Monday, January 19, 2004

Yesterday the Sunday Times ran what looks like a longish feature on V.S. Naipaul, accompanied by a rare, early, unpublished short story ("Potatoes"). Sadly, you must pay for a subscription in order to read Times material online (bad). Happily, it seems Amit Roy has reworked the Times feature in today's Calcutta Telegraph--read Roy's intensely interesting article here. It describes the material Naipaul's biographer, Patrick French, has managed to uncover in the BBC's archives, dating back to the 1950s.

Some tidbits:

French discloses that Naipaul lodged his papers in a London warehouse in the 1970s when he first began to be talked about as a possible Nobel Prize winner.

"When he came to retrieve them a few years later they were gone, incinerated accidentally because of an administrative error," says French. "Anything not already in print had disappeared forever. Although this destruction may not match the burning of the library at Alexandria in its importance, it was a substantial literary loss"....

Realising that after leaving Oxford Naipaul had worked for Caribbean Voices, a BBC Colonial Service programme for aspiring writers from the West Indies, French delved into the corporation's archives, and struck it lucky. He jokes that the BBC, "like the Stasi (the Rumanian secret police), was good at record-keeping"....

Naipaul joined the BBC's Caribbean Voices, which offered a home to gifted West Indian writers. The disadvantage was that this also locked them into a racial ghetto, which frustrated Naipaul who had ambitions of becoming a writer of world renown.

"When Naipaul tried to get a traineeship in another part of the BBC, he was told that he would be unsuitable," it is revealed. "Up before an interview panel, he remembers, 'they were sniggering as I entered. I said I wanted to do some features, and they roared with laughter as though I had said I wanted to write the Bible'"....

By the early 1960s, his reputation had built up to such an extent that when the BBC offered him 80 guineas (a guinea was one pound and one shilling) for a script on India, his agent responded that "Mr Naipaul considers this offer an insult". The revised offer of 120 guineas was accepted. French adds that Naipaul had established he was "a tricky customer".

The Telegraph also publishes Naipaul's one & only poem, "Two Thirty A.M.", written when he was 18. (It isn't very good.)

French showed the lost poem to Naipaul a couple of months ago. "It was as if he had seen a ghost," says French. "Visibly moved, he said to me that 'Two Thirty A.M.' had been written at a time of childhood despair".

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