Ihad planned to become a doctor – I imagined working in a hospital in a tropical country like Dr Schweitzer. I graduated in 1963, but being unable to afford medical school I joined the Peace Corps and worked as a teacher in the British Central African territory of Nyasaland, which became the Republic of Malawi six months after I arrived. Without much encouragement, I was writing all this time – poems, stories and journalism – and now and then publishing my things in American newspapers and in small magazines such as the Transatlantic Review in London, Black Orpheus in Nigeria, and Transition in Uganda. I was pleased when the widely circulated, anti-colonial Central African Examiner in Salisbury, Rhodesia, published a poem of mine and then some of my dispatches, written under a nom de plume, describing the political upheaval in Malawi. I had also been writing fiction, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I finished a novel. I was then a teacher in Uganda and had still never met a real novelist. In both Malawi and Uganda I volunteered to work in hospitals, to keep the spark of my medical ambition alight.
In Kampala, in 1966, I met V.S. Naipaul, and my view of myself as a writer changed. Over the years, I have written extensively about Naipaul. I wrote a profile of him for the Telegraph magazine in 1972. In the same year I published a book of criticism, V.S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Work. Later, I reviewed some of his books and when we fell out, after thirty years, I wrote a book about our friendship and its end, Sir Vidia’s Shadow (1998). Our friendship resumed in 2011, and I wrote about that reconnection in an afterword to the paperback edition of my book. Naipaul asked me to write an introduction to the 2017 Pan Macmillan combined edition of his three India books. I spent time with him in New York, I travelled with him in India, and I saw him in hospital in London just before he died in 2018.
More than fifty years of writing about Naipaul and reflecting on his influence! Yet it is only in the last few years, the dust having settled, that I have seen how complex our relationship was, how important – how crucial – it was to my becoming a writer.
To go back to Uganda: when I heard that he was coming to teach at Makerere University, where I was on the faculty, I read all of Naipaul’s books. On being introduced to him I told him how much I liked them, and he immediately took to me. No one else at the university had made that effort, but a writer, a brilliant writer like Naipaul, was a powerful, shamanistic figure to me then. I was 25, and had just decided to rewrite my novel. I was also writing an account of life under dusk-to-dawn curfew, a result of the government’s siege of the palace of the Kabaka, or king, of Buganda, and the chaos that followed.
Although Naipaul was 34, he seemed much older: opinionated, sure of himself, set in his ways, adversarial, moody, domineering. We were soon on good terms, but it was not a friendship between equals. He had an overwhelming sense of superiority. ‘I’ve been compared to Orwell,’ he told me early on. ‘I don’t regard it as much of a compliment.’ I did not hold his boasting against him, because it was the way he positioned himself against the world – in a posture of defiance. He knew he was flawed – stubborn, fretful, tantrum-prone – but he had no doubt of his achievement. Our relationship resembled that between a teacher and a student, a knight and a squire, a sorcerer and his apprentice, a substance and a shadow, an officer and a recruit.
At last I had someone to talk to, someone to whom I could confide my secret ambition – not to be a doctor, but a writer. Naipaul prided himself on having earned his living by his pen. He had an almost priestly sense of his seriousness as a writer. From the beginning, I saw that he did not function well alone, and never applied himself to the day-to-day tasks that most people take for granted. He could not cook even the simplest meal; he did not do laundry or wash dishes; he did not make his bed; he was able to drive but hated doing so. He required someone to do these things and, beyond domestic labours, to make arrangements, schedule appointments, help him through the day.
Except when he was sitting at his desk, writing, he was helpless. He insisted on being waited on. This meant that he was very seldom alone. His life was a chronicle – often a dramatic chronicle, because he was so demanding – of his dependency on others. In his early married life, his wife, Pat, served that function, largely uncredited: in An Area of Darkness she is mentioned once, as ‘my companion’, though she was with him every day for nine months of his year-long stay in India. She travelled with him to Africa, but since she did not drive, the Naipauls engaged a driver and a housekeeper, as well as a gardener. These servants rarely succeeded in pleasing Vidia. I remember him quarrelling with his driver and insisting that the man sit in the back seat – what we sometimes called ‘the ministerial seat’ – of the car, a new Peugeot 404 sedan, while Vidia drove, furiously and erratically. I asked the driver what the problem was. He replied in Swahili: ‘Sijui, bwana’ – ‘No idea, sir.’ The notion of the chauffeur in the back seat being conspicuously driven by the car’s owner gave Vidia a certain grim pleasure.
