HE WAS struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house, the audacity of it: to walk down a farm track in Wiltshire to his own front gate, to close his doors and windows on his own space, privacy and neatness, to walk on cream carpet through book-lined rooms where, still in a towelling robe at noon, he could summon a wife to make coffee or take dictation.
Outside, he could wander over lawns to the manor house, or a lake where swans glided, or visit the small building that served as his wine cellar. Vidia, his friends called him; he disliked his name, but liked the derivation, from the Sanskrit for seeing and knowing. He looked hard, with his eagle stare, and saw things as they were.
The house, which he rented, was paid for by his books, more than 30 of them. He had not taken up writing to get rich or win awards; that was a dreadful thought. Dreadful! To write was a vocation. Nonetheless his fourth book, “A House for Mr Biswas”, based on his father’s search for a settled place, had luckily propelled him to fame, and in 2001 he had won the Nobel prize for literature. He had been knighted, too, though he did not care to use the title. Hence the country cottage, as well as a duplex in Chelsea. For, as Mr Biswas said, “how terrible it would have been…to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth.”
Which portion of the earth, though, was the question. Mr Naipaul’s ancestors were Indian, but that part lay in darkness, pierced only by his grandmother’s prayers and quaint rituals of eating. Journeys to India later, which resulted in three books excoriating the place, convinced him that this was not his home and never could be.
He was repelled by the slums, the open defecation (picking his fastidious way through butts and twists of human excrement), and by the failure of Indian civilisation to defend itself. His place of birth and growth was Trinidad, principally Port of Spain, the humid, squalid, happy-go-lucky city, sticky with mangoes and loud with the beat of rain on corrugated iron, that provided the comedy in “Biswas” and “Miguel Street”.
But he had to leave. England was his lure, as for all bright colonial boys who did not know their place, and his Trinidadian accent soon vanished in high-class articulation; but Oxford was wretched and London disappointing. He kept leaving, travelling, propelled by restlessness. Books resulted, but not calm. Not calm.
Much of his agitation, even to tears, came from the urge to write itself; what he was to write about, and in what form. The novel was exhausted. Modernism was dead. Yet literature had taken hold of him, a noble purpose to his life, the call of greatness. He had moved slowly into writing, first fascinated by the mere shapes of the letters, requesting pens, Waterman ink and