During the long hot summer of 1978, I found myself living in a small town in New Hampshire. My parents had moved there from suburban Boston six months before, and I felt marooned. Before or since, I have never known such an overpowering depression. I worked nights as a waitress at a Ramada Inn off the highway, where I wore a Swiss milkmaid uniform and plaited my long hair into a crooked bun. The long days I spent wallowing in my discontent. The only thing keeping me above water was that in the fall, I would return as a junior to the academic wonderland of Wesleyan University. Of utmost interest to me was a course in fiction writing that was to be taught by V. S. Naipaul.
I ordered several books of his from a small bookstore near the Ramada Inn, which in my despair seemed to be possibly the only such store in the state. The owner hadn’t heard of Naipaul, but he dug up a copy of India: A Wounded Civilization and The Mystic Masseur. It was the first time I had ordered a book—except for schoolbooks and used paperbacks, I rarely bought new ones. Despite the fact that my parents intended my waitress earnings to go to school tuition, not incidentals, I felt I had a right to these books.
I hadn’t studied with an actual writer before, never mind one of Naipaul’s breadth, accomplishment, and evident fame. Of course, I hadn’t heard of Naipaul at all until my writing professor that past spring had told me of his pending arrival. Naipaul was a literary lion—that was made clear. The English department—most specifically my professor—had captured him, perhaps having little idea what it would mean to keep him fed for a year. What I remember now is being told he had written an important piece on Conrad. Of his novels and journalism, my professor gave only the most general gloss, and I wonder now how much she knew of the writer beyond his fame. I was interested in Conrad—I had read the major novels—and I shyly confided this. What I didn’t say was that I struggled with Conrad’s contortive prose, feeling I never entirely grasped his intent.
My response to Naipaul’s writing was a different sort of frustration. His prose was never muddy—it’s difficult indeed to find an excess word—and even in the early work, his control was already magisterial. He seemed to have had the benefit of an excellent education, both in Trinidad and at Oxford, without having incurred any of its bad habits. Instead, I struggled to locate a point of entry; I couldn’t quite find my way into Naipaul’s quarrel with India or move beyond the texture of Trinidadian street life. My viewpoint was too Western, shaped almost exclusively by American and European literature. And Naipaul, scourge of the colonizer and colonized alike, allowed no easy vantage. His prose taught me that I was a lazy reader, but in a way I couldn’t immediately recognize or correct.
I wouldn’t learn, however, to become a better reader or writer from the man himself. Naipaul showed up at Wesleyan a week late, as I recall, and his feeling at being caged there was palpable. A more unhappy face I have seldom seen. I felt I couldn’t make out his features, so twisted were they by his inner state. He seemed ill at ease, a slight man perspiring heavily, overdressed, unprepared for the tropics of Middletown in September. Indeed, my first sense was that he was frightened. When it became clear, though, that no one else would take on the task, he began going through the pile of our stories before him. He had read them—that he made clear—and he had something punishing to say about almost all of them. For mine—and perhaps I remember it this way because it was mine—he seemed to reserve special contempt because it was told from a woman’s perspective and was in part about the destructive boredom of caring for small children. Why write about such a thing, he asked, visibly riled. What was the point?
I already knew the story was slight, and that it had been overpraised by my previous professor, perhaps because it had captured a mood of hers. And it was written not only about but from the vortex of depression. Much that made fiction pleasurable—or meaningful—was absent from my story. Still, his pique reminded me of my customers that summer when their prime rib was not cooked to their required level of doneness. I had learned that people will behave very badly in restaurants, given the slightest excuse; now I was witnessing it in the classroom.
I also didn’t doubt my own judgment that the single story he had singled out for praise was one of the weakest of the lot. Now I can guess that this student had the wisdom to approach Naipaul beforehand as the master he was rather than scrutinize him as the teacher he most definitely did not care to be. Even our most distinguished professors often went along with the era’s ethos, which was the appearance of egalitarianism in the classroom. That was not Naipaul’s way. On the other hand, I wasn’t accustomed to professors playing favorites, especially on the first day. That a story so lacking in sophistication or a sense of narrative had captured his interest struck me as a bad sign. I was not wise enough to realize even a great writer might need an acolyte, a guide through a foreign land.
In the years directly following his year at Wesleyan—his one and only period of teaching at any length—Naipaul would write movingly but without sentimentality of his own early struggles when his material and talent were uncertain, when he had little beyond his immense ambition and solid education. From the very beginning of his career, he had driven himself to push beyond crippling depressions, to create for each new work its unique form. And yet, unformed as he acknowledged himself once to have been, that hot September day it seemed he had such contempt for us, for the university itself, for the very idea of education.
I left the classroom and went directly to the registrar to drop the class. Naipaul’s vitriol seemed abusive, a word I wouldn’t have thought to use then, and my reaction was more physical than strategic. I couldn’t imagine being again in the same room with him.
Today he probably would have to be airlifted back to England, so deliberately offensive was his behavior and contrarian his politics, but surprisingly, at a school known for its radicalism, the rest of the class stayed. Or so I was told, by a friend who remained, and eventually had to petition along with other classmates to have the dean raise their failing grades. How stupid American students were, how callow, how lazy, Naipaul later said in interviews. But he had known that before he walked in the classroom. The writer in him knew something else. No one has written better than Naipaul of his own early flailings.
Almost ten years later, bored beyond endurance in an office job, while trying to write, I would read A House for Mr Biswas. I was nearly the age Naipaul was when he wrote this novel. In my opinion it is his masterwork, because he for once permitted himself humor, and a love for his protagonist that only flickers in his other work. It is a Dickensian novel—absent the sentimentality-with its many characters, set pieces, and ultimately simple but powerful plot. The politics are family politics, and no one has done them better. His villains — the in-laws – are pleasurably awful and his protagonist is weak, fallible but loved by his creator. I would take A House for Mr Biswas to the proverbial desert island; I press it upon younger readers, who often disregard me and read instead A Bend in the River, where the writing is equally fine but pitiless.
I wonder now, after Naipaul’s death, if the man has become better known than his work. It would be a terrible shame.
Cynthia Payne lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is at work on a novel.