For quite a while in Kampala, I was his driver, his escort, his interpreter. I had plenty of time outside my teaching job at Makerere. Naipaul had been made writer-in-residence, though he never taught a class and said frankly that he didn’t think much of the students. I knew my way around Kampala and often proposed junkets to nearby towns or beauty spots or hotels – Vidia liked having tea in a pleasant setting. I had many of the qualities he required of a friend or functionary: I was responsive, helpful, friendly and – this was a chief requirement – punctual. He tyrannised anyone who was late (it strikes me that perhaps his driver had failed him on that score). There was something further he demanded of his friends: they needed to know his work thoroughly and to have a high regard for it.
At that time he was working on his novel The Mimic Men. He told me little about it but I gathered that it was about the Caribbean and was a sort of memoir of an islander – Ranjit (Ralph) Kripal Singh, a politician and businessman – in exile in London. I knew nothing of the plot, but I did know about many of the narrator’s views, because Vidia often quoted his wise and sometimes imperious observations. Singh’s views were Vidia’s views: about colonialism, loyalty, London, exile, money, women, and much more. In conversations about politics or life in general, Naipaul often started sentences with ‘My narrator says …’
It only occurred to me much later that, for the entire time he was writing the novel, Naipaul adopted his narrator’s manner, his gestures, his way of speaking. Actors use the expression ‘staying in character’ when, after a day’s filming, they go on speaking and acting in the role they’re playing. Naipaul’s persona in Uganda then was that of Ralph Singh, which explained a great deal of his behaviour – less that of a 34-year-old writer rising in his profession than a world-weary and somewhat pompous middle-aged former politician at the end of his career, living in exile from his tropical island.
The first impression I had of Naipaul was the intensity of his intelligence, his severity in conversation, his insistent interrogation, his scrupulous correctness, his domineering personality. ‘What do you mean by that?’ ‘Define that word.’ ‘You know that’s nonsense, don’t you?’ He had no patience with casual conversation or idle thought. Chit-chat enraged him – he called it ‘chuntering’. He was the most demanding friend I have ever known, and certainly the harshest teacher. He was a drill sergeant: hard to please, confident, correct, taskmaster, pedant, perfectionist, occasional bully and intimidator. As my superior officer he prepared me for battle. Had he known the film Full Metal Jacket, he would have routinely shouted: ‘What is your major malfunction, numb-nuts!’ He was often funny – in the right mood he liked jokes and repartee – but even when he was guffawing over his cherished absurdities it was rarely relaxing to be in his company. People have often asked me how I was able to quote him so exactly, why I had such a clear memory of his observations or his speechifying. It was because I was nervous, because I was expected to be at my best, and mine was an animal alertness. No creature is more wired than an animal in unfamiliar surroundings – every faculty is twitchingly alight, every synapse engaged. I was fully awake in his presence and fearful of making a blunder.
This was Naipaul’s first experience of Africa: newly independent Uganda, with a prime minister and king at odds, the solid colonial buildings of Kampala surrounded by bush, enormous tracts of land where herds of elephants roamed. The source of the Nile was here as well as – at the western margin of the country – the spectacular Ruwenzori Range, snow-capped, with glaciers and exotic fauna and flora, giant lobelias and on the lower slopes the bongo, the world’s largest forest antelope; and lower still, in the Ituri Forest, the villages of the Bambuti pygmies.
None of this impressed Naipaul. He was by nature urbane, a metropolitan, not a safari-goer. He remained largely in Kampala. He did not attempt to learn Swahili and made a point of mispronouncing Swahili or Luganda words. He repeated that it had been a mistake to accept the Farfield Foundation’s proposal to send him here as a cultural emissary. Instead of occupying himself with the university, he became engrossed in his novel. ‘Of course you write all the time,’ he said. ‘You’d go mad here if you didn’t write.’
