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November 15, 2001, Thursday

Another Bend In the River For Naipaul; He Tests the Water For Nobel Prize Speech


V. S. Naipaul's new novel, ''Half a Life,'' is about the journey -- geographical and emotional -- of Willie Chandran, a man from India who emigrates to England and later Africa. He lives largely through others: his father, his friends, his wife. It is ''about being half a person, of living a borrowed life,'' Mr. Naipaul said during a recent visit to New York.

Although the book has autobiographical elements, as does all of Mr. Naipaul's work, he was adamant that Willie was not a self-portrait. In contrast to Willie, he said, ''I have lived this rather full life, which is entirely my own.'' It is a writer's life, he emphasized, and he invented it for himself.

That life has taken him from Trinidad, where he was born 69 years ago -- the son of immigrants from India -- to England, where he has written 25 books of fiction and nonfiction, won many awards and was knighted. Last month, in a pinnacle of achievement, he was named this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Mr. Naipaul has always had his fervent admirers, but now the Nobel transformation has taken place. Opening in Washington before proceeding around the United States, he was on a kind of triumphal march, which ended at the Miami Book Fair. After almost 50 years of writing -- and many years of struggle -- he has become a star.

In New York he appeared at Queens College, where he read from his new novel, signed copies and was interviewed onstage. After he was asked a long scholarly question about meaning and portent in his work, he sidestepped self-analysis and said simply, ''We just write the books.''

The next day over tea at the Carlyle Hotel, where he and his wife, Nadira, were staying, he spoke about his life and work and offered a preview of what he would say in his Nobel acceptance speech on Dec. 10 in Stockholm.

''From an early stage my life has been dedicated to writing,'' he said, ''and this has separated me from most of the people I know.'' He had the desire to be a writer, ''the noblest impulse of all,'' before he had anything to write about.

''I had such trouble getting started because of my background,'' he said. ''There were no models, no books to show me how to use the material with which I would have to deal. That was my anxiety, about not getting started.''

Once started, there was a headlong rush of books about life in Trinidad, culminated by his early masterpiece, ''A House for Mr. Biswas'' (1961), followed by a cycle of books that deal with, in his words, the ''half made'' countries of Asia and Africa.

Then, as an adopted Englishman living a quiet life in Wiltshire, he wrote -- in works that erased the line between fiction and nonfiction -- about his search for the writer's self and for an understanding of the effects of inheritance, as exemplified by ''The Enigma of Arrival'' (1987).

Since the mid-70's he has been on a short list of Nobel candidates, but even as his artistic reputation grew, he has been regarded as a provocative figure partly because of his outspoken comments on Islam and emerging nations. In conversation Mr. Naipaul said that the attack on the World Trade Center was ''truly horrific,'' and asked, ''How can you overcome terrorism if you have terrorist allies?'' He added that there was no hope until Islam was reclaimed as ''a religion of conscience.''

''If you are someone's guest in a country,'' he continued, ''how can you do this to your host? Surely you violate every precept, even of the ancient world. Extreme measures have to be taken.'' Terrorism was an act of nihilism and ''feeds on money,'' he said, adding,. ''If the money is taken away, it will disappear.''

On Oct. 11, just one month after the attack, he had a night of unrest. ''I was awakened by the most enormous melancholy,'' he said. ''It entered my sleep and woke me up. The melancholy had to do with an intellectual fatigue because I thought of all the work I had done. It was as though I felt the labor of writing all those books. It seemed to be an absurdly long journey, and I felt very, very tired and was wondering how I would be able to go on.''

Then the telephone rang, and the president of the Swedish Academy informed him of the prize. At first Mr. Naipaul thought it might be a hoax. When he realized that it was indeed the truth, tears came to his eyes, and ''I felt less weary,'' he said.

Until now the books have had to make their own way in the world. The Nobel further certifies his high literary position and, with its $943,000, his financial independence.

The Nobel coincides with the publication of ''Half a Life.'' Some years after Mr. Naipaul announced the death of the novel, his agent, Gillon Aitken, suggested that he write another work of fiction in order to fulfill a new publishing contract.

The book had its beginning 26 years ago. ''I had an encounter, and I wrote a rough page on a typewriter,'' he said. ''And I kept that in my notes.'' In the novel the person he encountered turned into Willie's father. Another memory lingered, of ''a black man who wishes to have a white grandchild and a bank account at Coutts, the queen's bank.'' A third strand came from Somerset Maugham's ''Writer's Notebook.'' While writing the novel Mr. Naipaul asked the University of Tulsa, where his archives are deposited, to send him a copy of a book of notes that he had kept in 1955. All this is woven into the fictional tapestry of ''Half a Life.''

