I have wanted to read Naipaul’s work for far too long, and came across Reading & Writing: A Personal Account when wandering around my University library. I wasn’t aware that he had actually written any non-fiction (apparently he’s written lots. My mistake). This short work of autobiography, which consists of two essays entitled ‘Reading and Writing’, and ‘The Writer in India’, has been beautifully printed by NYRB, although unfortunately my University’s copy was sans its dust jacket.
Published in 2000, Reading & Writing takes one on a foray into Naipaul’s literary history. He is a prolific author with many works of fiction and non-fiction under his belt. Perhaps his most famous work is A House for Mr Biswas, and his choice of subjects for his non-fiction works range from mutinies in India to a book about Eva Peron, the second wife of an Argentinian President.
‘Reading and Writing’ begins: ‘I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer; and then very soon it was a settled ambition’. His child self, which he goes on to evoke, is rather charming: ‘With me, though, the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham. I liked to be given a fountain pen and a bottle of Waterman ink and new ruled exercise books (with margins), but I had no wish or need to write anything; and didn’t write anything, not even letters; there was no one to write them to.’ This inherent need to become a writer was fuelled not at his competitive school, but by his father, and the books which he would choose to read to his son: ‘Sometimes he would call me to listen to two or three or four pages, seldom more, of writing he particularly enjoyed. He read and explained with zest and it was easy for me to like what he liked. In this unlikely way – considering the background: the racially mixed colonial school, the Asian inwardness at home – I had begun to put together an English literary anthology of my own.’
One gets the sense that Naipaul is rather an honest author, from passages like the following: ‘I didn’t feel competent as a reader until I was twenty-five. I had by that time spent seven years in England, four of them at Oxford, and I had a little of the social knowledge that was necessary for an understanding of English and European fiction. I had also made myself a writer, and was able, therefore, to see writing from the other side. Until then I had read blindly, without judgment, not really knowing how made-up stories were to be assessed.’ He speaks rather candidly at times of problems encountered in the face of writing, and also discusses his inspiration for making himself a more well-rounded author.
‘The Writer in India’ is composed largely of Indian historical moments, but the scope is too wide for the shortness of the essay. Many fascinating occurrences are mentioned, but are then either moved on from or glossed over, which was a real shame. Had this essay been lengthened, or fewer things mentioned in more depth, it would provide a far more comprehensive look into the society in which Naipaul grew up, and explain to the reader more of his influences.
This particular tome runs to just 64 pages of rather large print; whilst it does offer Naipaul’s experiences with schooling, childhood reading, writing, and education, it feels perhaps a little too slight to have a great deal of substance. He does, however, talk about a great deal of subjects: theatre, cinema, Indian ‘epics’, fables and fairytales, schooling, moving to England in order to study at Oxford University, and the effects of colonial rule, amongst others. Some of the paragraphs are insightful; others not so much. Regardless, throughout, Naipaul’s writing is fluid and intelligent.