He sometimes talked merely for effect. This could be pompous: ‘No – I’m not interested in that newspaper’ (I had offered him the overseas edition of the Observer). ‘I don’t read any newspaper unless I’m mentioned in it.’ Or it might be ridiculous: ‘Italians make cheese out of dirt – but you knew that, didn’t you?’ Or bombastic, as in his dismissal of Orwell. Many people were outraged by assertions like these. I was fascinated: I wrote them down in my diary. When I told him I was keeping a diary he said: ‘It’s an utter waste of time. I travelled in India for almost a year and never took a single note. But I managed to write a book about it.’
When I told him I was at work on a novel he said, ‘Tell me why,’ and then explained: ‘You have to know exactly why you are writing whatever it is you’re writing. Otherwise, you’re just playing with art.’ The unexamined intention meant you were not serious. The same went for the unexamined word. ‘Why did you use this word?’ He disliked ‘fine writing’ – Updike, for example. He hated anything that sounded mannered or experimental, so Joyce, Beckett and others were beneath consideration. He asked me which writers I was reading. I told him Nathanael West, Emily Dickinson, Camus. He said he didn’t think much of any of them. He advocated the work of Thomas Mann, Chekhov, Proust, Trollope, Dickens, Shakespeare and certain Latin poets (Martial, Horace). Of the King James version of the Bible, he said: ‘It’s frightfully good.’ Early on he praised the work of Derek Walcott, who had once been a friend of his, and recited a whole poem, ‘As John to Patmos’, from memory. But later he rubbished him, and Walcott replied in the same vein, in several scathing poems, calling him ‘V.S. Nightfall’.
I asked him to read an essay I was writing. ‘Are you sure you want me to read it?' he replied. ‘I’ll tell you exactly what I think, and I must warn you, I’m brutal.’ In the end I rewrote it about fifteen times, and it was published in Commentary. I showed him other things and, with certain reservations and many severe questions, he approved of much of what I wrote, even a novella I had recently finished. His own method was to write a first draft in longhand, and then type it up himself. I followed his example. ‘You’re just starting out, you’re growing,’ he said. ‘Your writing will change from week to week.’
In his darker moods, he said: ‘Nothing you do here really matters, although you’re acquiring valuable experience. All this will revert – it will go back to bush.’ If challenged on this score (‘going back to bush’ was a refrain of his) he said: ‘A society needs to be maintained. Things are built here, or given as aid projects, but you notice they are never maintained. They fall apart because they’ve been imposed on people who don’t have a sense of maintenance. It will all be bush.’ He had said something similar about the West Indies: ‘History is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies.’
These were questionable judgments. But they rose out of The Mimic Men, which was full of such stern observations. It was a helpful book for an apprentice writer. As a novel of disillusionment, of identity and postcolonial politics, of placelessness, it dramatised all of Naipaul’s enduring themes. Quoting himself in the book, and speaking of Africa, he said: ‘I no longer seek to find beauty in the lives of the mean and oppressed. Hate the oppression; fear the oppressed.’ Of the mimicry of postcolonial politicians, he said: ‘From play-acting to disorder: it is the pattern.’
Another view, which he repeated with variations throughout his life (I am paraphrasing): ‘Never give a person a second chance. If someone has been totally loyal to you, and lets you down once, you must dismiss him, because he has violated his loyalty and failed you in an important way.’ I said: ‘But if the person has been completely loyal and failed you once, why would you get rid of him?’ ‘If the person has been completely loyal he would not have failed you at all,’ he said. ‘Something is irretrievably broken.’
Naipaul told me his rules of writing. One was an abhorrence of complex punctuation. His early novels and stories show his preference for short, declarative sentences. With A House for Mr Biswas, his sentences became longer, with subclauses and the occasional semicolon, but they never called attention to themselves. ‘Writing should be transparent,’ he said. ‘Write with detachment. It doesn’t mean indifference – it’s the opposite.’ His hatred of cliché derived from his belief that writing had to be the result of serious forethought: a borrowed phrase revealed a lazy mind, and had no weight. He wrote slowly; he rewrote thoroughly; he groaned over his work. He showed me the gold nib of his Parker pen, worn to a slant from use.