Within days of the Nobel announcement he was at work on his speech. Raising the curtain on it, he said, ''I begin to talk about my writing life,'' how writing remains a mystery and how intuition carries him through to the end. Asked what themes he would evoke in his talk, he said: ''My background is at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly complicated. The complication comes in the writing and the exploration of that simple background.''

When it was suggested that Willie was someone Mr. Naipaul could have become if things had gone differently, he said: ''It's almost a dream of being rescued. That's something I mention in the lecture. For me the great miracle is having gotten started. The anxiety is still present to me, that I might fail before I begin.''

In his speech he plans to quote Proust, in an essay in which he disagreed with Sainte-Beuve, the French literary critic. ''Sainte-Beuve believed if you understood the external life of a writer, you understood the writer,'' Mr. Naipaul said. ''Proust says this is rubbish. We don't write with the social side of our life. Even when we are in company, there is another self inside. It's the secretions of our innermost soul that we present in our books.''

On occasion Mr. Naipaul has been accused of being a racist. He vigorously denied the charge, saying: ''No serious writer would do that in his work because it's too foolish. I think I've written very sympathetically about Africa in a very hard way but full of pity and not seeing the easy way out.''

Comments he has made, many of them intended as jokes, appear and reappear in print. Then they ''go into the file,'' he said, adding, ''People doing work about someone look up the file.'' In 1979, in an interview in The New York Times Book Review, Elizabeth Hardwick asked him why Indian women wear a red mark on their forehead. Remembering the moment, he said he considered offering a serious answer, but then ''the little imp rose up, and in a flash I said it means 'my head is empty.' ''

When Salman Rushdie was faced with a fatwa, Mr. Naipaul was interviewed in India: ''Again this little imp rose up and said, 'It's an extreme form of literary criticism.' ''

''I didn't mean it in a cruel way,'' he said. ''I meant it as a joke.''

Mr. Naipaul never hesitates about speaking his mind. When the discussion turned to major writers who did not win the Nobel Prize, he dismissed Proust and Joyce for ''missing the real world,'' especially the world outside Europe. Then he offered his three overlooked candidates.

The first is Mark Twain. ''When the prizes were established, Twain was a man of only 66,'' he said. ''I suppose he was considered to be a vernacular writer, not a serious writer. He should have won. H. G. Wells should have been considered for the science fiction, which enlarged everybody's imagination. And Conrad, too, for his portrayal of the Far East and for his great ability to sympathize and understand so many different people.

''You know it's very hard to know who's going to last in writing,'' he said. ''Sometimes you have to wait two or three or generations, and then suddenly the writers expire.''

He was reminded that he was the first Englishman to win the prize since William Golding in 1983, not one of his favorites. Suppressing the imp, he said, ''What am I to do?''

Years ago, when he reviewed books, he found it an agonizing occupation. He would much prefer reading history rereading classics, he said, or going to the movies. He has always been a great movie fan, and several years ago he set himself a film course, checking out more than 100 films from video shops near his apartment in London.

''As always the old films stood out,'' he said. ''They're great films: their social concerns, their intelligence, the directorial authority, the lack of showing off. That's the fundamental difference between those films and new films.''

Was he referring to his favorite directors, Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa, or to Hollywood films?

''The Hollywood films,'' he said with enthusiasm, placing John Ford and Charlie Chaplin, among others, at the top of his pantheon. ''One's childhood memories were not wrong,'' he said. ''It was the great medium of the 20th century. These were the masters, and their films are little miracles of art.''

For the first time, one of Mr. Naipaul's novels has been filmed: Ismail Merchant's film of ''The Mystic Masseur''(1957) is scheduled for release early next year. In any case, movies remain a sideline pursuit for the author.

Looking back on his life, he said: ''I'm happy and serene only when I'm working, writing a book. That's my antidote to gloom and worry.'' Happy and serene? The words seem antithetical to Mr. Naipaul.

''I've had a fantasy,'' he said, one that was fulfilled twice, when he was writing ''Guerrillas'' (1975) and ''A Bend in the River'' (1979), ''a fantasy of beginning a book in the autumn and writing through the winter, day after day, day after day.''

He smiled at the thought. ''For me,'' he said, ''that means pure pleasure.''

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