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The muzak was irritating Sir Vidia. He sat in a hotel coffee shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the last stop of his American book tour. We asked a server if the soft rock could be turned down. She explained that it was a "requirement" to play it just so. "It's a requirement," Sir Vidia echoed after she had gone, half asking, half judging—and considering, always considering.
Naipaul's longtime editor, George Andreou, sought to explain to Sir Vidia that a hotel coffee shop is a total concept: "If they violate the terms of the concept, everything falls apart." Naipaul considered this carefully. "Oh, I see," he said. "It becomes another kind of place."
This is how V.S. Naipaul lives: from observation to observation, sentence to sentence: life as the constant act of "working things out," as he calls it. He was in town to promote The Masque of Africa, a travelogue about the encounter between traditional African belief systems and the pressures of modernity. Our conversation in the hotel began with the most striking thing about the book for a longtime reader of Naipaul: the display of a sudden and unlikely sensitivity in the author. The Masque unmasks Naipaul—whose reputation for callousness toward humans is legendary—as a besotted, almost tender, lover of animals.
Substantial passages of animal sympathy occur, by my tally, on pages 8, 58, 77, 104, 108, 129, 144, 150, 158, 159, 199, and 224, with more passing accounts of animals sprinkled throughout. What strikes one about these passages is a plainly enunciated, uncomplicated compassion that Naipaul rarely allows himself with humans. Learning of the ill treatment of horses in Lagos, he says, "It was shocking to me that such a big animal, which needed constant attention, could be subject to such bad treatment. The unpleasant fact stayed with me." In Ghana, at the home of its former president Jerry Rawlings, Sir Vidia is taken with the sight of the family dogs being fed: "I could have looked at the feeding scene for a long time." In Ivory Coast, he writes of the local practice of placing a cat in a sack and submerging it in boiling water for eventual eating: "The thought of this everyday kitchen cruelty made everything else in the Ivory Coast seem unimportant."
V.S. Naipaul is not Anderson Cooper; in his narratives, he rarely intervenes to right a wrong or stand up for the little guy. But he does, in The Masque, when the little guy is an animal. At a hotel in Uganda, he writes, "a pretty little kitten, three or four months old, wailed piteously for food." Under the prompting of his questions, a saucer of milk is brought for the cat. At a party in Gabon, Naipaul is bothered by the sight of a feeble stray dog much weaker than the house dog. He asks someone "whether it would be bad manners to give him some of the food from my plate." He is freed to do so. At a palace in Kano, Nigeria, when he is unable to do anything for a small white kitten, he writes, "This little tragedy, and my own helplessness, cast a shadow over the rest of my visit to the palace."
In our conversation, Sir Vidia explained this new expression of feeling for animals as a product of overcoming his past. Growing up in Trinidad, he was surrounded by human cruelty and had felt, and done, nothing about it. A case that lingers in his mind is of a mentally ill neighbor who carried a stick in hand and beat someone up every day. Young Vidia knew because he heard the screaming. But he suppressed his reactions to what seemed routine.
As he has aged, that blockage has opened, he told me. Cruelty has come to stir him as it did not before. He described the animal passages in the book as an "acknowledging" of his own deepening reactions to a certain kind of cruelty. But the back story, offered at first only by his wife, traced this change to a gift on his 63rd birthday.
Around the time of that birthday, Nadira Naipaul, a charismatic Pakistani journalist who has been married to Sir Vidia since 1996, had gone with some friends to an animal shelter. She returned with a cat as a gift for her husband. The moment of his first contact with it was a revelation. "The cat was very frightened," he told me. "It's a little animal. It only has itself. It's very frightened, and it tried to run away, but of course it couldn't. It climbed up a screen door, the way animals can do, but then I touched it and something remarkable happened—happened with my touch. The cat recognized this is a friendly hand. He recognized it immediately and became easy. And, within an hour or two, he was walking all over. So it became a friend."
Lady Naipaul's theory is that the cat awakened in her husband emotional responses that had lacked in him before. He is coy about that idea: "That's her view, her view." But he allows that having the cat, feeling for it, sensing its fragility "has made me understand the brutality of people."
And, more than once, he repeated this idea: "A cat only has itself."
The difficulty of talking to V.S. Naipaul is that he seems to prefer not to. To converse with him is to be struck now and then by a blazing insight or fresh way of seeing, but also, and more often, to be brushed off, scolded and refused. How have his convictions changed over the years? "That's writing my books all over again. It's too big a question." Recalibrating and narrowing: has he come to love England, where he settled after leaving Trinidad? "That's a provocative question. I wouldn't answer it." What does he make of the talk of the decline of the West? "I haven't thought of that idea." Surely this will work: what questions does he most urgently wish to work out? "I will know later. I can't tell you now."
A rough bedside manner is, of course, vintage Naipaul, and the reason his animal sensitivities stand out in The Masque. But in our conversation, another side of him seemed at times to peep out. In fleeting moments, he seemed unusually eager to explain himself, to be understood by a world whose opinion of him he mostly professes not to notice.
