Writing is a process of endless learning … Babel’s V.S. Naipaul

The fourth season of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel Series begun with a glaring omission—there was no Ed Cardoni at the podium on behalf of Hallwalls, replaced instead by the corporate spiel of ‘local global’ from HSBC’s Charlie Mendola, introduced by Just Buffalo’s Laurie Dean Torrell. I can’t blame the guy, though, since his company is footing a substantial portion of the funding now that the John R. Oshei Foundation‘s start-up capital has ended; the change just warranted mention, although it was good to see Cardoni still in attendance, collecting question cards during the Q&A. Otherwise, attendance seemed pretty strong and the buzz for a new season was noticeable.

Michael Kelleher still took the stage to bring his entertaining banter and obvious passion for the program and literature as a whole, beginning the festivities with a personal declaration on behalf of the evening’s speaker V.S. Naipaul and his novel A House for Mr. Biswas, calling it his favorite of all the Babel entries yet. The Indian-heritage, Trinidad and Tobago-born, and Oxford-educated author agreed with the sentiments by expressing to us his pleasure in the fact so many were still interested in what he held as his greatest work, a book he was afraid people had begun to ignore due to his prolific career and close to 30 other published works to choose from. Biswas was written when he was a young 25, so it’s a testament to his genius that it has remained relevant now half a century later.

Frightened by the fact he has written so much and recalling the anxiety he has always felt after each book—a worry that he wouldn’t be able to find more words to continue on, but also the driving force for him to do just that—Naipaul admits his current work, The Mask of Africa, released in the States today, is very possibly his final piece. He stated he felt a detachment from the youthful drive of decades past, unsure whether the energy remained to partake in another project. I think Chinua Achebe looked frailer a couple years back, but the range of motion and pacing of speech definitely showed this Nobel Prize in Literature winner’s age of eighty. But as Kelleher said in his introduction, Naipaul is a man known for his brutal honesty and, despite the age, had no problem refusing to answer questions on subjects that angered him—a recent, extensive biography written with what he believed was a misuse of trust—open-ended queries without a distinct purpose, and even calling out one Indian-American for ‘self-romanticizing’ herself. You definitely can’t say his confidence or wits have declined.

His is an interesting career full of almost the exact same amount of non-fiction and fiction work, his experience always letting him know which venture an idea should use to be brought forth into the world. To Naipaul, “fiction requires complete knowledge” on a subject so that you do not risk falsifying facts while crafting the narrative. If his comprehension on a topic weren’t complete, he would make the book journalistic or editorial-like, speaking to real people and finding a truth through their words and his own experiences. However, with that said, he also admitted to the fact that “if something makes a good story, it’s been doctored”. While he may have based Mr. Biswas on his father and many other characters on his mother’s family, the strict truth wouldn’t be captivating enough. The novel is a comedy rather than a direct telling of familial history. To him, his father was much more serious in demeanor and his mother, well she never read one word he wrote, although she did embrace the fame and regular interviews about her son.

A man who knows exactly who he is and never seems interested in pandering to preconceptions or societal norms, Naipaul’s talk ended up being highly entertaining even if it was mostly an interview session as his time standing was limited to a brief introduction to his novel and a short reading from it. Flashbacks of school came to me while he orated Biswas, reminding me how impossible it is for my brain to absorb a story when read out loud, but when he spoke off-the-cuff and I had a pen in my hand to jot down notes, everything came to me with full clarity. Hearing an author read his or her own words, however, is a wonderful thing and I’m glad to have experienced it, along with anecdotes of leaving his only manuscript on his kitchen counter, ruining a trip to Venice as he worried too much or an interview with Graham Greene about one of his more obscure novels, thinking the legend’s answer of “I don’t remember that book” was meant to end the conversation, yet now, himself many years removed from a piece, can understand that forgetfulness happens. Thankfully the self-proclaimed ‘fun guy’ was still able to spread his wisdom and memories with us eager Buffalonians.

Babel 2010/2011 Season:
Maxine Hong Kingston (United States) – December 1
Edwidge Danticat (Haiti) – March 25
Chris Abani (Nigeria) – April 15
Buy your tickets today by clicking here.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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