Good publishers are supposed to ‘discover’ writers, and perhaps they do. To me, however, they just happened to come. In 1956, four years after the launch of André Deutsch Limited, of which I was a director, Mordecai Richler (whose first novel we had just published) introduced me to Andrew Salkey. Andrew was a writer from Jamaica who was then keeping a roof over his head by working for the BBC’s Caribbean Service and who was always generous towards other writers. When he heard that I was Mordecai’s editor he immediately asked if he could send me a young friend of his who regularly freelanced for the same service and had just written something very good. A few days later V. S. Naipaul came to a coffee bar near our office and handed over Miguel Street.
He was in his very early twenties and looked even younger, but his manner was grave – even severe – and unsmiling. This I attributed to nervousness – but I felt that it was the nervousness of someone essentially serious and composed, and that it would be impertinent to think in terms of ‘putting him at his ease’. It was a surprise to discover that Miguel Street was funny: delicately funny, with nothing overdone. It was a portrait of a street in Trinidad’s Port of Spain, in the form of stories which each centred on a street character; its language that of the street, and its balance between amusement and sympathy perfectly judged. I was delighted by it, but worried: it was a publishing dogma to which André Deutsch strongly adhered that stories didn’t sell unless they were by Names. So before talking to him about it I gave it to Francis Wyndham who was with us as part-time ‘Literary Adviser’, and Francis loved it at once and warmly. This probably tipped the balance with André, whose instinct was to distrust as ‘do-gooding’ my enthusiasm for a little book by a West Indian about a place which interested no one and where the people spoke an unfamiliar dialect. I think he welcomed its being stories because it gave him a reason for saying ‘no’: but Francis’s opinion joined to mine made him bid me find out if the author had a novel on the stocks and tell him that if he had, then that should come first and the stories could follow all in good time. Luckily Vidia was in the process of writing The Mystic Masseur.
In fact we could well have launched him with Miguel Street, which has outlasted his first two novels in critical esteem, because in the Fifties it was easier to get reviews for a writer seen by the British as black than it was for a young English writer, and reviews influenced readers a good deal more then than they do now. Publishers and reviewers were aware that new voices were speaking up in the newly independent colonies, and partly out of genuine interest, partly out of an optimistic if ill-advised sense that a vast market for books lay out there, ripe for development, they felt it to be the thing to encourage those voices. This trend did not last long, but it served to establish a number of good writers.
Vidia did not yet have the confidence to walk away from our shilly-shallying, and fortunately it did him no real harm. Neither he nor we made any money to speak of from his first three books, The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira and Miguel Street, but there was never any doubt about the making of his name, which began at once with the reviews and was given substance by his own work as a reviewer, of which he got plenty as soon as he became known as a novelist. He was a very good reviewer, clearly as widely read as any literary critic of the day, and it was this rather than his first books which revealed that here was a writer who was going to reject the adjective ‘regional’, and with good reason.
We began to meet fairly often, and I enjoyed his company because he talked well about writing and people, and was often funny. At quite an early meeting he said gravely that when he was up at Oxford – which he had not liked – he once did a thing so terrible that he would never be able to tell anyone what it was. I said it was unforgivable to reveal that much without revealing more, especially to someone like me who didn’t consider even murder literally unspeakable, but I couldn’t shift him and never learned what the horror was – though someone told me later that when he was at Oxford Vidia did have some kind of nervous breakdown. It distressed me that he had been unhappy at a place which I loved. Having such a feeling for scholarship, high standards and tradition he ought to have liked it . . . but no, he would not budge. Never for a minute did it occur to me that he might have felt at a loss when he got to Oxford because of how different it was from his background, still less because of any form of racial insult: he appeared to me far too impressive a person to be subject to such discomforts.
The image Vidia was projecting at that time, in his need to protect his pride, was so convincing that even when I read A House for Mr Biswas four years later, and was struck by the authority of his account of Mr Biswas’s nervous collapse, I failed to connect its painful vividness with his own reported ‘nervous breakdown’. Between me and the truth of his Oxford experience stood the man he wanted people to see.
At that stage I did not know how or why he had rejected Trinidad, and if I had known it, still wouldn’t have understood what it is like to be unable to accept the country in which you were born. Vidia’s books (not least A Way in the World, not written until thirty-seven years later) were to do much to educate me; but then I had no conception of how someone who feels he doesn’t belong to his ‘home’ and cannot belong anywhere else is forced to exist only in himself; nor of how exhausting and precarious such a condition (blithely seen by the young and ignorant as desirable) can be. Vidia’s self – his very being – was his writing: a great gift, but all he had. He was to report that ten years later in his career, when he had earned what seemed to others an obvious security, he was still tormented by anxiety about finding the matter for his next book, and for the one after that . . . an anxiety not merely about earning his living, but about existing as the person he wanted to be. No wonder that while he was still finding his way into his writing he was in danger; and how extraordinary that he could nevertheless strike an outsider as a solidly impressive man.1
This does not mean that I failed to see the obvious delicacy of his nervous system. Because of it I was often worried by his lack of money, and was appalled on his behalf when I once saw him risk losing a commission by defying The Times Literary Supplement. They had offered their usual fee of twenty-five pounds (or was it guineas?) for a review, and he had replied haughtily that he wrote nothing for less than fifty. ‘Oh silly Vidia,’ I thought. ‘Now they’ll never offer him anything again.’ But lo! they paid him his fifty and I was filled with admiration. Of course he was right: authors ought to know their own value and refuse the insult of derisory fees.
