Visits with V S Naipaul

Two recent stories following the death of V S Naipaul have Waugh connections. Most prominent are the reflections by Alexander Waugh of his several meetings with Naipaul dating back to his childhood when Sir Vidia came to visit his father. These appear in an “In Memoriam” article available in the online edition of Vanity Fair. The Waugh family theme opens near the article’s introduction where Alexander describes being summoned by Naipaul’s second wife to appear on one-day’s notice at the Naipaul residence in Wiltshire for an important but undisclosed matter. This was in 2002. Alexander writes:

He had been a friend of my father’s and had come to stay a few times in my youth when I had been allowed to peep at him in my pajamas from the top of the stairs as he crossed the hall for dinner. My grandfather, Evelyn Waugh, had publicly championed Sir Vidia’s “exquisite mastery of the English language” and my father, Auberon, had revered him above all others as a writer of incomparable and inimitable skill.

As a teenager I had read, but was rather bewildered by, two of his early novels set in his native Trinidad: The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr. Biswas. It wasn’t for a dec­ade that I came to appreciate the exceptional brilliance of his writing, the slow, regular pulse that emits from layers of disarmingly simple syntax; the humor, compassion, and despair that he conjures from the astute observation of quite ordinary behavior; and his unique ability to sustain an atmosphere, to portray character, to describe places, to illuminate the souls of whole continents…

After extensive preliminaries, causing Alexander considerable anxiety, it turned out that Naipaul had had learned that Alexander was writing the book which ultimately became Fathers and Sons (2004). Naipaul ask for the book’s opening sentence, which Alexander had to improvise since he had not yet begun to write it. After expressing his approval of the improvisation, Naipaul told him: “Your book must be a critical-loving memoir.”  Lunch was then served. That message was the whole purpose of the two-hour drive from West Somerset requiring Alexander to abandon some guests of his own.

When Naipaul later read the book, he was pleased with the results. According to Alexander:

His interest in Fathers and Sons was connected also to his friendship with “Bron,” my father. Perhaps he was worried that in my youthful ineptitude I might inadvertently traduce my father’s memory. He was pleased and relieved when eventually he read what I had written, later presenting me with a large, framed photograph inscribed on the back: “This photograph of Bron, great wit, great writer and good friend, from V. S. Naipaul on the occasion of Alexander’s visit to Salterton 13 March 2010.”

Alexander’s visits continued over the years, including one in 2010 when Naipaul’s portrait was being painted and novelist Vikram Seth (a neighbor) joined them for lunch. He also recalls a 2011 visit when he arrived just after a favorite cat had died and another later visit after the cat had been buried in the garden. But Alexander also recalls, from these accumulated visits, Naipaul’s thoughts about the life and writings of his grandfather:

Sir Vidia knew the Evelyn Waugh story well and seemed to have recognized in it reflections of his own. Both the Waughs and the Naipauls had risen from “apparent ordinariness,” as Naipaul put it, to positions of influence in the literary world. He saw how his own father, like Evelyn Waugh’s, had been a failed writer, one who lacked the necessary confidence to produce and who had consequently vested his life’s hopes and aspirations in advancing his son’s literary career. Years later I asked Sir Vidia if he had been conscious of all this. When he speaks his voice is sonorous and his words carefully weighed. “I suppose that was so,” he said.

Alexander also recounts his presence as an eyewitness at what was one of the critical moments in Naipaul’s later life. This took place at the Hay-on-Wye festival in 2011 where Alexander was introducing a talk by Naipaul. Just before that took place, there was a rather important encounter:

Before the interview began, as I walked Sir Vidia through the writers’ tent at Hay-on-Wye, we were suddenly sprung upon by the novelist Paul Theroux and what seemed like a pre-planned ambush of paparazzi. Theroux had been Sir Vidia’s friend of 30 years until they fell out over a woman and an inscribed book. Naipaul had accused Theroux of trying to seduce his first wife, and he had then put one of Theroux’s books, with its personal inscription from the author, up for sale for £1,500. When Theroux complained, Naipaul told him to “take it on the chin and move on.” Instead, Theroux wrote about the bust-up of the friendship in a memoir called Sir Vidia’s Shadow. They had not spoken for 15 years. I remember Paul Theroux coming to stay in the old days with my father—a smooth, handsome, dark-haired fellow who knocked back cocktails with strange slurping sounds in the kitchen—but he had changed over the years, and neither Sir Vidia nor I recognized him. The photographers flashed away, and all the next day’s papers ran with the story: an old literary hatchet had been finally buried. In point of fact, Sir Vidia was not at all sure to whom he was talking, believing only that he was mollifying some newly met, and possibly lunatic, fan. “I have missed you,” Theroux said. “And I have missed you too,” Sir Vidia replied. They shook hands, but the meeting between the two writers lasted only a minute, and when it was later explained to Sir Vidia who it was that had greeted him, he said only that he was glad, as he saw no point in feuds. Afterward, the two writers exchanged friendly letters.

Alexander’s memoir of his visits with Naipaul is an excellent antidote to several of the recent articles recalling the “great writer’s” difficult personality. Difficult he may have been, but he also had a softer, more humorous side.

Another article appearing in the current TLS recounts a 2007 visit to Naipaul’s Wiltshire cottage. The visitor is interviewing Naipaul, apparently for an article he (or she) plans to write. In the course of the interview Naipaul revealed his assessment of other writers:

Naipaul had come to Wiltshire from London but was always keen to stress his estrangement. Several times in our conversation he used the phrase “floating man”. He was not a figure like Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh, “who retired from city life, in order to become the Writer in the Country”. He returned to Powell and Waugh later in our conversation, when he passed out verdicts on other writers. His disobliging views on Jane Austen and E. M. Forster were by then well known. Brideshead Revisited was “a very, very bad book”, he said. Waugh wrote of the aristocracy “with a kind of feminine longing”. Powell was a friend, which made his reaction to A Dance to the Music of Time all the more embarrassing. “I was appalled.” There were other disappointments. Graham Greene’s protagonists were just “being moved from one seedy background to another. There was nothing for me in it”.

And so on for several lines, contributing more to Naipaul’s difficult side than the softer one depicted in Alexander’s article. The interviewer’s name is not revealed nor is the article that may have resulted from the visit. The account appears in the equally anonymous “N.B.” column of the TLS, this week compiled by J.C. Thanks to our readers for contributions to the above posting.



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