He rejected the notion that other writers influenced him – influence, it was implied, was a sign of being second-rate. He disliked being compared to anyone else. He said he had come from an island with no literature, no sense of itself in fiction. ‘Not hallowed by fiction’ was the way he put it. He dismissed all previous attempts by Trinidadians to write about the island. He had no models to work from. This was a problem but also a liberation, because it meant he was forced to see things as they were. ‘I am a new man,’ he once said to me. ‘As Montaigne was a new man.’ So his work was the beginning of a tradition, allowing Trinidadians to see who they were.
His explanation of his singularity was his way of distancing himself from me and my reading. He dismissed most writing about Africa. On one of our car journeys I mentioned Alan Moorehead’s The White Nile, a history of exploration in the area where we were travelling, near Lake Albert. ‘I tried to read it,’ he said. ‘There’s a great difficulty. Moorehead can’t write.’ No one had depicted the Africa he was witnessing, he said. He later said that Conrad had done a masterful job – not in Heart of Darkness, but in an earlier story, ‘An Outpost of Progress’. I read that story as part of my apprenticeship. Later he saw that Jean Rhys had had a clear vision of the West Indies in Wide Sargasso Sea and other works, and she became one of the very few living novelists he recommended.
But he also said that even bad writing was revealing – sometimes more revealing than skilful writing – and in his piece ‘The Killings in Trinidad’ he claimed: ‘Fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.’ ‘The best writing is a disturbing vision, written from a position of strength,’ he told me. And: ‘If your writing is going smoothly and you’re comfortable writing a few thousand words a day, these are sure signs it’s probably bad.’ He used the word ‘vision’ a great deal. He felt that if one wrote well and truthfully, the writing would be prophetic. He believed that travel writing at its best was predictive. Years later, in India: A Million Mutinies Now, he compressed this view into a prescription: ‘I believe that the present, accurately seized, foretells the future.’
It infuriated him that writers were paid so badly. ‘We should be paid as well as surgeons, architects, lawyers and others at the top of their profession.’ Throughout his life he demanded the highest fees, though in the beginning his demands were seldom met. We had a celebratory dinner when he finished The Mimic Men. He said: ‘I’m going to say to André’ – André Deutsch, his publisher – ‘I want a thousand pounds.’ This is about £15,000 in today’s terms, a modest amount for a major novel. Deutsch, who was notoriously tight-fisted, did not give him the thousand pounds, which rankled. It was not until Naipaul changed agents, and publishers, years later that he received substantial advances for his books.
My first novel, Waldo, and my novella Murder in Mount Holly were both influenced by my reading of Nathanael West. But it was under Naipaul’s influence that I wrote a novel about a Chinese grocer in Uganda, Fong and the Indians. I was still an apprentice, I felt. In 1969 I published a novel based on a school where my then fiancée was teaching. This was Girls at Play. Naipaul wrote to me enthusiastically, saying generously that I had showed it was possible to write something new set in East Africa, that the book was truthful, dark and original. And in a further compliment, he said that it had given him the courage to write In a Free State as well as a novella and some stories.
That was the year I moved to England, where I lived for the next seventeen years. Naipaul was still the drill sergeant. I saw him every so often, and wrote to him. We talked on the phone. Both of us travelled. (‘Travel in itself for a book about a journey doesn’t interest me,’ he told me once. ‘My intention has always been to travel with a theme in mind.’) I was lucky. Naipaul took my ambition seriously and I had his encouragement. I was 25 years old when we met and hardly thirty when I abandoned salaried employment and decided to make a living as a writer. Every writer, every aspiring person – basketball player, pre-med student, novice computer programmer, artist, musician – needs encouragement and this sort of belief. Your family will probably back you, but you don’t want it from your family: you want it from someone in the profession, someone you admire. Naipaul did that for me.
