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Thursday, 3 May 2007

"I wanted to ask after Augustus"

Anu Lakhan, one of the CRB's most prolific contributors, was at the problem-plagued "Evening of Appreciation" organised by the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies as part of the recent V.S. Naipaul celebrations. The audio system refused to work properly, putting nerves on edge, and Naipaul rebuffed many of the questions from both the panel of scholars assembled to engage him in conversation and the general audience. Anu sends the following note on the event:

Before the talk started, members of audience were given forms on which to write their questions. I wanted to ask after Augustus. After all, this cat has only recently come into Naipaul's life, and I'd like to know how being in the presence--being facilitated--by a cat has helped to evolve the author's perspective on the universe and its dunciness. I also wanted to know if Augustus had travelled with the family and if, possibly, I could have my book autographed by him instead.

I was told that the questions were being filtered by the English department, and that Naipaul's thematic treatment of cats, while an under-studied area (of Darkness. Has the man only written books with punnable titles?), would not likely survive the sift.

I stayed for about an hour. The sound system was awful, no one could hear what was going on. So much of it was like an interpretive dance. I saw body language and facial expression. I assessed the speaker and the responder. I had a pretty good idea what was being asked, and a better idea of the stock response: "This does not deserve an answer; if you'd read my book, you'd know".

What was excruciatingly funny was that, utterly toneless, Naipaul would deliver one of those replies, and then, in the gentlest, kindest voice, ask, "Is there anything else you'd like to ask?" He almost looked sweet when said this.

Any old fool can make himself disagreeable to everyone. Why, it's the stuff of West Indian short stories by the mile. But when the old fool happens to write the finest sentence in the English language--and is so predictable in his surliness as to be a sort of self-caricature--how much do we need to care?

My life has beauty, but not enough that I can do without the beauty of a Naipaul sentence. The work is so much more than the man. The man has to be something to make the work, but it is clear it takes so much from him, there is no him at the end. And it must be tiring writing the same book repeatedly, as is becoming the case.

With that in mind; with the greatness of man and mind in question; I hope you all understand that I will no longer take any responsibility for my social and emotional behaviour. I mean to win the Nobel one day. I'm taking notes.



[CRB contributor Georgia Popplewell was at another Naipaul UWI event --a reading and book signing--a couple of nights later, and she took a series of telling photos--see them here. She also wrote a wry account of the evening's events at her blog.]

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