Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Aimless Reading: The N's, Part 3 (V.S. Naipaul)

Naipaul, V.S.
A House for Mr. Biswas

Sent to me by the publisher in anticipation of Naipaul's visit to Buffalo last October. I forgot to get it inscribed, but this is the copy he used during his reading.

Before he went on stage, he asked his wife, Nadira, and I to choose a passage for him to read. We chose what we thought was a typically funny story in which Mr. Biswas is ranting and raving and cursing at his wife. Sir Vidia, as he is called, seemed hesitant, not wanting to offend anyone with the curse words (I think he calls his wife a bitch, or something along those lines). We assured him it would go over well with the audience. He did read the passage, but he edited out some of the curses on the spot.

He was not in good health. In fact, he seemed a little lost. When he stepped out on stage, instead of leaving during the lecture, I stayed with him to make sure he didn't lose his balance at the podium. After the applause had died down, he turned to me and asked, for everyone to hear, "What was I supposed to do again?"

"Read from the book and make a few remarks," I replied.

"Ah, a few remarks."

He went on to read and to tell a few stories about the book. He said it was one of his favorites and that he was happy we had chosen to read it for our series. During the interview portion of the evening he became more comfortable, and some of the Naipaul I'd heard so much about -- the irascible one who doesn't suffer fools gladly-- made a few brief appearances.

I an imagine that his manner of answering certain questions might get under someone's skin -- especially the questioner. If he didn't like a question, he would analyze the motives of the person asking the question, usually in a way that suggested the questioner was either not being forthright in what they were asking or that they were trying to perform some idealized image of themselves through the wording of their question.

On the whole it felt a bit like being around an old warrior who knew he could no longer go into combat and didn't feel there was any point talking about it unless he could still go out the next day and fight.

Afterward, we went out to dinner at a little restaurant called Mother's and talked about cats. He loves cats.

from A House for Mr. Biswas

Shortly before he was born there had been another quarrel between Mr Biswas's mother Bipti and his father Raghu, and Bipti had taken her three children and walked all the way in the hot sun to the village where her mother Bissoondaye lived. There Bipti had cried and told the old story of Raghu's miserliness: how he kept a check on every cent he gave her, counted every biscuit in the tin, and how he would walk ten miles rather than pay a cart a penny.

Bipti's father, futile with asthma, propped himself up on his string bed and said, as he always did on unhappy occasions, 'Fate. There is nothing we can do about it.'

No one paid him any attention. Fate had brought him from India to the sugar-estate, aged him quickly and left him to die in a crumbling mud hut in the swamplands; yet he spoke of Fate often and affectionately, as though, merely by surviving, he had been particularly favoured.

While the old man talked on, Bissoondaye sent for the midwife, made a meal for Bipti's children and prepared beds for them. When the midwife came the children were asleep. Some time later they were awakened by the screams of Mr Biswas and the shrieks of the midwife.

'What is it?' the old man asked. 'Boy or girl?'

'Boy, boy,' the midwife cried. 'But what sort of boy? Six-fingered, and born in the wrong way.'

The old man groaned and Bissoondaye said, 'I knew it. There is no luck for me.'

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