different country from when you wrote your first book about India [in 1964].

VSN: I wonder whether that is so. I doubt whether a country like that can change so quickly in forty years. I don’t think it can. It is the same country with new superficial ... [stops] I should ask you where you stand on all of this, because then I could understand where all the questions are coming from.

IC: Well, I’m thirty. I’m from California. I am a longtime admirer of your work, and I thought it would be good to come and talk with you.

VSN: And talk with me, yes. I wanted to know whether you had ideas about changing the world and reforming and all that. Your questions are always getting back to the thing about reforming the world.

IC: You’re interviewing me now . ... The reason I was interested in asking you those questions was because your writing is imbued with questions of reform and reactions to reform and the failures of revolutions.

VSN: Yes, yes, yes. I asked that to find out where you stood. Whether you were cheering on the side of the Arab Spring and things like that.

IC: I was more hopeful than you were when it started. I am less hopeful now.

VSN: OK, OK, let’s go on.

IC: I was wondering what you like to read now.

VSN: I read many things. I read to fill in my knowledge of the world. I am reading this writer, [Thomas] De Quincey, here [points to the book]. The other thing I am reading, quite unusual for me, is Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks. I was staggered by it.

IC: Why did it stagger you?

VSN: It was so wise. Wonderful narrative gift. His language is wonderful. When he is talking, it varies from mode to mode. And it’s always marvelous. He has to deal with typhoid, which will kill his character, and he does it pulling away. He goes inside the sufferer and says, this is what happens to a cancer patient, a typhoid patient. At a certain stage, life calls out to him. Very beautiful way of writing. I am feeble trying to paraphrase. Very, very moving. I was dazzled by it.

IC: Are there English or British authors you go back to time and again?

VSN: No, no. Who do you go back to?

IC: [George] Orwell. P.G. Wodehouse.

VSN: I can’t read Wodehouse. The thought of, shall we say, facing three or four months of nothing but Wodehouse novels fills me with horror.

IC: What about George Eliot?

VSN: Childhood, you know, childhood. A little of [The Mill on the Floss] was read to me. It mattered at the time. But as you get older, your tastes and needs change. I don’t like her or the big English writers. I don’t like [Charles] Dickens.

IC: No British writers.

NN: The poets he likes, not the prose. He likes the columnists more than the writers.

VSN: I don’t want to upset them.

NN: He upsets people for no reason.

IC: I was going to ask about his Jane Austen comments.

NN: Oh God, everybody hates Jane Austen. They don’t have the balls to say it. Believe me. Who did we meet the other day, that famous academic who said Jane Austen was rubbish? And I said, “Why don’t you stand up and say it.” And he said, “Am I mad?” They have all reassessed her, but they just don’t want to say it.

IC: Do you want to expand on why you don’t like her? You think she’s trivial?

VSN: Yes, it is too trivial. A romantic story. It doesn’t do anything for me. It doesn’t tell me anything. It’s not like Mann talking about death. He has a way of dealing with it.

IC: Is there anyone currently writing whom you are interested in?

VSN: I think that was the point of your question from the start, that says that to be a reader is about being in touch with contemporary writers. As I told you, I read to add to my knowledge of the history of literature. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time just reading one novel after another to say, “I have read these novels.” What do you think of what I am saying? Do you think I am a trivial person?

IC: Certainly not. I want to ask you about writing. In one of your books, you described a character as having a gift for seeing the flaws in people. Do you think that’s helpful to a writer?

VSN: I was talking about myself as a very young man, almost a child, thinking, This is how I did it. I saw the flaws in people. Quite young, quite young. I don’t know if it is good or bad. It just came to me.

IC: What was it like to have a biography written about you that was so critical? Did that anger you?

VSN: I don’t want to talk about it.

IC: As a writer, what are the external rewards for you?

VSN: The thing about writing, I am speaking for myself here, what gives me great pleasure when I am starting on a big and difficult work—shall we say something like Among the Believers, which is a big work—quite early on, I begin to feel when I am working on it that I know where it’s going, that I am getting somewhere. That gives me great pleasure. I am suffused with pleasure. It is all to do with writing that is connected with the writer seeing his way to the end of the work he is engaged on. The things of people coming up to one, it doesn’t mean anything, does it? It usually doesn’t mean anything.

NN: It does mean something to you. You are very moved by it. Especially when people in Africa, or Pakistan, in other countries, in Islamic countries, when people actually seek you out and they start crying. ... In Uganda, people actually came to seek you out and say thank you for looking at us and you are right.

