The prospect of meeting V.S. Naipaul fills me with a strange combination of excitement and trepidation. The author has written 20 mesmerising books of fiction and non-fiction, but is also notoriously difficult, famed for once reportedly dressing down Iris Murdoch while dining with Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street, for once greeting George Lucas with the remark “I don’t know Star Wars, I am not interested in films”, and for once also describing interviewers as monkeys.
And initially it seems that the Nobel Prize-winning writer, who, perhaps as a result of a lifetime’s concern with the theme of displacement and exile, has based himself in a most obscure cottage in Wiltshire, will live up to it. I’m warned by his people that he’ll walk out if I mention Patrick French’s recent authorised biography, and Naipaul’s formidable 57-year-old wife, Nadira, tells me on arrival that if I “don’t stimulate his mind, it will be over quite soon”.
It’s a surprise and a relief therefore that when he finally appears in his living room, being guided to his favourite armchair by his wife (“Vidia, sit properly, darling; you’re slouching”), he comes across as a rather sweet and genial 78-year-old who is mainly concerned with talking about… his cat. “I have grown soft about them, or have grown wise about them, or have begun to look at them more clearly, in way that I never did before,” he says as Augustus, his black and white moggy, pads out of the room with Lady Naipaul. “The minute you start thinking about it, the minute that little concern is lodged in your heart, it really grows and grows and grows. And, ah, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
He sounds besotted, and what I learn about Augustus over the next two hours confirms it: when the Naipauls travel, they arrange no less than two cat-sitters; they rarely stay away for longer than six weeks because after this Augustus gets “paranoid”; they wake up at 3am to give Augustus a drink of water (“He only drinks when you hold him under the tap,” says Lady Naipaul); and they also regularly feed him butter, letting Augustus lick it off their fingers (“If you feed cats butter they never leave your house, even if they are angry,” she adds).
Somewhat surreally, I end up showing Naipaul, who reveals he has made provision for an animal charity in his will, a picture of my cat, Harry. “Lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely,” he responds, displaying a tendency to repeat phrases in conversation. Though there is a literary excuse for the feline wittering: it provides a route into discussing Naipaul’s new book, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief. You see, as well as providing what the publisher calls a “masterful exploration of belief throughout this extraordinary continent”, and a reminder that when it comes to prose, Naipaul remains the most elegant writer in Britain, it features some ten digressions about cats.
Naipaul doesn’t seem entirely aware that he has written an animal rights book (“Oh yes, it is something of a theme”), and the book is of course much more than that – a subtle and often elliptical exploration of belief in Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and South Africa. But his horror at the way cats are treated on the continent – Africans tend to cook them, kick them, throw them around during football matches – reflects his deeper dismay with the role that magic, ritual sacrifice and superstition continue to play in Africa.
Although Naipaul, in his characteristically difficult way, resists the simplicity of such an interpretation: “Nothing is really that straightforward.” Of course, I say, there are many aspects to the book, but he must agree that the gist of the work, which concludes with the line that “a resolution is not really possible until the people who wish to impose themselves on Africa violate some essential part of their being”, tallies with his previous bleak pronouncements on Africa, such as the claim that it has “no future”, and that its people are “primitive”? “Where did I say that? Can you tell me?” Well, the “primitive” quote comes from a letter to Antonia Fraser. “I have no context of what you just said. I have to say I’m a little bit lost.” Fair enough, but would he agree that his view of Africa in the book is as essentially pessimistic as it is in his two fictional works on Africa, In a Free State and A Bend in the River? “To be optimistic or pessimistic… that is one-dimensional, isn’t it? Everything is in a state of flux, everything changes; I wouldn’t want to take a side in that debate, you know?”
He continues to refuse to make any clear conclusions about his book or Africa for some 15 minutes and eventually remarks that many of the extreme views he has been associated with over the years (others being the suggestion that Islam is a “calamity”, that France is “fraudulent”, that Pakistan has “no intellectual life” and that Rushdie’s fatwa was “an extreme kind of literary criticism”) are not a reflection of his true opinions, but rather misquotations. “Things that start up when you’re young, which get repeated and repeated.” He adds, returning briefly to the sweet tone of our earlier feline conversation: “I’m not prickly. In fact I’m very tolerant.”
It’s a point you’d be prepared to accept if he didn’t use Rushdie to illustrate his point (“I have never spoken against him, or written against him. My comment was a joke”) and in the process express scepticism about Rushdie’s forthcoming memoir (“How clean can he come about all the promptings of his writing?”) and rather bitchily remark that if he manages it, it will “probably establish him as a serious writer”. Miaow, as Augustus would say. I think Sir Salman would regard himself as serious a writer as Sir Vidia.
