Shadowing Sir Vidia

A reading list

On 17 August, V.S. Naipaul will be seventy-five years old. No doubt he will mark the distinguished occasion in a manner befitting his authorial dignity. Earlier in this anniversary year, back in April, the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies hosted the great man for a week of advance birthday celebrations, during which huge audiences of Trinidadian readers were alternately enchanted and disenchanted by his public appearances. On one “Evening of Appreciation”, asked by an interviewer about autobiographical elements in his work, he replied with a straight face that there were none, that no one could learn anything about his real life from his writing. Attentive readers knew he was engaging in a bit of playful mamaguy, to use a word Naipaul would not. In any case, most people in the audience that night must have come away feeling that the best of the man is, after all, in his books. Better read them than meet him: he’d surely approve.

But for those readers who do want to know more about the man than can be gleaned from his published works, there is a tidy wealth of colourful, anecdotal, and sometimes downright gossipy biographical material secreted in published accounts by various of his friends, colleagues, and enemies. Most famously — or infamously — there is, of course, Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow (1998), a tell-all memoir of the thirty-year friendship between the two men. It opens with their first meeting in Uganda in 1966 — Naipaul, already celebrated and notorious, was a writer in residence at Makerere University, where Theroux, a decade younger, was teaching and trying to finish his first novel — and ends shortly after Naipaul’s second marriage in 1996, when, according to Theroux, the new Lady Naipaul engineered a nasty rift between him and his onetime mentor. Sir Vidia’s Shadow ignited a firestorm of controversy in British literary circles, for its extremely candid, often hilarious, even more often shocking portrait of the artist as a prematurely middle-aged monstre sacré — wickedly fascinating for Naipaul-watchers. Some of its anecdotes have become almost legendary — Naipaul telling a student that she has no literary ability, but “lovely handwriting” — and the closing scene, in which a perplexed Theroux is finally rebuffed by Naipaul on a London street, offers one of the most cut-you-dead farewell lines in contemporary literature: “Take it on the chin and move on.”

Sir Vidia’s Shadow includes some juicy details of Naipaul’s sexual life (not to mention Theroux’s), but it was “The Ultimate Exile”, a profile by Stephen Schiff published in the New Yorker in 1994, that revealed to most of Naipaul’s readers the existence of his longtime Argentine mistress, Margaret, as well as the fact — blithely confessed — that in his younger days he was “a great prostitute man.” Schiff’s profile was later collected in Conversations with V.S. Naipaul (1997), a collection of interviews edited by Feroza Jussawalla. Also included: a 1965 interview with an impatient-sounding Derek Walcott, from the Trinidad Guardian; Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Meeting V.S. Naipaul”, from the New York Review of Books, in 1979 (“Africa has no future”); a 1981 “Conversation” from Salmagundi in which Naipaul and Bharati Mukherjee all but come to blows; “The Unsparing Vision of V.S. Naipaul” by Scott Winokur (from Image, 1991) in which, taken to visit Muir Woods near San Francisco, Naipaul is elated by the redwoods but then smells a snake (“They smell like fish, you know”); and Andrew Robinson’s “Stranger in Fiction” (from The Independent, 1992), in which Naipaul says he’s dipping into the works of C.L.R. James, no doubt in preparation for creating the character of Lebrun in A Way in the World.

Diana Athill was Naipaul’s editor at André Deutsch for thirty years, and her memoir Stet (2000) contains a whole chapter on the man who must surely have been one of her trickiest authors. Alongside reminiscences of his early writerly anxieties and insecurities, Athill offers a cold-eyed and slightly cruel description of Naipaul’s first marriage:

I cannot remember how long it was — certainly several months, perhaps even a year — before I learned that Vidia was married . . . After that Pat was allowed to creep out of the shadows, but only a little: and one day she said something that shocked me so much that I know for certain that I am remembering it word for word. I must have remarked on our not meeting earlier, and she replied: “Vidia doesn’t like me to come to parties because I’m such a bore” . . .

At first I took it for granted that he had shattered her self-confidence, and I am still sure he did it no good. But later I suspected that she had always been negative and depressing, someone who enjoyed being squashed.

As she describes it, when Athill ventured a few careful words of criticism of Guerillas, his thirteenth book, Naipaul furiously withdrew from André Deutsch — “it was as though the sun came out. I didn’t have to like Vidia any more” — only to return after his new publisher made the mistake of referring to him as a “West Indian writer” in a catalogue.

In recent years, of course, he’s spent far more time in India than in the West Indies. It’s even been rumoured that he might decide, abandoning Britain, to settle there, and he’s supposed to be at work on his fourth book about India. The Humour and the Pity (2002), a book of essays edited by Amitava Kumar and issued by the Delhi publisher Buffalo Books, includes contributions by Caryl Phillips and J.M. Coetzee, but most of the writers here are Indian, and the volume provides some hints of how Naipaul is perceived in his ancestral subcontinent. Kumar’s introduction recalls a visit to the editorial offices of the magazine Tehelka (Naipaul is one of its directors), where he spotted, taped to the wall above a journalist’s desk, “V.S. Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners”, seven simple “rules for writing” drafted by the great man for the edification of Tehelka’s staff. Akash Kapur rather bravely transcribes a (hilarious) failed attempt to interview Naipaul via conference call.

NAIPAUL: The line is so bad. Something has to be done to make it better.

(More crackle. Kapur’s voice disappears)

And in the last piece in The Humour and the Pity, Tarun J. Tejpal, the founder-editor of Tehelka and a friend of Naipaul’s, recalls his first encounter with one of his books — India: A Wounded Civilisation — but also describes the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2001, when, “at the very apex of an incredible career”, the new laureate broke down in tears “as he stood there erect in his ducktails”.

A final gem. In 2005, Penguin India published an anthology of “new writing from India” called First Proof. The non-fiction section opens with a short memoir by Manmohan Malhoutra, a former officer of the Indian civil service who, in 1962, played host to Naipaul on his first visit to India. What gives Malhoutra’s charming narrative its real fascination is the letter from Naipaul “dated 26 February 1963, written by hand from the Hotel Plaza in Madrid” with which he closes:

So goodbye to shit and sweepers; goodbye to people who tolerate everything; goodbye to all the refusal to act; goodbye to the absence of dignity; goodbye to the poverty; goodbye to caste and that curious pettiness which permeates that vast country; goodbye to people who, though consulting astrologers, have no sense of their destiny as men. From here it is an unbelievable, frightening, sad country.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2007