I was right to admire that self-respect, at that time, but it was going to develop into a quality difficult to like. In all moral qualities the line between the desirable and the deplorable is imprecise – between tolerance and lack of discrimination, prudence and cowardice, generosity and extravagance – so it is not easy to see where a man’s proper sense of his own worth turns into a more or less pompous self-importance. In retrospect it seems to me that it took eight or nine years for this process to begin to show itself in Vidia, and I think it possible that his audience was at least partly to blame for it.
For example, after a year or so of meetings in the pubs or restaurants where I usually lunched, I began to notice that Vidia was sometimes miffed at being taken to a cheap restaurant or being offered a cheap bottle of wine – and the only consequence of my seeing this (apart from my secretly finding it funny) was that I became careful to let him choose both restaurant and wine. And this carefulness not to offend him, which was, I think, shared by all, or almost all, his English friends, came from an assumption that the reason why he was so anxious to command respect was fear that it was, or might be, denied him because of his race; which led to a squeamish dismay in oneself at the idea of being seen as racist. The shape of an attitude which someone detests in themselves, and has worked at extirpating, can often be discerned from its absence, and during the first years of Vidia’s career in England he was often coddled for precisely the reason the coddler was determined to disregard.
Later, of course, the situation changed. His friends became too used to him to see him as anything but himself, and those who didn’t know him saw him simply as a famous writer – on top of which he could frighten people. Then it was the weight and edge of his personality which made people defer to him, rather than consideration for his sensitivity, and it was easy to underestimate the pain and strain endured by that sensitivity when he had first pulled himself up out of the thin, sour soil in which he was reared and was striving to find a purchase in England where, however warmly he was welcomed, he could never feel that he wholly belonged.
1 Since writing this I have read the letters which Vidia and his father exchanged while Vidia was at Oxford. Letters Between a Father and Son fully reveals the son’s loneliness and misery, and makes the self he was able to present to the world even more extraordinary.
During the Sixties I visited the newly independent islands of Trinidad and Tobago twice, with intense pleasure: the loveliness of tropical forests and seas, the jolt of excitement which comes from difference, the kindness of people, the amazing beauty of Carnival (unlike Vidia, I like steel bands; oh, the sound of them coming in from the fringes of Port of Spain through the four-in-the-morning darkness of the opening day!). On my last morning in Port of Spain I felt a sharp pang as I listened to the keskidee (a bird which really does say ‘Qu’est ce qu’il dit?’) and knew how unlikely it was that I should ever hear it again. But at no time was it difficult to remember that mine was a visitor’s Trinidad and Tobago; so three other memories, one from high on the country’s social scale, the others from lower although by no means from the bottom, are just as clear as the ones I love.
One. Vidia’s history of the country, The Loss of El Dorado, which is rarely mentioned nowadays but which I think is the best of his non-fiction books, had just come out. Everyone I had met, including the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams, and the poet Derek Walcott, had talked about it in a disparaging way and had betrayed as they did so that they had not read it. At last, at a party given by the leader of the opposition, I met someone who had: an elderly Englishman just retiring from running the coastguard. We were both delighted to be able to share our pleasure in Vidia’s book and had a long talk about it. As we parted I asked him: ‘Can you really be the only person in this country who has read it?’ and he answered sadly: ‘Oh, easily.’
Two. In Tobago I stayed in a delightful little hotel, where on most evenings the village elders dropped in for a drink. One such evening a younger man–a customs officer in his mid-thirties seconded to Tobago’s chief town, Scarborough, from Port of Spain – invited me to go out on the town with him. We were joined by another customs officer and a nurse from the hospital. First we went up to Scarborough’s fort – its Historic Sight – to look at the view. Then, when conversation fizzled out, it was suggested that we should have a drink at the Arts Centre. It looked in the darkness little more than a shed, and it was shut, but a man was hunted up who produced the key, some Coca-Cola and half a bottle of rum . . . and there we stood, under a forty-watt lamp in a room of utter dinginess which contained nothing at all but a dusty ping-pong table with a very old copy of the Reader’s Digest lying in the middle of it. We sipped our drinks in an atmosphere of embarrassment – almost shame – so heavy that it silenced us. After a few minutes we gave up and went to my host’s barely furnished but tidy little flat – I remember it as cold, which it can’t have been – where we listened to a record of ‘Yellow Bird’ and drank another rum. Then I was driven back to the hotel.
The evening’s emptiness – the really frightening feeling of nothing to do, nothing to say – had made me feel quite ill. I knew too little about the people I had been with to guess what they were like when at ease: all I could discern was that my host was bored to distraction at having to work in the sticks; that he had been driven by his boredom to make his sociable gesture and had then become nervous to the extent of summoning friends to his aid; and that all three had quickly seen that the whole thing was a mistake and had been overtaken by embarrassed gloom. And no wonder. When I remember the Arts Centre I see why, when Vidia first revisited the West Indies, what he felt was fear.
Three. And it is not only people like Vidia, feverish with repressed talent, who yearn to escape. One day I was trying on a swimsuit in a store in Port of Spain when I overheard a conversation in the changing-cubicle next to mine. An American woman, accompanied by her husband, was also buying something, and they were obviously quite taken by the pretty young woman who was serving them. They were asking her questions about her family, and the heightened warmth of their manner made me suspect that they found it almost exciting to be kind to a black person. When the customer had made her choice and her husband was writing a cheque, the saleswoman’s voice suddenly changed from chirpiness to breathlessness and she said, ‘May I ask you something?’ The wife said, ‘Yes, of course,’ and the poor young woman plunged into desperate pleading: please, please would they help her, would they give her a letter inviting her to their home which she could show to the people who issued visas, she wouldn’t be any trouble, and if they would do this for her . . . On and on she went, the husband trying to interrupt her in an acutely embarrassed voice, still wanting to sound kind but only too obviously appalled at what his entirely superficial amiability had unleashed. Soon the girl was in tears and the couple were sounding frantic with remorse and anxiety to escape – and I was so horrified at being the invisible and unwilling witness of this desperate young woman’s humiliation that I abandoned my swimsuit, scrambled into my dress and fled, so I do not know how it ended.
