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Naipaul and his women

The World Is What It Is by Patrick French

The book ends with Naipaul in tears leaning against a taxi cab after scattering the ashes of his wife, Pat, in a wood before returning to his home in Wiltshire. He sang the hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, he told his biographer, Patrick French, who writes, “Afterwards they (Naipaul and his new wife, Nadira) went back in the  taxi to the empty house. Enough.”

That’s the last word in this remarkable book which traces the life of Naipaul from his childhood in Trinidad to his present eminence. The narrative ends with Pat dying of cancer in 1996, five years before Naipaul won the Nobel prize, but he had already won every other honour by then including the title, Lord Naipaul. Her touching belief in his genius ever since they met in Oxford in the 1950s had been vindicated. But it didn’t bring them happiness. They had been married for more than 40 years, and yet they had not kissed for more than 20 years. That’s what Naipaul wrote in a journal he started on January 30, 1996 while she was being treated for cancer.

The last kiss — after 20 years

“She kissed me when I arranged her to sleep,”  he wrote. “She held me and kissed me. Which she hadn’t done for twenty years and more.”

She died less than a week later, on February 3.

Six days later, Nadira came to stay with Naipaul and they got married six weeks later, on April 15.

The marriage had been arranged while Pat was still alive. Naipaul had met Nadira in Pakistan while gathering material for Beyond Belief, the sequel to Among the Believers, and asked her to marry him, telling her his wife was dying of cancer.

While his wife lay dying, he was thinking of  the future. That was Naipaul. One of the greatest contemporary writers, but something seems to be missing from many of his books. How much love and tenderness do we see between a man and a woman in A House for Mr Biswas, The Enigma of Arrival, Half a Life or Magic Seeds?

The World Is What It Is takes its title from a quote by Naipaul reflecting a Darwinian view of life: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

The biography depicts the hardships Naipaul suffered to succeed as a writer. Until the mid-70s when he changed his agent and left his old publisher, Andre Deutsch, he earned less than eight thousand pounds a year on average though he was already regarded as Britain’s foremost writer. The Enigma of Arrival documents the insecurities he suffered.

Pat and Margaret

But he was supported by a loving wife – and then came his mistress, Margaret, whom he met in Argentina in 1972, and with whom he had a tempestuous affair till 2005. It was Margaret who accompanied him as he travelled around the world, writing India: A Wounded Civilization, A Congo Diary, Among the Believers, A Turn in the South, India: A Million Mutinies Now – just as Pat had done earlier.

Pat suffered silently; she did not mention the name of Margaret even in her diary, referring to her instead as “that woman”. 

Margaret suffered too. Naipaul would angrily dismiss her and send her home whenever they quarrelled during their travels. Her marriage broke down under the strain of her affair with Naipaul who, she realized, would never marry her – and yet she would go back to him every time he wanted her.

Naipaul ill-used both the women. He destroyed Pat’s self-esteem. She became a nervous wreck, blaming herself for everything. What pushed her over the edge was a New Yorker interview where he admitted he used to visit prostitutes.

Pat, who was being treated for cancer at the time, never recovered from that humiliation, said Naipaul. He told Patrick French:

“I think that consumed her. I think she had all the relapses and everything after that. All the remission ended…

She suffered. It could be said that I killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.”

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Books

Writing on sex and death at 91

Diana Athill is 91 years old and won the 2008 Costa prize for biography for her memoir, Somewhere Towards The End, where she talks about her love affairs, her work as a book editor, and what it means to be growing old. She helped Andre Deutsch – who was briefly her lover — establish his publishing house and edited writers such as VS Naipaul, John Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Jean Rhys.

It was she who said when Naipaul left Andre Deutsch after she criticised his novel, Guerrillas: “It was as though the sun came out. I didn’t have to like Vidia any more.”

Click on this link for a YouTube video of an extraordinary interview she gave to the BBC on sex, old age and death. There she says:

When I was young, no one wanted to talk about death at all. Everyone was in full reaction against Victorian morbidity. And no one went to funerals… I hadn’t seen a dead body until I was 17… But it has completely changed now. It is as though a taboo has been removed. I suppose it’s because, with all getting old, everyone is suddenly thinking,‘It could be me next.’ I have found that, once this book was written, it became to my astonishment one book I have written that has really sold like hotcakes.

Is there a secret to successful ageing?

I would say it is a matter of pure luck. If your health holds out, there is no reason why it should be horrid…

I had a better time since I was 80.

Why?

Because in a way things matter much less. You don’t mind what people think about you. You are not embarrassed so easily… And when anything particularly good happens, it comes like a super treat because you weren’t expecting it. This book doing well has been for me an enormous treat from beginning to end. Still is. Look at me here (smiling)…

People ask quite a lot about when did sex stop being interesting. That rather obsesses people. Because when you are still a sexual being, the thought of stopping being a sexual being is quite painful. But of course, when it happens, if you stop wanting something, you don’t want it any more, so if it’s not there, you don’t mind.

Sex, Andre Deutsch and Philip Roth

She had sex in her 60s but “it was done with” by the way she was 70, she says in another BBC interview, available on audio.

There she talks about her relationship with Andre Deutsch.  She found it annoying that he used to stay up at night reading The Times newspaper. He was extremely self-centred, she says. But they continued working together.

She also talks about how Philip Roth was dropped by Andre Deutsch for poor sales. Roth went on to write his biggest bestseller, Portnoy’s Complaint.