Writing is most important: VS Naipaul

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Writers on film

By By Kevin Baldeosingh

First-time director Funso Aiyejina was lucky that his “docu-commentary” about novelist Earl Lovelace was screened before British film-maker Adam Low’s 2008 documentary about VS Naipaul.

Both films were shown on Friday at the Bocas Literary Festival at Nalis in Port of Spain and while Aiyejina’s effort was quite competent, it was diminished by contrast with the poise and polish of Low’s documentary, titled The Strange Luck of VS Naipaul, which was screened at the trinidad + tobago film festival six years ago.

Both films open in exactly the same way: with the authors reading from their works, while the director splices in images which reflect the texts being read.

 In Aiyejina’s film, called A Writer in His Place, Lovelace is reading from his novel While Gods are Falling; in Low’s, Naipaul is reading from An Area of Darkness, his first non-fiction book about India.

 Both directors use superimposed text images, but Aiyejina uses what appears to be typewriter print from a manuscript, while Low uses the book. The typewriter text is not entirely readable and looks too busy on the screen, whereas Low’s interpolation works perfectly. 

Similarly, because Aiyejina uses recordings of Lovelace reading at public events, the audio is sometimes scratchy. Low faces the same problem when he has to show Naipaul reading his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and solves it by filming a computer screen with the cursor clicking to access the speech, hence explaining the poor quality sound.

The most important difference between the two documentaries, however, is that Aiyejina has no interviews with Lovelace. This rather glaring lacuna was not explained by Aiyejina either within the film or in his introduction at the screening. All the footage of Lovelace comes from public events or from private videos filmed by friends or family at limes, so the quality is not especially good.

In Low’s documentary, Naipaul is front and centre. Low also interviews Naipaul’s wife, Nadira; Naipaul’s first editor Diana Athill; and Naipaul’s agent Gillon Aitken.

 Aiyejina interviews Lovelace’s ex-wife and two of her children, and a close friend. These interviews are not lighted for film, unlike Low’s, and they are introduced two-thirds into the documentary.

All these comparisons, however, must be taken in the context that Aiyejina is a university lecturer in literature with far fewer professional resources than Low. From that perspective, his documentary is admirable visually, since he would have had relatively more challenges.

From a scripting point of view, though, Aiyejina’s deficiencies are not so excusable. In his introductory remarks at the screening, Aiyejina said the purpose of the film is to show that Lovelace is a “creation of the society, and to show that he has influenced the society in significant ways through his work”.

 The former statement is trite, since all human beings are created by their society in some way, and the latter promise is never demonstrated.

Similarly, the blurb says that the film shows Lovelace as “a man of his people; a husband and lover; a dreamer and a realist; and as an individual who is insatiably humorous and profoundly philosophical”.

 Not only does this hyperbole fall short in the film’s content, but it essentially says that the documentary is propagandistic in its intent–either a whitewash or a praise-song, depending on the viewer’s perspective.

Low, however, showed Naipaul as he is, including flaws and weaknesses. His attentiveness to scripting was demonstrated by his repetition of remarks at three points during the film, echoing Naipaul’s own tic of repeating sentences.

 The title of the documentary was taken from a statement made by Naipaul during the interviews: “I’ve had a lot of luck. There was the luck of the scholarship that got me away from Trinidad. There was the luck of getting a BBC job right after finishing my degree...I suppose everyone who does something or achieves something has had similar stations of life.”

The Lovelace documentary, by contrast, “affirms Lovelace as an individual who has been as daring in his life choices as he has been in choice of literary styles” and asserts in the narration that he is a “non-conformist”.

 None of that is demonstrated in the documentary, for Lovelace makes no statement on any topic that could be considered unconventional or even offensive within his milieu.

Naipaul, by contrast, makes comments on politics and writing that are truly non-conformist according to the mores of circles in which literary issues hold sway–which is why his reply drew chuckles from the audience when Low asks him about his acerbic reputation, and Naipaul says: “It’s not true. I’m a very gentle person, and I try not to create disturbance.”

 This was followed by a clip taken from Naipaul’s visit to The University of the West Indies (UWI) at St Augustine in 2007, in which he berated a young Trinidad Guardian columnist for asking what he deemed to be insulting questions, saying that the questioner was trying to show him up and was a “turd”.

On intellectual issues, when asked about his time at Oxford, Naipaul says he made a mistake in doing a degree in English Literature.

 “English is not a real discipline,” he said.

The images in both documentaries show the different images of the subjects.

 Aiyejina’s film has many shots of a fit and virile-looking Lovelace; Naipaul, who’s just three years older than Lovelace, is shown walking slowly around his garden with a cane.

 The interviewees echo the imagery: Lovelace’s ex-wife says only good things about him; Nadira, who totally admires her eminent husband, nonetheless says things like, “When he got the Nobel, he immediately got old” and “He needs me to praise his work, I’m his rah-rah girl.”

 Lovelace’s ex-wife talks about how sexy he looked when they were courting; Nadira says that, although everyone lets bias creep into their work, “He has never done that.”

Lovelace is presented as a writer who “loves a good lime and the adoration of women”. Naipaul speaks with pained honesty about his first wife Pat and his mistress Margaret. And he says of himself: “Writing is the most important aspect of my life. All the rest is just scaffolding for the writer.”

 Yet it is he who emerges as the more complex and believable and very human being from these two documentaries.

 
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