Vidia had felt fear and dislike of Trinidad ever since he could remember. As a schoolboy he had written a vow on an endpaper of his Latin primer to be gone within five years (it took him six). He remembered this in The Middle Passage, his first non-fiction book, published in 1962, in which he described his first revisiting of the West Indies and did something he had never done before: examined the reasons why he feared and hated the place where he was born.
It was a desperately negative view of the place, disregarding a good half of the picture; and it came out with the fluency and force of something long matured less in the mind than in the depths of the nervous system. Trinidad, he said, was and knew itself to be a mere dot on the map. It had no importance and no existence as a nation, being only somewhere out of which first Spain, then France, then Britain could make money: grossly easy money because of using slaves to do the work, and after slaves indentured labour which was almost as cheap. A slave-based society has no need to be efficient, so no tradition of efficiency exists. Slave-masters don’t need to be intelligent, so ‘in Trinidad education was not one of the things money could buy; it was something money freed you from. Education was strictly for the poor. The white boy left school “counting on his fingers” as the Trinidadian likes to say, but this was a measure of his privilege . . . The white community was never an upper class in the sense that it possessed a superior speech or taste or attainments; it was envied only for its money and its access to pleasure.’
When this crude colonial society was opened up because the islands were no longer profitable and the British pulled out, what Vidia saw gushing in to fill the vacuum was the flashiest and most materialistic kind of American influence in the form of commercial radio (television had yet to come) and films – films at their most violent and unreal. (‘British films,’ he wrote, ‘played to empty houses. It was my French master who urged me to go to see Brief Encounter; and there were two of us in the cinema, he in the balcony, I in the pit.’) Trinidad and Tobago was united only in its hunger for ‘American modernity’, and under that sleazy veneer it was split.
It was split between the descendants of slaves, the African Trinidadians, and the descendants of indentured labourers, the Indians, both groups there by an accident of history, neither with any roots to speak of. In The Middle Passage Vidia called the Africans ‘Negroes’, which today sounds shocking. Reading the book one has to keep reminding oneself that the concept of Black Power had yet to be formulated. Black people had not yet rejected the word ‘Negro’: it was still being widely used and ‘black’ was considered insulting. And in this book his main criticism of Trinidadians of African descent is that they had been brainwashed by the experience of slavery into ‘thinking white’ – into being ashamed of their own colour and physical features. What he deplored – as many observers of West Indian societies had done – was precisely the attitudes which people of African descent were themselves beginning to deplore, and would soon be forcing themselves to overcome.
The Indians he saw as less unsure of themselves because of the pride they took in the idea of India; but he also saw that idea as being almost meaningless – they had no notion of what the subcontinent was really like. It was also dangerous in that it militated against attempts to bridge the rift. Theirs was ‘a peasant-minded, money-minded community, spiritually static, its religion reduced to rites without philosophy, set in a materialist, colonialist society’. The Trinidadian Indian was a ‘complete colonial, even more philistine than the white’.
He sums up his account of racial friction thus: ‘Like monkeys pleading for evolution, each claiming to be whiter than the other, Indians and Negroes appeal to the unacknowledged white audience to see how much they despise one another. They despise one another by reference to the whites; and the irony is that their antagonism should have reached its peak today, when white prejudices have ceased to matter.’
This was a fair assessment: everyone, apart from Tourist Board propagandists, to whom I talked about politics deplored this racial tension, and most of them either said outright, or implied, that blame lay with the group to which they did not belong. No one remarked on the common sense which enabled people to rub along in spite of it (as they still do), any more than Vidia did. The rift, which certainly was absurd and regrettable, became more dramatic if seen as dangerous, and therefore reflected a more lurid light on whoever was being presented as its instigator. People did make a bid for the outsider’s respect – did ‘appeal to the unacknowledged white audience’. But to what audience was Vidia himself appealing? It was The Middle Passage which first made black West Indians call him ‘racist’.
The book was admired in England and disliked in Trinidad, but it was not addressed to the white audience in order to please it. Its whole point was to show that Caribbean societies are a mess because they were callously created by white men for the white men’s own ends, only to be callously administered and finally callously abandoned. Vidia was trying to write from a point of view above that of white or brown or black; he was trying to look at the people now inhabiting the West Indies with a clear-sighted and impartial intelligence, and to describe what he saw honestly, even if honesty seemed brutal. This he felt, and said, had to be done because a damaged society shuffling along with the help of fantasies and excuses can only become more sick: what it has to do is learn to know itself, and only its writers can teach it that. Caribbean writers had so far, he claimed, failed to do more than plead their own causes. If he expected Trinidadians to welcome this high-minded message he was naive – but I don’t suppose he did. He was pursuing his own understanding of the place, and offering it, because that is what a serious writer can’t help doing. If anyone resented it, too bad.