One of his obsessions was physical health. The villains in his books, those that come in for the most disdain, tend to be overweight, or pale: ‘There was a risen-dough quality about the magnate’s face and physique which hinted at a man given to solitary sexual excitations’ – the face of an onanist. This line comes from India: A Wounded Civilisation. In The Mimic Men, when Ralph Singh visits a prostitute, she undresses and her breasts ‘cascaded heavily down. They were enormous, they were grotesque … her dimpled, loose belly collapsed; flesh hung in liquid folds about her legs which quivered like risen dough.’ In A Turn in the South, his account of travelling through the Southern states in the late 1980s, he describes the misshapen bodies of older people, ‘the individual way each human frame organised or arranged its excess poundage: a swag here, a bag there, a slab there, a roll there’, and wonders ‘if there wasn’t, in their fatness, some simple element of self-assertion’. That a man in Guerrillas is overweight indicates sinister intent.
Neglect of the body in his work is like a moral fault. In Uganda we exercised by running round a sports field. Naipaul said that only ‘infies’ – inferiors – allowed themselves to become fat and unhealthy, or debauched drinkers. He disparaged anyone who wasn’t physically fit. His first measure of a person was based on their physical condition. His brother, Shiva, died of a heart attack in 1985, when he was just forty years old. Before then, Vidia had distanced himself from Shiva, and had been off-hand, blaming Shiva’s self-indulgence – his weight, his drinking, his smoking – for his poor health.
Naipaul was depressive. He lashed out. He said cruel things, behaved badly. He was nearly always balanced and clear-sighted in his writing, but when talking – belittling women writers, African novelists, disparaging E.M. Forster, saying that Princess Anne’s daughter has ‘a criminal face’ – he was often possessed by a foul mood. It was in such a mood that he rejected me, in 1996, and I wrote Sir Vidia’s Shadow. Because the friendship was over I was better able to assess it with the detachment that Naipaul himself had advocated.
Fifteen years after publishing the book, I saw him at a literary festival. He was being helped by his second wife, Nadira – he limped, and looked unwell, seeming to struggle. I approached and said hello. He looked confused: he was having a hard morning. I had to tell him my name. ‘I’ve missed you,’ I said. He grasped my hand. ‘I’ve missed you too,’ he replied, and so our friendship resumed. He’d broken one of his own rules: he had given me a second chance. We remained close for the next eight years. In those years I saw a different man, not a drill sergeant but a contented man. And in this new mood his fierceness abated: he was mellow, and my stories of his rages seemed preposterous to many of his new friends. Casting an eye at posterity, he had interviewed a number of potential writers to undertake an authorised biography. Patrick French got the job. The World Is What It Is (2008) is long, detailed and discursive. It was a painful book to read, because much of Naipaul’s life was lived in struggle, pain, occasionally rage, depression and disturbance. But there was a difficulty. The book ended with Pat Naipaul’s death, and Naipaul’s remarriage to Nadira in 1996. But that marriage, and Naipaul, continued until August 2018.
The last two decades of Naipaul’s life remain unchronicled. His second marriage was serene and productive. In those years he published seven books, fiction and non-fiction, including Beyond Belief (the sequel to Among the Believers). ‘People call Nadira a force of nature,’ he told me proudly. ‘I need to be cherished,’ he had told me long before. Nadira cherished him: cooked the food he loved, kept the house as he wanted it, travelled with him, and became a maternal figure for a man whose own mother was fierce and overbearing. He died happy.
Out of Naipaul’s shadow, I saw his contradictions clearly, and I am still seeing them – his divided self, his many moods. In good health he was superb; after a bad night, or in a depressive frame of mind, he was a doomsayer. He could be flatly mistaken about writers. The cruelty in his remarks was unjustifiable. He was often wrong. People are not wicked for being overweight or ill-favoured. It is not true that the oppressed are always to be feared. The writing of Nabokov or Updike may not be a windowpane, but it is often brilliant. Joyce and Beckett are inimitable. Africa has not returned to bush, though many of its people are badly governed, and exploited by outside interests. Offering someone a second chance is a humane act: Naipaul’s gesture to me was proof of that. And no matter how much encouragement writers who are starting out receive, they are still forced to make their own way, scribble-scribble.
One of Naipaul’s generalisations about writers was in a magazine story about John Steinbeck: ‘A writer is in the end not his books, but his myth. And that myth is in the keeping of others.’ Naipaul is not a myth to me. Now and then someone tells me they’ve read him and offers an opinion, and I don’t recognise the man they’re describing.
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