VSN: You got a good reply from Nadira.

NN: I am sorry, I shouldn’t have answered.

IC: No, it’s fine.

VSN: Yes, yes. Nadira’s reply, yes.

IC: You dedicated your last book to Nadira’s daughter, who you adopted at age sixteen. What is it like to become a father late in life?

NN: He is a very cool father. He gives her bad advice, but now she is happily married. But in the old days, he would tell her: “Don’t get married, don’t get married. Have as many lovers as you want, but don’t get married.” And I would say, “What kind of advice are you giving?” But she would love it. For someone who never wanted children, he is a very good stepfather. He gets bored very quickly, and she was a model and into couture, and she got him into fashion and asking about Valentino and Chanel, Armani. He needs to be engaged. He needs something new.

IC: Do you want to add something to that?

VSN: It’s OK. It’s OK.

IC: Did you ever want little kids?

NN: No, no. Never. No, no. He wouldn’t have been able to work if he had children.

VSN: Exactly.

IC: You have said political correctness is taking over certain precincts of British life. But do you feel that your life was affected by political correctness, that people responded differently to you?

VSN: I stayed away from all that.

NN: You had two things going for you. Writing and anger. You were always angry, Vidia.

IC: Do you still feel angry?

VSN: Not angry. No.

NN: He didn’t cry or make the right noises about racism. He was too proud. ... He knew his own self worth. Very few writers do.

IC: You wrote an article about [John] Steinbeck a long time ago, in which you said writers are their writing and also their myth.

VSN: “The writer in the end is more than his writing, he is his myth.” The carefully composed sentence with which that piece begins. 1969, I think.

IC: What is your myth?

VSN: I don’t have any. I don’t have any.

NN: Bogeyman.

VSN: I don’t know what people say. The thing is, I don’t read things about myself.

NN: That’s true [laughs].

IC: So you are saying that you want to be known by the writing, not the myths?

VSN: I don’t even think like that. Since I don’t know what is said, I can’t answer this question in any interesting way. I really don’t know what is said. I avoid it.

IC: Well, I can give you my opinion of what people think of you.

VSN: No, no, no.

IC: People have great respect for your writing. You must know that?

VSN: Nadira, do I know that?

NN: You do.

VSN: I do. I don’t worry about it. I think that’s correct.

IC: Do you look back at your own books?

VSN: Recently, I did a lot of short prefaces for the new Picador paperback editions and that made me think about the work. When I have looked back at the work, it is with—my heart is in my mouth. The reason being, I am always waiting for the writer—as I read—to stumble, to say something foolish. And I hope it never comes. I still think it’s really quite wonderful when I read a sentence of mine and it has that quality of lastingness.

NN: When you wrote all those prefaces, you said at the end that you were dazzled. Dazzled by his work. I remember the sentence. He was dazzled, because they were so good. He is very good, you know, you can’t trick him.

IC: I haven’t tried.

NN: Don’t you even dare to try. I picked up a book he has written, like The Middle Passage. I sort of jumped through a sentence, or two sentences, and he will immediately say: “That’s rubbish. I don’t write like this. Go back. You are eating something. You are cutting something.” He knows the music of his prose. He remembers every line in a strange way. I tried it with Biswas. You can’t jump three lines.

IC: That book is about people you grew up with. And one thing you wrote is that, in your community, people didn’t teach you what sex was; it was very constricting.

VSN: Did I say that?

NN: Seduction.

IC: Thank you. How do you think growing up with these attitudes conditioned your attitude to sex in your books, which is often very aggressive?

VSN: One is made by all the things around one. There are many things that have made one. For a writer to go around looking for things that have made him is asking for trouble. It’s like giving a character to yourself. Can’t do it. Can’t do it. These things are just there. Is that enough?

IC: Is there more that you want to say?

VSN: No, I don’t believe so. I have arrived at saying, “These things are just there.” And that’s enough. That’s enough.

IC: Thank you. Have you figured out where you have seen me?

VSN: I think you probably came to see me.

IC: I would have remembered.

VSN: When I said to you, “Have I met you before?” I was overcompensating for a weakness of mine. I don’t remember faces. I was approached by a man, I won’t say his name, quite recently, about two weeks ago, and Nadira said, “Here comes X.” And he looked at me and looked at me and looked at me, and tried to get some recognition from me.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. This interview appeared in the December 20, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “V.S. Naipaul Is Who He Is: The Nobel laureate on the Arab Spring, authors he loathes, and the books he will never write.”