Of course they did resent it – who doesn’t resent hearing disagreeable truths told in a manner verging on the arrogant? But I think the label ‘racist’ which they stuck on him was, so to speak, only a local one. I saw him as a man raised in, and frightened by, a somewhat disorderly, inefficient and self-deceiving society, who therefore longed for order, clarity and competence. Having concluded that the lack of these qualities in the place where he was born came from the people’s lack of roots, he overvalued a sense of history and respect for tradition, choosing to romanticize their results rather than to see the complex and far from admirable scenes with which they often coexist. (His first visit to India, described in An Area of Darkness, left him in a state of distress because it showed him that an ancient civilization in which he had dared to hope that he would find the belonging he hungered for, could be just as disorderly and inefficient as the place where he was born.) Although both England and the United States were each in its own way going to fall short of his ideal society, Europe as a whole came more close, more often, to offering a life in which he could feel comfortable. I remember driving, years ago, through a vine-growing region of France and coming on a delightful example of an ancient expertise taking pleasure in itself: a particularly well-cultivated vineyard which had a pillar rose – a deep pink pillar rose – planted as an exquisite punctuation at the end of every row. Instantly – although it was weeks since I had seen or thought of him – he popped into my head: ‘How Vidia would like that!’
But although I cannot see Vidia as racist in the sense of wanting to be white or to propitiate whites, I do think it is impossible to spend the first eighteen years of your life in a given set of circumstances without being shaped by them: and Vidia spent the first eighteen years of his life as a Trinidadian Indian. Passionate though his determination to escape the limitations imposed by this fate was, and near though it came to achieving the impossible, it could not wholly free him from his conditioning.
In Chapter One of The Middle Passage, when he has only just boarded the boat train which will take him to Southampton, there begins the following description. Into the corridor, out of the compartment next to Vidia’s, had stepped ‘a very tall and ill-made Negro . . . He went to the window, opened the ventilation gap, pushed his face through, turned slightly to his left, and spat. His face was grotesque. It seemed to have been smashed in from one cheek. One eye had narrowed; the thick lips had bunched into a circular swollen protuberance; the enormous nose was twisted. When, slowly, he opened his mouth to spit, his face became even more distorted. He spat in slow, intermittent dribbles; and when he worked his face back in, his eyes caught mine.’
Vidia makes a slight attempt to give this man a role in the story of his journey by saying that he began to imagine that the poor creature was aware of him in a malign way, that after that one glance, in the buffet car there he was again . . . but in fact once he has been described the man has no part to play, he is done with; in spite of which Vidia could not resist placing him right at the start of the book and describing him in greater physical detail than anyone else in all its 232 pages. I am not saying that this man was invented or that he may have been less dreadfully unattractive than we are told he was; but by choosing to pick him out and to fix on him, Vidia has given an indelible impression less of the man than of his own reaction: the dismayed recoil of a fastidious Trinidad Indian from what he sees as an inferior kind of person. And I believe that if I were black I should from time to time, throughout his work, pick up other traces of this flinching presence hidden in the shadow behind one of the best English-language novelists we have. And even as part of the white audience I cannot help noticing the occasional touch of self-importance (increasing with the years) which I suspect to have its roots far back in the Trinidad Indian’s nervous defiance of disrespect.
Vidia’s mother, handsome and benignly matronly, welcomed his publishers very kindly when they visited Trinidad, and gave the impression of being the beloved linchpin of her family. When I first met them, long before they had been stricken by the close-together deaths of one of the daughters and of Shiva, Vidia’s younger and only brother, they impressed me as a flourishing lot: good-looking, intelligent, charming, successful. A married daughter told me that Mrs Naipaul ‘divides her time between the temple and the quarry’ – the latter being a business belonging to her side of the family, in which she was a partner. That she was not simply a comfortable mother-figure became apparent when she told me that she had just got home from attending a seminar on welding and was very glad that she hadn’t missed it because she had learned enough at it to be able to cut the number of welders they employed at the quarry by half. Soon afterwards she threw more light on her own character by making a little speech to me, after noticing my surprise when she had appeared to be indifferent to some news about Vidia. She had been, she said, a well-brought-up Hindu girl of her generation, so she had been given no education and was expected to obey her parents in everything, and that was what she did. Then she was married (‘And there was no nonsense about falling in love in those days’), whereupon it was her husband she had to obey in everything, and that was what she did. Then she had her children, so of course it was her job to devote herself entirely to them and bring them up as well as possible, and that was what she did (‘and I think I can say I made a good job of it’). ‘But then I said to myself, when I am fifty – FINISH. I will begin to live for myself. And that is what I am doing now and they must get on with their own lives.’
It was an impressive little thumbnail autobiography, but it left questions in my mind. I had, after all, read A House for Mr Biswas, the novel Vidia had based on his father’s life, and had gained a vivid picture of how humiliated Mr Biswas had been after his marriage into the much richer and more influential Tulsi family – although I don’t think I knew at that stage that Seepersad Naipaul, Vidia’s father, had once had a mental breakdown and had vanished from his home for months. Clearly this attractive and – I was now beginning to think – slightly formidable woman was greatly oversimplifying her story, but I liked her; as I told Vidia when, soon after this, he asked me if I did. ‘Yes, very much,’ I said; to which he replied: ‘Everyone seems to. I hate her.’
