On Being a Writer
V. S. NAIPAUL
I do not really know how I became a writer. I can give certain dates and certain facts about my career. But the process itself remains mysterious. It is mysterious, for instance, that the ambition should have come first the wish to be a writer, to have that distinction, that fame and that this ambition should have come long before I could think of anything to write about.
I remember, in my first term at Oxford in 1950, going for long walks I remember the roads, the autumn leaves, the cars and trucks going by, whipping the leaves up and wondering what I was going to write about. I had worked hard for the scholarship to go to Oxford, to be a writer. But now that I was in Oxford, I didn't know what to write about. And really, I suppose, unless I had been driven by great necessity, something even like panic, I might never have written. The idea of laying aside the ambition was very restful and tempting the way sleep was said to be tempting to Napoleon's soldiers on the retreat from Moscow.
I felt it as artificial, that sitting down to write a book. And that is a feeling that is with me still, all these years later, at the start of a book I am speaking of an imaginative work. There is no precise theme or story that is with me. Many things are with me; I write the artificial, self-conscious beginnings of many books; until finally some true impulse the one I have been working toward possesses me, and I sail away on my year's labour. And that is mysterious stillthat out of artifice one should touch and stir up what is deepest in one's soul, one's heart, one's memory.
All literary forms are artificial, and they are constantly changing, to match the new tone and mood of the culture. At one time, for instance, a person of serious literary inclination might have thought of writing for the theatre; would have had somehow to do what I cannot do arrange his material into scenes and acts; would not have written for the printed page, but would have written "parts" to tempt actors and as someone who has written plays has told me would have visualised himself (to facilitate the play writing process) as sitting in a seat in the stalls.
At another period, in an age without radio or records, an age dominated by print, someone wishing to write would have had to shape a narrative that could have been serialised over many months, or fill three volumes. Before that, the writer might have attempted narratives in verse, or verse drama, rhymed or unrhymed; or verse epics.
All those forms, artificial as they seem to us today, would have appeared as natural and as right to their practitioners as the standard novel does today. Artificial though that novel form is, with its simplifications and distortions, its artificial scenes, and its idea of experience as a crisis that has to be resolved before life resumes its even course. I am describing, very roughly, the feeling of artificiality which was with me at the very beginning, when I was trying to write and wondering what part of my experience could be made to fit the form wondering, in fact, in the most insidious way, how I could adapt or falsify my experience to make it fit the grand form.
Literary forms are necessary: experience has to be transmitted in some agreed or readily comprehensible way. But certain forms, like fashions in dress, can at times become extreme. And then these forms, far from crystallising or sharpening experience, can falsify or be felt as a burden. The Trollope who is setting up a situation the Trollope who is a social observer, with an immense knowledge both of society and the world of work, a knowledge far greater than that of Dickens is enchanting. But I have trouble with the Trollope who, having set up a situation, settles down to unwinding his narrative the social or philosophical gist of which I might have received in his opening pages. I feel the same with Thackeray: I can feel how the need for narrative and plot sat on his shoulders like a burden.
Our ideas of literary pleasures and narrative have in fact changed in the last hundred years or so. All the writing of the past century, and the cinema, and television have made us quicker. And the nineteenth-century English writers who now give me the most "novelistic"
pleasure provide windows into human lives, encouraging reflectionare writers who in their own time would not have been thought of as novelists at all.
I am thinking of writers like Richard Jefferies, whose essays about farming people carry so much knowledge and experience that they often contain whole lives. Or William Hazlitt. Or Charles Lamb, concrete and tough and melancholy, not the gentle, wishy-washy essayist of legend. Or William Cobbett, the journalist and pamphleteer, dashing about the countryside, and in his breakneck prose, and through his wild prejudices, giving the clearest pictures of the roads and the fields and the people and the inns and the food. All of these writers would have had their gifts diluted or corrupted by the novel form as it existed in their time. All of them, novelistic as they are in the pleasures they offer, found their own forms.
Every serious writer has to be original; he cannot be content to do or to offer a version of what has been done before. And every serious writer as a result becomes aware of this question of form; because he knows that however much he might have been educated and stimulated by the writers he has read or reads, the forms matched the experience of those writers, and do not strictly suit his own.
The late Philip Larkin original and very grand, especially in his later work thought that form and content were indivisible. He worked slowly, he said. "You're finding out what to say as well as how to say it, and that takes time." It sounds simple; but it states a difficult thing. Literature is not like music; it isn't for the young; there are no prodigies in writing. The knowledge or experience a writer seeks to transmit is social or sentimental; it takes time, it can take much of a man's life, to process that experience, to understand what he has been through; and it takes great care and tact, then, for the nature of the experience not to be lost, not to be diluted by the wrong forms. The other man's forms served the other man's thoughts.
I have always been concerned about this problem of form, and even of vocabulary, because I fairly soon got to realise that between the literature I knew and read, the literature that seeded my own ambition, between that and my background, there was a division, a dissonance. And it was quickly made clear to me that there was no question simply of mimicking the forms.
To be continued next week
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