By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 26, 2018
Reporting the world and its past, the past as a wound, the present as loss, has been Naipaul’s dedication and business, a sort of unillusioned mourning” (Frank Kermode, London Review of Books, 4 May 1989).
It was a Saturday evening in the fall of 1988. I had just arrived at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and was having dinner with a colleague when my nephew shouted from the first-floor bedroom: “Uncle Selwyn, Mr. Naipaul on the phone.” You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone became silent.
I went upstairs to answer the phone. In my best Trinidadianese, I intoned: “Good evening, Mr. Naipaul. This is Selwyn Cudjoe.”
The finest English accent came from the other end of the telephone.
“My wife tells me that you want to speak with me. Why do you want to speak with me?”
I explained that I wanted to interview him for a book I was writing on his work. I mentioned that I was from Trinidad.
His response came quickly: “Why do you want to write a book about me. The people in Trinidad do not like my writing.”
I explained that Trinidadians loved his work. However, some of them felt he said some harsh things about them.
The conversation continued in that vein for half an hour before he announced: “Let us do the interview now.”
I told him that I would have to prepare myself to do a proper interview. I then asked,
“Could we do it another time?”
He asked me to send my questions to him through his agent and promised to get back to me.
I wanted Naipaul to respond to my observation that his creative wellspring seemed to have dried up once he ceased to draw on Trinidad and its culture. He never responded to me.
In 2002, just after he had finished writing Half a Life, a semi-autobiographical work, Naipaul visited the Boston Public Library to read from his work. After the reading I joined the long line of people that wanted Naipaul to sign their books. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed to meet this distinguished Trini writer in person.
Today, Naipaul is described as a British writer from Trinidad.
As I gave him my book to sign, he asked for my name. “Selwyn Cudjoe,” I replied.
“I know that name. I spoke to you in 1988.”
I was baffled. How could this important man remember my name when I had not conversed with him since 1988?
Naipaul left Trinidad a few days before his eighteenth birthday. When he arrived in England he was fearful, anxious and lonely. He expressed those feelings in “Two Thirty A.M,” one of his poems (perhaps his only poem), that John Figueroa read on “Caribbean Voices” on September 24, 1950.
During the latter part of 1987, I wrote to Naipaul asking his permission to reproduce “Two Thirty A.M” in my book V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading.
On January 11, 1988, Patricia Naipaul, Naipaul’s first wife, responded to my request. Naipaul “says that this poem, written by him at school before he left Trinidad, was a joke poem, ‘a prank,…about modern poetry—showing how things could be written, words strung together without feeling.”
On February 12, 1988, Gillion Aitken, Naipaul’s literary agent, officially refused my request to reproduce the poem in my book. He wrote that Naipaul viewed this poem as his “juvenilia” that ought not “to be published just yet.”
In my book I argued that these claims “reflected retrospective readings of what may be Naipaul’s later embarrassed response to his first encounter with England.”
Naipaul became despondent at Oxford. His father even made plans for him to return to the safety of Trinidad. Savi Naipaul Akal, his sister, writes: “Pa feared that Vidia, in his second year at Oxford (1952), was on the verge of a breakdown such as he had, although the comparison seems to verge on the preposterous” (The Naipauls of Nepal Street).
The evening Naipaul called me he was traveling to the American South where he wrote A Turn in the South, an “elliptical, autobiographical meditation upon Trinidad” as Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times described it and which he dedicated to his father’s memory. Naipaul used a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV—”There is a history in all men’s lives/Figuring the nature of the times deceased”—as an epigram to this book. Frank Kermode, a distinguished English critic, interpreted this quotation to mean: whatever journeys Naipaul undertakes, “he will always carry with him his own origins in Trinidad; properly studied, those beginnings…may foretell the hatch and brood of time” (London Review of Books, May 1989).
Two things struck me about my encounters with Naipaul: his acute memory and powers of observation that allowed him to see and to capture the contradictions and paradoxes of his world and the degree to which he was trapped by his time and place.
Naipaul, irredeemably “Trini to the bone,” took his world with him wherever he went, using it to make sense of what he found out there and seeking to liberate himself from the darkness and loneliness that encumbered his soul as a colonial man. As in so many of his works, Naipaul remained the quintessential outsider/insider.