I wish I had asked him what he meant by that. It was not the first time that I heard him, in a fit of irritation, strike out at someone with a fierce word, so I didn’t think it was necessarily true (and anyway, dislike of a mother usually indicates damaged love). But uncertain though I remained about his feelings towards his mother, I knew that he loved his father, who had died soon after Vidia left Trinidad to come to Oxford. He wrote a moving introduction to the little volume of his father’s stories which he gave us to publish in 1976, and he spoke about the way his father had introduced him to books. Seepersad Naipaul had possessed a remarkably strong and true instinct for writing which had overcome his circumstances to the point of giving him a passion for such English classics as had come his way, and steering him into a writing job on the local newspaper. He had passed his passion on by reading aloud to Vidia and Kamla, the sister nearest to him, making the children stand up as he read to keep them from falling asleep – which seems to have impressed the importance of the ritual on them rather than to have put them off. Seepersad’s own few stories were about Trinidadian village life, and the most important lesson he gave his son was ‘Write about what you know’, thus curing him of the young colonial’s feeling that ‘literature’ had to be exotic – something belonging to the faraway world out of which came the books he found in the library. And I know of another piece of advice Seepersad gave his son which speaks for the truth of his instinct. Vidia had shown him a piece of would-be comic writing, and he told him not to strive for comedy but to let it arise naturally out of the story. It is sad to think of this man hobbled by the circumstances of his life (see A House for Mr Biswas) and dying before he could see his son break free. The mother was part of the ‘circumstances’ and the child sided with his father against her, of that I feel sure.
I cannot remember how long it was – certainly several months, perhaps even a year – before I learned that Vidia was married. ‘I have found a new flat’, he would say; ‘I saw such-and-such a film last week’; ‘My landlady says’: not once had he used the words ‘we’ or ‘our’. I had taken it for granted that he lived in industrious loneliness, which had seemed sad. So when at a party I glimpsed him at the far end of a room with a young woman – an inconspicuously, even mousily pretty young woman – and soon afterwards saw him leaving with her, I was pleased that he had found a girlfriend. The next time he came to the office I asked who she was – and was astounded when he answered, in a rather cross voice, ‘My wife, of course.’
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.’
From that moment on, whenever I needed to cheer myself up by counting my blessings, I used to tell myself: ‘At least I’m not married to Vidia.’
It did not exactly turn me against him, I suppose because from the beginning I had thought of him as an interesting person to watch rather than as a friend. The flow of interest between us had always been one-way – I can’t remember ever telling him anything about my own affairs, or wanting to – so this odd business of his marriage was something extra to watch rather than something repellent. Had he ever loved her – or did he still love her in some twisted way? They had married while he was at Oxford: had he done it out of loneliness, to enlarge the minuscule territory he could call his own now that he was out in the world? Or was it because she could keep him? She was working as a teacher and continued to do so well into their marriage. Or was it to shelter him from other women? He had once asked a man of my acquaintance: ‘Do you know any fast women?’ which my friend found funny (particularly as he was gay) but which seemed touching to me. As did Vidia’s only attempt to make a pass at me. Pat was away and I had asked him to supper. Without warning he got to his feet, came across the room and tried to kiss me as I was coming through the door carrying a tray loaded with glasses. It hardly seemed necessary to put into words the rebuff which most of him was clearly anxious for, but to be on the safe side I did. Our friendship, I said gently, was too valuable to complicate in any way – and his face brightened with relief. That someone so lacking in sexual experience and so puritanical should have to resort to prostitutes (as he told The New Yorker in 1994, and as a passage in The Mimic Men suggests) is natural; though I guess he did so infrequently, and with distaste.
The little I saw of Vidia and Pat together was depressing: there was no sign of their enjoying each other, and the one whole weekend I spent with them they bickered ceaselessly, Pat’s tetchiness as sharp as his (developed as a defence, I thought). When he was abroad she was scrupulously careful of his interests; she did research for him; sometimes he referred to showing her work in progress: he trusted her completely, and with reason, because he was evidently her raison d’être. And she made it unthinkable to speak critically of him in her presence. But always her talk was full of how tiresome it was for him that she was sick in aeroplanes, or fainted in crowds, or couldn’t eat curries . . . and when I tried to introduce a subject other than him that would interest us both, such as West Indian politics or her work as a teacher, she never failed to run us aground yet again on some reference to her own inadequacy. 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.
In A Way in the World, writing (as usual) as though he were a single man, Vidia described himself as ‘incomplete’ in ‘physical attractiveness, love, sexual fulfilment’. How terrible for a wife to be publicly wiped out in this way! Everyone who knew the Naipauls said how sorry they were for Pat, and I was sorry for her, too. But whatever Vidia’s reason for marrying, he cannot have foreseen the nature of this sexless, loveless (on his part) union with such a discouraging little person. He, too, probably deserved commiseration.
When his Argentinian friend Margaret first came to London he brought her to lunch with me. She was a lively, elegant woman who, though English by descent, was ‘feminine’ in the Latin-American style, sexy and teasing, with the appearance of having got him just where she wanted him. And he glowed with pride and pleasure. Afterwards he said he was thinking of leaving Pat, and when I was dismayed (could she exist without him?), said that the thought of giving up ‘carnal pleasure’ just when he’d discovered it was too painful to bear. Why not stay married and have an affair, I asked; which he appeared to think an unseemly suggestion, although it was what he then did for many years. What happened later I don’t know, but in the early years of their relationship there was no sign of his squashing Margaret. He did, however, make one disconcerting remark. Did I not find it interesting, he asked, that there was so much cruelty in sex.
What began to wear me down in my dealings with Vidia (it was a long time before I allowed myself to acknowledge it) was his depression.
With every one of his books – and we published eighteen of them – there was a three-part pattern. First came a long period of peace while he was writing, during which we saw little of him and I would often have liked to see more, because I would be full of curiosity about the new book. Then, when it was delivered, there would be a short burst of euphoria during which we would have enjoyable meetings and my role would be to appreciate the work, to write the blurb, to hit on a jacket that pleased both him and us, and to see that the script was free of typist’s errors (he was such a perfectionist that no editing, properly speaking, was necessary). Then came part three: post-publication gloom, during which his voice on the telephone would make my heart sink – just a little during the first few years, deeper and deeper with the passing of time. His voice became charged with tragedy, his face became haggard, his theme became the atrocious exhaustion and damage (the word damage always occurred) this book had inflicted on him, and all to what end? Reviewers were ignorant monkeys, publishers (this would be implied in a sinister fashion rather than said) were lazy and useless: what was the point of it all? Why did he go on?
