VS Naipaul has a history of offending fellow writers. He seems to have a knack for going at those he had been particularly friendly with, the most well-known example being his long-standing feud with his protégé-turned-bête noire Paul Theroux which culminated in a tearful reunion at the Jaipur Literary Festival in January 2015. The duo had made a slightly-awkward attempt at truce after a twenty-six-year stand-off earlier, at the Hay Festival in May 2011, when Theroux, egged on by Ian McEwan, went over to Naipaul to say hello and they shook hands.
Only a few days later, Naipaul was at it again, trashing his long-time publisher and old friend Diana Athill. Talking at the Royal Geographic Society in London, Naipaul dismissed Athill’s memoir, Somewhere towards the end, calling it ‘feminine tosh’. Remembering Athill had been ‘a good taster and editor’, Naipaul was disappointed that her own work did not reflect her editorial judgment.
After Naipaul sold a copy of Theroux’s book, signed and dedicated to him by the author, an upset Theroux had responded by writing what was touted as the big reveal about Naipaul’s not-too-cheerful private life. Sir Vidia’s Shadow was a kiss-and-tell book except that the intimacy Theroux and Naipaul shared was not sexual. In it Naipaul is painted as an insufferable brute, a socially-challenged man whose insensitivity towards those who loved him was pathological. For instance, he goes away with an Argentinian mistress on a whim, leaving his abandoned wife to continue working as his personal assistant.
Unlike Theroux, Athill took Naipaul’s criticism with grace. ‘I can’t say it made me feel very bad. It just made me laugh,’ she told The Guardian. ‘I don’t think it is worth being taken seriously … It’s sad really because he’s a very good writer,’ she added, ready to forget, or so it seemed, that her previous run-in with Naipaul happened when she found his characterization of the protagonist in his novel Guerrillas ‘unconvincing’ and unfair to the real-life person it was modeled on. She had worked closely with him for a good part of her fifty-one years in publishing, seen him leave Andre Deutsch – of which she was the founding director – in a huff and come back to it not too long afterward. Their relationship had gone from being colleagues to close friends to estranged former friends. Since the return of the prodigal author, it lapsed into a primarily professional contact all over again.
Being friends with Naipaul was stressful as ‘Vidia would get desperately depressed between each book… and one used to have to spend so much time cheering him up,’ as Athill mentions in an interview to Web of Stories. When she felt particularly low, Athill would supposedly tell herself, ‘At least I am not married to Vidia,’ to lift her spirits. Now with the pressure of having to maintain a ‘taxing’ friendship taken off her back, Athill could look upon Naipaul with tenderness even as he continued to be mulishly and sweepingly dismissive of more than two centuries of writing by women – from Jane Austen to the present time. That Naipaul had singled Athill out to illustrate his thesis that women could not write was seen as ‘sad’ rather than provocative. She sounded sorrier on his behalf rather than her own, almost maternal towards her detractor.
After reading about Athill’s affair with Sam in her memoir of old age, Somewhere towards the end, it seems her relationships with men tend to improve after they are no longer a physical presence in her life. It’s as if she can begin to love them after she has stopped seeing them.
In the book, she talks about meeting Sam – a Caribbean-born man working for a government-run race relations department in London – when both were on the threshold of old age. Sam handled publicity for Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister of independent Ghana. His fortunes fell with Nkrumah’s ouster by a military coup. The few articles he had managed to save from his glory days in Ghana included a gold watch worked into a bracelet gifted to him by the Ethiopian regent Haile Selassie. Sam was tall, affable and in the same age bracket as Athill herself. Being black and the gold watch from Selassie made him irresistibly sexy, at least that’s how Athill saw it.
Eager to make the most of their twilight years before one isn’t capable of sex anymore, Athill and Sam would meet once a week to share a meal and a bed. The arrangement worked, for a while, as both got what they wanted – he, the glamour of having as his bedfellow a high-profile intellectual and influential publisher, and a white woman at that, and she the validation of her desirability in her mature years.
Sam didn’t seem to have a coherent taste in literature. He thought nothing of putting The Pickwick Papers next to The Kama Sutra. Also, he didn’t seem particularly respectful of the women he had left back home in the West Indies. His mother had supposedly ruined his life by yoking him with a ‘cantankerous wife’ who bore him a ‘stupid daughter’ among other children. Sam’s inability to provide details on what exactly went wrong with his marriage gave him away as a shirker, eager to get away from the milieu he was born in and make a new life for himself in England in which his Caribbean family had no place.
Athill enjoyed the sex, or rather the attention of an attractive black man with an aura of slightly-dubious glamour about him, even as Sam’s outlook on life made her uncomfortable. He believed in the transmigration of souls which was more in tune with the world he had rejected and run away from rather than the newer one he was living in, sharing space in it with an English woman of letters. But she said nothing.
It was only after their affair had formally ended, followed by Sam’s death from a heart attack soon afterward, that Athill began being emotionally invested in the relationship. While he was alive, both were bound by an un-stated pact to overlook the fact that they were with each other primarily for selfish reasons. Now with Sam gone, and the pressure of having to perform in bed lifted from Athill’s shoulders, the idea of Sam seemed attractive all over again, conjuring up sensations of a ‘cool, dry, pleasant, healthy skin’ and likable smell. Athill was spending more time with the memory of Sam than she did with him when he was alive. The growing slothfulness and aching feet that sometimes came in the way of lovemaking and eventually brought it to an end was forgotten. Even Sam’s steadfast belief that by giving up meat and alcohol after sixty he was earning credit points for his next incarnation on earth seemed to make sense. At least Sam’s genuine, if somewhat naive, aspiration towards a more ‘rarefied life’ did.
Athill’s slight exhaustion with the relationship as it was beginning to peter out had been replaced by real affection after Sam’s death. Perhaps this was the beginning of their romance.
Athill’s gracious response to Naipaul’s summary dismissal of her work seems to fall in line with her predisposition to love from a distance. While having to see Naipaul as a friend was ‘exhausting’, it became a lot easier to laugh off his foibles from afar, even when Athill was at the receiving end of at least one of these. It is possible that Naipaul inspires such emotions in women, especially the ones who have known him closely because there is a certain adolescence about his wilfulness, his refusal to acknowledge the truths other than the ones he has arrived at or is fixated on.
For example, in the Traveller’s Prelude in An Area of Darkness, where Naipaul is still waiting to dock at Bombay, it seems he has already set the country of his ancestors up for failure. Everything seen from the boat appears odd or jarring. The names on cranes and buildings written in English appear to him as anachronistic after a decade and a half of free India. The image of the barefoot coolie ‘crouching on the floor at his master’s back’ makes him angry and impatient with the working-class Indian’s lack of self-respect. Human figures seen across the waters on the pier appear ‘frail and ragged’, their small and spare nature made more glaring against the enormity of the stone buildings and metal cranes. He is disappointed that the figures appear too insubstantial to stir in him the feelings of a ‘romance, as the first figures on a foreign shore ought to be’. The catalog of disappointments even before Naipaul has stepped on Indian soil raises doubts as to if he would ever come to like anything about India at all. It would probably make him unhappy about it if he did.
And, true to expectations, India fails him. After a year spent observing and making a note of its many flaws and disturbing revelations, as Naipaul is about to wind up and go home to England, he regrets, ‘India had not worked its magic on me. It remained the land of my childhood, an area of darkness … it seemed to exist in just the timelessness which I had imagined as a child…’
In their love of the idealized and suspicion of the proximate perhaps Naipaul and Athill have more in common than they realize.