Whether or not you admire V.S. Naipaul turns to a great degree on your assessment of his empathic abilities. When I asked Naipaul about empathy, he described it as "a colossal part, a fundamental part" of his enterprise: "I've always put myself in the other man's place. And it's strange to find that people don't understand this side of me."
I asked him to explain this side. He chuckled a little guiltily, perhaps because complaining about being misunderstood is not very Naipaul. "They think I'm very brutal." he said of his critics, whose criticism he rarely addresses. "They think I'm unkind. And I don't think that at all. I just think I always try to look at the world through the eyes of the man I'm talking to. Even now, talking to you, I'm half looking at the world through your eyes."
"And what are you seeing?" I asked.
"Exactly," he said cryptically, and then we all began to laugh.
What brought the criticism, I suggested, was the pungent judgment that Naipaul bundles with his empathy. He reconstructs so well the experience of being another human. But wrapped up with that empathy can be a bald contempt for the insecurities, customs and beliefs of his subjects. I asked about the relationship between empathy and judgment, and whether he thought it possible to do both.
He thought for a moment. "Yes, I think one is contained in the other," he said. "Judgment is contained in the act of trying to understand." I suggested to him that many who "misunderstood" him, in his estimation, maintained the rather different view that genuine empathy precludes being judgmental.
"Well, I understand that point of view, too," he said. "But I think if you try to look at the world through other people's eyes, that act of looking contains a kind of judgment as well." His editor offered this elaboration, with which Naipaul confirmed his agreement: because humans are self-critical, judging themselves as harshly as others judge them, the art of putting yourself in another's shoes involves not just saccharine sensitivity, but judging a person as she might, or should, judge herself.
This idea of the duality of judgment and empathy, as Naipaul conceives of it, may be essential to making sense of his life's work and his legacy. It is a reflection of the self-image he has vigorously cultivated: a man unattached to tribe or country or ideology, to any other source of income but writing, to any other professional deployment of his mind and time. "I'm a pure writer," he told me. "By that I mean I could have been nothing else but, and I understand that about myself."
He seems especially to loathe the notion of writer as all-purpose pundit. Today the writer expects, and is expected, not only to write but also to blog about the writing, bloviate about it on television and the radio, tweet about it, personally market it—and, most treacherously, to stretch out opinions formed from the examination of particular things to subjects far afield. Naipaul strenuously resists such pontification. It is frustrating for the interviewer; but there is also something remarkable about his restraint. "There are two ways of talking," he told me. "One is the easy way, where you talk lightly, and the other one is the considered way. The considered way is what I have put my name to." Much of a writer's life is spent in making considered thoughts out of easy ones, he added—in "refining coarse thought."
When our conversation veered toward his oft-quoted claim that the novel has no future, Naipaul at first just repeated several times that the novel has "done its work." But then Andreou spoke for him, and he readily assented to the idea: a new form is born when original people have something burning to say and no established mode of saying it. But then a form becomes entrenched, and anyone can take it off the shelf. The result, in Andreou's Naipaul-inspired phrase, is an onslaught of "mimicry." When a form has "done its work," it becomes too easy for others to mimic it.
Naipaul's is the frustration of a man who has gambled his entire life on the idea that writing is difficult, that it is a vocation unlike any other, that it is a kind of nirvanic quest whose unattainability is the very point. It is the mission he was preparing for, unknowingly, when as a boy in Trinidad he would come home from social events, sit by himself and seek to reconstruct the conversation—"to see whether I had said what I really meant." And now, late in his life, he watches as the pressures against this idea of craft mount; he senses the writing life on the cusp of becoming, like that hotel coffee shop, another kind of place.
So taken is he by this notion of the writer-as-island that he refuses to be part of the literary culture—refuses, for example, to cite writers he admires or dislikes, who stand for what he seeks or resists in writing. When I mentioned some other prominent writers and their books, he seemed not to have heard of them. He continues to read the Roman classics that have always brought him joy, using the Loeb editions with Latin on one side and English on the other. He varies his starting language depending on his level of fatigue. He reveres the Romans, and in this, too, is a hint of his special idea of writing. Rome matters to him, above all, as a towering "writing civilization" that recorded life in vivid detail. "I can't read enough of it, actually," he said. (Some moments later, he belied this classical image of himself by showing great fascination for my iPad. He seemed particularly taken with the ability to flip through book pages with the flick of a finger. "Wonderful," he said softly.)
My time expired. As I left, I thanked him. And now he chose to make himself understood in yet one more way. A day earlier, when I had first met him, I had told him how much his work had meant to me. He gruffly dismissed my praise. Now, a day later, he explained himself. Writers are vulnerable, he told me. Everyone descends on them offering praise, much of it meaningless and unconsidered. He has no tribe or community to protect him. The writer must protect himself.
"The writer is all alone," Sir Vidia said. "He has only himself—just like a little kitten."