It is natural that a writer who knows himself to be good and who is regularly confirmed in that opinion by critical comment should expect to become a best-seller, but every publisher knows that you don’t necessarily become a best-seller by writing well. Of course you don’t necessarily have to write badly to do it: it is true that some best-selling books are written astonishingly badly, and equally true that some are written very well. The quality of the writing – even the quality of the thinking – is irrelevant. It is a matter of whether or not a nerve is hit in the wider reading public as opposed to the serious one which is composed of people who are interested in writing as an art. Vidia has sold well in the latter, and has pushed a good way beyond its fringes by becoming famous – at a certain point many people in the wider reading public start to feel that they ought to read a writer – but it was always obvious that he was not going to make big money. An old friend of mine who reads a great deal once said to me apologetically, ‘I’m sure he’s very good, but I don’t feel he’s for me’ – and she spoke for a large number of reading people.
Partly this is because of his subject matter, which is broadly speaking the consequences of imperialism: people whose countries once ruled empires relish that subject only if it is flavoured, however subtly, with nostalgia. Partly it is because he is not interested in writing about women, and when he does so usually does it with dislike: more women than men read novels. And partly it is because of his temperament. Once, when he was particularly low, we talked about surviving the horribleness of life and I said that I did it by relying on simple pleasures such as the taste of fruit, the delicious sensations of a hot bath or clean sheets, the way flowers tremble very slightly with life, the lilt of a bird’s flight: if I were stripped of those pleasures . . . better not to imagine it! He asked if I could really depend on them and I said yes. I have a clear memory of the sad, puzzled voice in which he replied: ‘You’re very lucky, I can’t.’ And his books, especially his novels (after the humour which filled the first three drained away) are coloured–or perhaps I should say ‘discoloured’ – by this lack of what used to be called animal spirits. They impress, but they do not charm.
He was, therefore, displeased with the results of publication, which filled him always with despair, sometimes with anger as well. Once he descended on me like a thunderbolt to announce that he had just been into Foyle’s of Charing Cross Road and they didn’t have a single copy of his latest book, published only two weeks earlier, in stock: not one! Reason told me this was impossible, but I have a lurking tendency to accept guilt if faced with accusation, and this tendency went into spasm: suppose the sales department really had made some unthinkable blunder? Well, if they had I was not going to face the ensuing mayhem single-handed, so I said: ‘We must go and tell André at once.’ Which we did; and André Deutsch said calmly: ‘What nonsense, Vidia – come on, we’ll go to Foyle’s straight away and I’ll show you.’ So all three of us stumped down the street to Foyle’s, only two minutes away, Vidia still thunderous, I twittering with nerves, André serene. Once we were in the shop he cornered the manager and explained: ‘Mr Naipaul couldn’t find his book: will you please show him where it is displayed.’ – ‘Certainly Mr Deutsch’ and there it was, two piles of six copies each, on the table for ‘Recent Publications’. André said afterwards that Vidia looked even more thunderous at being done out of his grievance, but if he did I was too dizzy with relief to notice.
Vidia’s anxiety and despair were real: you need only compare a photograph of his face in his twenties with one taken in his forties to see how it has been shaped by pain. It was my job to listen to his unhappiness and do what I could to ease it – which would not have been too bad if there had been anything I could do. But there was not: and exposure to someone else’s depression is draining, even if only for an hour or so at a time and not very often. I felt genuinely sorry for him, but the routine was repeated so often . . . The truth is that as the years went by, during these post-publication glooms I had increasingly to force myself into feeling genuinely sorry for him, in order to endure him.
Self-brainwashing sometimes has to be a part of an editor’s job. You are no use to the writers on your list if you cannot bring imaginative sympathy to working with them, and if you cease to be of use to them you cease to be of use to your firm. Imaginative sympathy cannot issue from a cold heart so you have to like your writers. Usually this is easy; but occasionally it happens that in spite of admiring someone’s work you are – or gradually become – unable to like the person.
I thought so highly of Vidia’s writing and felt his presence on our list to be so important that I simply could not allow myself not to like him. I was helped by a foundation of affection laid down during the early days of knowing him, and I was able to believe that his depressions hurt him far more than they hurt me – that he could not prevent them – that I ought to be better at bearing them than I was. And as I became more aware of other things that grated – his attitude to Pat and to his brother Shiva (whom he bullied like an enraged mother hen in charge of a particularly feckless chick) – I called upon a tactic often employed in families: Aunt Emily may have infuriating mannerisms or disconcerting habits, but they are forgiven, even enjoyed, because they are so typically her. The offending person is put into the position of a fictional, almost a cartoon, character, whose quirks can be laughed or marvelled at as though they existed only on a page. For quite a long time seeing him as a perpetrator of ‘Vidia-isms’ worked rather well.
In 1975 we received the thirteenth of his books – his eighth work of fiction – Guerrillas. For the first time I was slightly apprehensive because he had spoken to me about the experience of writing it in an unprecedented way: usually he kept the process private, but this time he said that it was extraordinary, something that had never happened before: it was as though the book had been given to him. Such a feeling about writing does not necessarily bode well. And as it turned out, I could not like the book.