Indeed, I don’t think Naipaul sets out to offend, but his general air of regal condescension is such that he inevitably does. It’s a characteristic that comes to the fore when I mention he was recently listed seventh on The Times 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945, and ask how it feels being talked about as the heir to Joseph Conrad. “Well, I brought that on myself by writing a long essay on Conrad in 1974.” He sighs and I think: only V. S. Naipaul could sound depressed about being compared to one of the greatest novelists in English. “There’s that book, Heart of Darkness.” A copy is lying on the table between us. I pass it to him. “I actually find it a very difficult book. I prefer the journal that Conrad kept, taking a steamer up the Congo. The book itself… full of theatrical falsities. I have trouble with some of the Conrad books; I have trouble with them. I have trouble with them. He’s so passionate about getting to the truth of any situation that he works a little too hard, and he forgets that I have a limited attention.”
Are there other writers he rates more? Tolstoy, perhaps? “I recently had a look for the second time at Anna Karenina. Quite wonderful beginning, and then it begins to tail away a little.” Ibsen? “Well, you know, I loved Ibsen for many years. And then so many people got at me for liking Ibsen that I have slightly withdrawn.” Dickens? “I can’t do Dickens. Can’t do Dickens. Have you read Dombey and Son recently? Don’t do it. It’s unbearable. Unbearable.” Balzac? “There was a time when I liked Balzac. But I looked again at The Wild Ass’s Skin and I found it was very stiff.” A deep sigh. “Probably all writers are like that; probably all writers lose some magic, because writers are not gods, you know, they’re just people doing their work.”
By this stage Naipaul’s cheerful mood has evaporated and, looking out at the garden where he has banned the use of colour, because, his wife says, he considers it “suburban”, he continues in a mournful vein on a range of subjects including music (“I stopped even trying to listen about ten years ago. I don’t miss it at all. It doesn’t tell me anything about the world”), children (“I so much wanted not to be a father all my life because I grew up among this large, squalling group of people”), multiculturalism (“I come from a very small place, and there is nothing that would make me think about glorifying what that is”), the agony of writing the book on Africa (“I became quite frightened in a way that I never was frightened before about writing”), money (“It came in a way too late for me, because your whole life’s already conditioned by the great poverty of many years, you know?”), Augustus’s age (“You can see he is arthritic, quite old. Another three years and he will become a very old cat”), and, above all, his own age.
To me he looks the same as he has ever done, and his doctor tells him he has the bones of a 36-year-old man, but then he looked 78 even when he was 18, and he says that when he pulled a muscle six years ago, one thing led to another and he’s still trying to get better. He suffers from asthma and hearing loss, and can no longer physically write: dictating book copy now to his wife. “It’s no fun growing old,” he remarks, sadly. But then he didn’t have much fun as a youth, either, winning a Trinidad government scholarship to read English at University College, Oxford, in 1950-54, but experiencing a nervous breakdown that lasted 18 months, which culminated in a suicide attempt – thwarted when the gas meter ran out.
“Well, you know, 1952 was such a bad year. The thing I regret most about the past, really, is the Oxford business. Oxford fed me hardly at all. Oxford gave me nothing.” It got him out of Trinidad, I say. And he got started as a writer. “It probably gave me a bit of time to do the writing. But the thing about writing when you’re very young – it’s always slightly fraudulent, you know?” He brushes a hand through his thick hair. “If I had my time I think I’d live in a more footloose way. Knock around. Travel. I might have been fed in all kinds of other ways. Ah…”
Of course, one of the things that happened to Naipaul at Oxford is that he met Patricia Hale. He proposed and they remained married until her death in 1996, though according to Patrick French’s 2008 biography, Naipaul criticised her remorselessly throughout the relationship, regularly visited prostitutes, carried on a decades-long affair with a younger woman, Margaret Murray, whom he sometimes violently beat, and then, when Pat died from cancer, blamed himself for her premature demise. He admits he regrets getting into the relationship so young (“All that was bad”) and alludes to deep unhappiness when, in relation to the book on Africa, he claims polygamy can be defended (“If you think about it, monogamy is cruel. It requires a man to make a choice at a fairly early age in his life, and to stick with it right through… It leaves no room for human development”). But he falls suddenly silent when I mention the biography by title.
“I’m not going to hear the question. I’m not going to hear it.” He fiddles with his asthma inhaler and I ask why he doesn’t want to talk about a biography that has won some awards and is described on its cover as “authorised”. “Well, that’s a strange use of the word. It suggests that everything was presented to me – except it wasn’t, you know?” So they fell out? “It was a calamity, the book was a calamity, it was a great error.” A very long pause. “I won’t say any more.”
