I’ve been trying to write about two essays by V.S. Naipaul all week, his “Reading and Writing: A Personal Account” and his “Two Worlds” (The Nobel Lecture), but I just can’t get past the details of his personal life, his philandering, his selfishness.
And it is too bad, because I am so very much in sympathy with what he says about books in both of these essays. In short, they taught him nothing because he was not clever enough to be asking the right questions of them, and, more importantly, because they could not tell him who he was.
None of what he learned as an overachiever at a colonial school in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and later as a scholarship student of literature at Oxford, made up the matter of his fiction, and his later non-fiction, when he finally began to write it. Having decided to become a writer as a boy, he did not actually begin to write until after finishing at university. He waited for his vocation to inhabit him, he had every faith that it would, and it wasn’t until he began to panic about not actually having anything to write that it dawned on him that he had to write about where he grew up. He had to write the books that would define him to himself. He had to go back and learn about his own history, the history of colonialism and of the indigenous populations that were erased by waves of settler cultures. He had to write that history, in fictional and non-fictional ways, because it had not yet been written. And while he was busy studying as a boy and as a young man, he had not stopped to ask why.
I often quip that education is wasted on the young. What good did it do me to read Milton for an entire year at 19? How much more would I get out of my undergraduate years today, with all my other degrees under my belt? What is the value of foundational texts when there is still so much else to learn?
The great paradox is that we need to meet these books before we are fully prepared so that we will be more prepared for subsequent books, subsequent readings. Naipaul did not learn nothing from his education. He learned about his own erasure from foundational texts. Then he set out to write himself, a task he tackles from the point of view of empire and colonies, from the point of view of a tender affection of an older self for the younger self’s innocence and arrogance.
Alas, too much of the arrogance of the older self pushes around the pages, worms its way into my mind as I read, and I am left having to concur with a line from his Nobel Lecture: “But everything of value about me is in my books.”