It was about a Trinidad-like island sliding into a state of decadence, and there was a tinge of hysteria in the picture’s dreadfulness, powerfully imagined though it was. A central part of the story came from something that had recently happened in Trinidad: the murder of an Englishwoman called Gail Benson who had changed her name to Halé Kimga, by a Trinidadian who called himself Michael X and who had set up a so-called ‘commune’. Gail had been brought to Trinidad by her lover, a black American known as Hakim Jamal (she had changed her name at his bidding). Both of the men hovered between being mad and being con-men, and their linking-up had been Gail’s undoing. I knew all three, Gail and Hakim well, Michael very slightly: indeed, I had written a book about them (which I had put away–it would be published sixteen years later) called Make Believe. This disturbed my focus on large parts of Guerrillas. The people in the book were not meant to be portraits of those I had known (Vidia had met none of them). They were characters created by Vidia to express his view of post-colonial history in places like Trinidad. But the situation in the novel was so close to the situation in life that I often found it hard to repress the reaction: ‘But that’s not true!’ This did not apply to the novel’s Michael X character who was called Jimmy Ahmed: Jimmy, and the half-squalid half-pathetic ruins of his ‘commune’, is a brilliant and wholly convincing creation. Nor did it apply to Roche, Vidia’s substitute for Hakim Jamal. Roche is a liberal white South African refugee working for a big commercial firm, whose job has involved giving cynical support to Jimmy. Roche was so evidently not Hakim that the question did not arise. But it certainly did apply to Jane, who stood in for Gail in being the murdered woman.
The novel’s Jane, who comes to the island as Roche’s mistress, is supposed to be an idle, arid creature who tries to find the vitality she lacks by having affairs with men. Obtuse in her innate sense of her superiority as a white woman, she drifts into such an attempt with Jimmy: an irresponsible fool playing a dangerous game for kicks with a ruined black man. Earlier, Vidia had written an account for a newspaper of Gail’s murder which made it clear that he saw Gail as that kind of woman.
She was not. She was idle and empty, but she had no sense of her own superiority as a white woman or as anything else. Far from playing dangerous games for kicks, she was clinging on to illusions for dear life. The people she had most in common with were not the kind of secure Englishwomen who had it off with black men to demonstrate their own liberal attitudes, but those poor wretches who followed the American ‘guru’ Jones to Guyana in 1977, and ended by committing mass suicide at his bidding. She was so lacking in a sense of her own worth that it bordered on insanity.
It was therefore about Jane that I kept saying to myself, ‘But that’s not true!’ Then I pulled myself together and saw that there was no reason why Jane should be like Gail: an Englishwoman going into such an affair for kicks was far from impossible and would be a perfectly fair example of fraudulence of motive in white liberals, which was what Vidia was bent on showing.
So I read the book again – and this time Jane simply fell to pieces. Roche came out of it badly, too: a dim character, hard to envisage, in spite of revealing wide-apart molars with black roots whenever he smiled (a touch of ‘clever characterization’ which should have been beneath Vidia). But although he doesn’t quite convince, he almost does; you keep expecting him to emerge from the mist, while Jane becomes more and more like a series of bits and pieces that don’t add up, so that finally her murder is without significance. I came to the conclusion that the trouble must lie with Vidia’s having cut his cloth to fit a pattern he had laid down in advance: these characters existed in order to exemplify his argument, he had not been discovering them. So they did not live; and the woman lived less than the man because that is true of all Vidia’s women.
From the professional point of view there was no question as to what I ought to do: this was one of our most valuable authors; even if his book had been really bad rather than just flawed we would certainly have published it in the expectation that he would soon be back on form; so what I must say was ‘wonderful’ and damn well sound as though I meant it.
Instead I sat there muttering ‘Oh my god, what am I going to say to him?’ I had never lied to him – I kept reminding myself of that, disregarding the fact that I had never before needed to lie. ‘If I lie now, how will he be able to trust me in the future when I praise something?’ The obvious answer to that was that if I lied convincingly he would never know that I had done it, but this did not occur to me. After what seemed to me like hours of sincere angst I ended by persuading myself that I ‘owed it to our friendship’ to tell him what I truly thought.
Nothing practical would be gained. A beginner writer sometimes makes mistakes which he can remedy if they are pointed out, but a novelist of Vidia’s quality and experience who produces an unconvincing character has suffered a lapse of imagination about which nothing can be done. It happened to Dickens whenever he attempted a good woman; it happened to George Eliot with Daniel Deronda. And as for my own attitude – I had often seen through other people who insisted on telling the truth about a friend’s shortcomings: I knew that their motives were usually suspect. But my own were as invisible to me as a cuttlefish becomes when it saturates the surrounding water with ink.
So I told him. I began by saying how much I admired the many things in the book which I did admire, and then I said that I had to tell him (had to tell him!) that two of his three central characters had failed to convince me. It was like saying to Conrad, ‘Lord Jim is a very fine novel except that Jim doesn’t quite come off.’
Vidia looked disconcerted, then stood up and said quietly that he was sorry they didn’t work for me, because he had done the best he could with them, there was nothing more he could do, so there was no point in discussing it. As he left the room I think I muttered something about its being a splendid book all the same, after which I felt a mixture of relief at his appearing to be sorry rather than angry, and a slight (only slight!) sense of let-down and silliness. And I supposed that was that.
The next day Vidia’s agent called André to say that he had been instructed to retrieve Guerrillas because we had lost confidence in Vidia’s writing and therefore he was leaving us.
André must have fought back because there was nothing he hated more than losing an author, but the battle didn’t last long. Although I believe I was named, André was kind enough not to blame me. Nor did I blame myself. I went into a rage. I fulminated to myself, my colleagues, my friends: ‘All those years of friendship, and a mere dozen words of criticism – a mere dozen words! – send him flouncing out in a tantrum like some hysterical prima donna!’ I had long and scathing conversations with him in my head; but more satisfying was a daydream of being at a huge and important party, seeing him enter the room, turning on my heel and walking out.
