There was always something special about him but also a degree of harshness in his often dismissive manner. That tempted a cautious rejection of Vidyadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, who died last Saturday. His women thought of him as gentle, at first, as well as admirable. Naipaul was an outstanding writer in the English language in the twentieth century. Rather like Arthur Koestler, also seen as an outstanding intellectual by his friend, George Orwell. Then add the view that Koestler was a sexual adventurer, which comes through in the biography of Koestler by Michael Scammell, and later a similar view of Naipaul in the authorised biography by Patrick French. I like the comparison, having written about Koestler, sat with him and interviewed him for a book on the Spanish Civil War.
Would Naipaul be offended at being placed on the same podium as Koestler? Probably, he would consider it ridiculous. But there were parallels, setting aside the violence of Koestler. Naipaul inspired admiration. My admiration began after reading his fourth novel, A House for Mr Biswas, published in 1961. That book firmly and formally launched his international career as a writer. Possibly it even sustained that perception among the grandees of the Nobel committee forty years later.
Mr Biswas…, the book, is in some parts based on the life of Naipaul’s father, a second-generation Trinidadian whose family arrived in the Caribbean from India looking for work after the end of the neo-slavery practice of indentured labour. My father gave me that novel for Christmas, 1962, only a few weeks before his death. We were in the family home in Ranelagh, then a steam engine water stop (now a dormitory) south of Buenos Aires. I felt it must have much in common with the Lion House, with two badly sculpted felines outside the front door, which was V.S. Naipaul’s birthplace in Chaguanas, south of Port of Spain.
A scholarship to Oxford University had allowed Naipaul to leave his home and exchange it for a new life in England. Years later, in the eighties, on my way to Georgetown, Guyana, where Naipaul researched for his novel The Middle Passage (1961), I stopped in Trinidad mainly to see the Lion House and a bit of Chaguanas, now the fastest-growing suburb in the island. The place looked nothing like my home in Ranelagh, of course, but the fantasy stayed with me.
We must accept that the real perception of himself is his own, “Everything of value about me is in my books. I am the sum of my books... I feel that at any stage of my literary career it could have been said that the last book contained all the others.” That self description was included in his speech on receiving the Nobel Prize in 2001. He had reached the summit. However, his knighthood, and a Booker Prize in 1971, in England confirmed him as an Englishman: he was not an exile, or a migrant or an expatriate. His home was England. In the late seventies he firmly advised me of this sense of belonging. That was in a telephone call to reject my proposal of an interview “as an exile”.
In April 1972, Naipaul arrived in Buenos Aires to write about the legacy of Peronism. He had been fascinated by Eva Perón since seeing a newsreel about her at Oxford University in 1952, the year of her death.
Naipaul’s contact in Buenos Aires was Norman Thomas di Giovanni (who died in 2017 aged 83), translator and amanuensis of Jorge Luis Borges, and who became the visitor’s direct link with the grand old man of Argentine letters. Norman organised a wide tour of useful and useless spokesmen and spokeswomen in society and politics, and introduced him to Margaret Gooding who became Naipaul’s lover for several years. Margaret would follow Naipaul to distant destinations all over the world. She was the daughter of Lawrence Smith who, at his home on Virrey del Pino, in Belgrano, became one of the best known and respected literary agents in Buenos Aires. This story appears also in Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow, as well as in Patrick French’s authorized biography.
Naipaul spent six weeks in Argentina. The article that followed in the New York Review of Books, ridiculing politicians, rejecting the society as shallow, ferocious about the history of Peronism and foreseeing the country in marked decline into savagery in the seventies took many people by surprise, winning praise by the well-read and outraged comments by businessmen and academics alike.
His biographer, Patrick French, appears to chuckle at one outcome of the Naipaul article (The body behind the Iron Gate). The passage (page 317) may be seen as a picture of the rot into which Argentina was slipping, and it is best quoted.
“The most extreme form of literary criticism came from the leadership of the Montoneros guerrillas. Bob Cox, a brave editor, had paid U$100 to run part of the lengthy article in The Buenos Aires Herald at a time when other newspapers were self-censoring and journalists were being murdered. The Montoneros – and many others in this socially conservative, Roman Catholic country – took particular exception to some lines written by the now sexually initiated Vidia Naipaul about Evita: ‘Her commonness, her beauty, her success: they contribute to her sainthood. And her sexiness “Todos me acosan sexualmente,” she once said with irritation, in her actress days.. “Everybody makes a pass at me.” She was the macho’s ideal victim-woman – don’t those red lips still speak to the Argentine macho of her reputed skill in fellatio?’ Andrew Graham-Yooll, the paper’s young news editor, was blamed for the article; it was decided he would be killed with a desk bomb at the Herald office (on 25 de Mayo) near the Plaza de Mayo. The Montoneros had used this method before: opening a drawer would pull a wire which released the pin from a hand grenade taped inside the desk. A former Peronist MP, Diego Muñiz Barreto (later murdered by police), arrived at the underground meeting after the order for the assassination had been given and the killer had left the building. Luckily for the target, Muñiz Barreto said, ‘You can’t do that to Andrew. We trust him. Let’s investigate further.’ After a discussion, the order was countermanded and Andrew Graham-Yooll survived. He (Graham-Yooll) had met Vidia briefly during the trip, and found him uninterested in his own views about the country. ‘He had bought a pair of expensive leather gloves. Naipaul said, “These are really good gloves. Argentines make good gloves.” ‘I think he preferred being with important people like Borges’.”
Apart from a couple of phone calls, I never saw him again