At this point, Lady Naipaul returns from the kitchen, where I suspect she has been following our conversation. My fear is that she is going to throw me out for raising the topic of French’s book. But it turns out she is willing to talk about it. “The book will bury itself,” she says. “It’s Patrick who will suffer, not Vidia. When the time is right, there will be a comment. Sometimes a biographer starts to compete with his subject, you know? Patrick is the one who’s suffering really, not Vidia. Vidia doesn’t give a toss. That is his nature. We’ll say no more.”
The Naipauls met in the mid-Nineties in Lahore, when she came over to him at a party and kissed him on the lips, and while they seem incredibly close, with Nadira now acting as his carer, writing for him, and sometimes answering questions for him (when I inquire if he has been to Trinidad lately, he refers it to her with the question, “Nadira, what was it like out there?”), they are also clearly opposites. Where Sir Vidia is terse, reflective and reserved, his wife, described by French as “tall, feisty, energetic, fearless, generous, dyslexic, emotional, fairly scandalous”, is talkative and impulsive, a combination that sometimes leads to open bickering. One such instance being the moment I follow up the conversation about French’s book by mentioning another book that doesn’t paint Naipaul in a particularly positive light: Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship across Five Continents, by Paul Theroux, which attacks him for racism, arrogance, misogyny and bullying. Theroux wrote it after he found one of his own books inscribed to Naipaul and his first wife in a bookseller’s catalogue, and Lady Naipaul explodes with laughter when I cite it.
“You can’t call yourself somebody’s friend and then talk rubbish about him behind his back. He wasn’t even Vidia’s friend.”
“He was my friend,” retorts Sir Vidia.
“He was my friend.”
“Mmm. Very funny. Lot of jokes.”
“He quoted your jokes, but didn’t quote his! I don’t find that funny!”
“I loved, I loved his jokes.”
“Yes, but it was a one-sided thing. You did say that, ‘Paul Theroux was never my friend.’ You have said it.”
“Have I said it?”
“Yes, you have. You said it was a one-sided friendship. You have said that. You can’t, you know, keep changing your statement.”
“I knew Paul, I knew Paul.”
“You knew him, but he was not your friend like Tony was your friend.”
“Tony Powell. Tony was a friend. Antonia’s your friend. Hugh Thomas is your friend. These are your friends. Francis Wyndham is your friend. Paul Theroux was not a friend.”
There’s an awkward silence, which I attempt to fill by asking a question about the thing he feels was neglected by his biographer: his work. But when a reply comes in the form of another extended moan (“I feel I’ve been scraped clean, I’ve been writing for too long. I’m hoping that it’ll be like Hardy’s poetry – you know he was very old, and he kept on out of his idleness, or his age, kept on, as it were, doing little dribbles of work that amounted to a book of poetry or something”), I decide it is time I left Naipaul to have quality time with his cat.
In the car, on the way to the station, Lady Naipaul remarks suddenly that, “I will take him back to India one day, you know. They certainly don’t deserve to have him here.” By which she turns out to mean that she will, on the event of her husband’s death, scatter his ashes on the sub-continent. “What have they done for him here?” she says. “He gets the Nobel and there’s not even a letter from Downing Street. You have to be a Jew, Alan Yentob or something, to get up there. It was the Indians who celebrated. There wasn’t a person in the cabinet or the presidency who didn’t call.”
At the time the pronouncement struck me as odd. I got the sense from Naipaul that he felt as rootless as ever: “To me, departure is always more welcoming than arrival,” he remarked. And I detected no particular affection for India. In fact, over tea the couple had complained about India’s obsession with “money, money, money, money, money, money”, the lack of cultural life in Delhi, and the “pathetic” way Hindu nationalists came to pay respect to Naipaul when he visited, bringing babies and fountain pens for him to bless, because they had heard he sympathised with their views, even though they had never read his work.
But on reflection it makes sense. All his life Naipaul has been a bunch of contradictions: a man who is regularly described as Britain’s greatest living writer even though he is, in his own words, “the kind of writer that people think other people are reading”; a man who is accused of having an unfriendly attitude to post-colonial countries who nevertheless created the genre of post-colonial literature when he wrote A House for Mr Biswas, giving hundreds of new writers a voice in the process; a man who has been accused of producing cold and dry books who claims to be always on the verge of tears when he’s writing. And, having been born in Trinidad, and lived in Britain, ending up in India would be just another complication to add to the collection. Or to put it more crudely: making India his resting place would be one final way V.S. Naipaul could prove difficult.