For at least two weeks I seethed . . . and then, in the third week, it suddenly occurred to me that never again would I have to listen to Vidia telling me how damaged he was, and it was as though the sun came out. I didn’t have to like Vidia any more! I could still like his work, I could still be sorry for his pain; but I no longer faced the task of fashioning affection out of these elements in order to deal as a good editor should with the exhausting, and finally tedious, task of listening to his woe. ‘Do you know what,’ I said to André, ‘I’ve begun to see that it’s a release.’ (Rather to my surprise, he laughed.) I still, however, failed to see that my editorial ‘mistake’ had been an act of aggression. In fact I went on failing to see that for years.
Guerrillas was sold to Secker and Warburg the day after it left us.
A month or so after this I went into André’s office to discuss something and his phone rang before I had opened my mouth. This always happened. Usually I threw myself back in my chair with a groan, then reached for something to read, but this time I jumped up and grabbed the extension. ‘Why – Vidia!’ he had said. ‘What can I do for you?’
Vidia was speaking from Trinidad, his voice tense: André must call his agent at once and tell him to recover the manuscript of Guerrillas from Seeker and Warburg and deliver it to us.
André, who was uncommonly good at rising to unexpected occasions, became instantly fatherly. Naturally, he said, he would be delighted to get the book back, but Vidia must not act too impetuously: whatever had gone wrong might well turn out to be less serious than he now felt. This was Thursday. What Vidia must do was think it over very carefully without taking action until Monday. Then, if he still wanted to come back to us, he must call his agent, not André, listen to his advice, and if that failed to change his mind, instruct him to act. André would be waiting for the agent’s call on Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning, hoping – of course – that it would be good news for us.
Which – of course – it was. My private sun did go back behind a film of cloud, but in spite of that there was satisfaction in knowing that he thought himself better off with us than with them, and I had no doubt of the value of whatever books were still to come.
Vidia never said why he bolted from Seckers, but his agent told André that it was because when they announced Guerrillas in their catalogue they described him as ‘the West Indian novelist’.
The books still to come were, indeed, worth having (though the last of them was his least important): India: a Wounded Civilization, The Return of Eva Perón, Among the Believers, A Bend in the River and Finding the Centre. I had decided that the only thing to do was to behave exactly as I had always done in our pre-Guerrillas working relationship, while quietly cutting down our extra-curricular friendship, and he apparently felt the same. The result was a smooth passage, less involving but less testing than it used to be. Nobody else knew – and I myself was unaware of it until I came to look back – that having resolved never again to utter a word of criticism to Vidia, I was guilty of an absurd pettiness. In Among the Believers, a book which I admired very much, there were two minor points to which in the past I would have drawn his attention, and I refrained from doing so: thus betraying, though luckily only to my retrospecting self, that I was still hanging on to my self-righteous interpretation of the Guerrillas incident. Vidia would certainly not have ‘flounced out like some hysterical prima donna’ over matters so trivial. One was a place where he seemed to draw too sweeping a conclusion from too slight an event and could probably have avoided giving that impression by some quite small adjustment; and the other was that when an Iranian speaking English said ‘Sheep’ Vidia, misled by his accent, thought he said ‘ship’, which made some dialogue as he reported it sound puzzling. To keep mum about that! There is nothing like self-deception for making one ridiculous.
When Vidia really did leave us in 1984 I could see why – and even why he did so in a way which seemed unkind, without a word of warning or explanation. He had come to the conclusion that André Deutsch Limited was going downhill. It was true. The recession, combined with a gradual but relentless shrinkage in the readership of books such as those we published, was well on the way to making firms of our size and kind unviable; and André had lost his vigour and flair. His decision to sell the firm, which more or less coincided with Vidia’s departure, was made (so he felt and told me) because publishing was ‘no fun any more’, but it was equally a matter of his own slowly failing health. The firm continued for ten years or so under Tom Rosenthal, chuntering not-so-slowly downwards all the time (Tom had been running Seckers when they called Vidia a West Indian, so his appearance on the scene did nothing to change Vidia’s mind).
A writer of reputation can always win an even bigger advance than he is worth by allowing himself to be tempted away from publisher A by publisher B, and publisher B will then have to try extra hard on his behalf to justify the advance: it makes sense to move on if you time it right. And if you perceive that there is something going seriously wrong with publisher A you would be foolish not to do so. And having decided to go, how could you look in the eye someone you have known for over twenty years, of whom you have been really quite fond, and tell him, ‘I’m leaving because you are getting past it’? Of course you could not. Vidia’s agent managed to conceal from André what Vidia felt, but André suspected something: he told me that he thought it was something to do with himself and that he couldn’t get it out of the agent, but perhaps I might have better luck. I called the agent and asked him if there was any point in my getting in touch with Vidia, and he – in considerable embarrassment – told me the truth; whereupon I could only silently agree with Vidia’s silence, and tell poor André that I’d been so convincingly assured of the uselessness of any further attempt to change Vidia’s mind, that we had better give up.
So this leaving did not make me angry, or surprised, or even sad, except for André’s sake. Vidia was doing what he had to do, and it seemed reasonable to suppose that we had enjoyed the best of him, anyway. Many years later Mordecai Richler, in at the story’s end, oddly enough, as well as its beginning, told me that he had recently seen Vidia with his new and much younger wife, Nadira (they met in Pakistan in 1995 and married the next year, soon after Pat’s death). He was, said Mordecai, ‘amazingly jolly’; and I was pleased to find that this news made me very glad indeed.