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The strange experience of interviewing V.S. Naipaul

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 3, 2013 10:08 AM

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Naipaul2.jpegI don’t envy Isaac Chotiner. Somehow the 30-year-old senior editor at The New Republic secured an interview with the eminent V.S. Naipaul. But apparently just because Naipaul invites you into his London home doesn’t mean he’s willing to talk. The interview, which ran in early December, reads as a bizarro Stoppard-esque comedy. Chotiner has done his homework, but the prickly 80-year-old Naipaul disputes the premises of most of Chotiner’s questions, at one point tsk-tsking the journalist, “You are bringing very fixed ideas and applying them to me instead of seeing what is and how I am reacting.”

But where the conversation does get going, the results are interesting.

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.

And:

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.

Throughout the interview Naipaul distances himself from the present-tense world: He doesn't read contemporary novels, he's disinterested in Barack Obama, knows nothing of modern-day India, thinks the Arab Spring was empty noise, says he's done writing fiction. And his dodges to Chotiner's questions suggest that after eight decades on earth, he's lost interest in his own character, too. It's a perspective that holds up, except for the one niggling fact that he agreed to the interview in the first place.

Photo courtesy of Vintage Anchor Publicity

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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