Can somebody’s achievements ever be separated from who they are a person?  Does the single minded ruthlessness needed to become the best in the world necessarily mean a callous disregard for other people?   Is that the price to pay for success or the singular lack of empathy associated with self obsession?         


Sir Vidia Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, will go down in the canons of western literature as the writer who forced the novel to adapt to the late twentieth century, a blend of fiction and non-fiction that was, in the words of Hilary Spurling (April 13th 2008),  ‘exhilarating, alien and unforgiving, at once phenomenally accurate but unsoftened by consolations of familiarity’.  But will he also be remembered for the appalling way he exploited, degraded and ultimately rejected not just his wife but also the mistress that he had kept for 24 years? 


Vidia Naipaul married Patricia Hale when they were both students at Oxford.  She gave up everything – her family, her ambitions, her self confidence – to marry an Indian boy with no money, contacts or prospects at a time when racial prejudice was pervasive throughout English society.  She devoted herself to him, supported him by becoming a teacher, corrected his manuscripts, looked after his home, cooked his meals and welcomed his guests.   She regarded him as ‘the genius’, who must be nurtured.  And she was the mother.  In return he manipulated, exploited nd undermined her.       


It seems that Vidia feared and resented his dependence on Pat and set out to destroy it.  He criticised her appearance, derided her opinions, scorned her devotion and shattered her self confidence. She tolerated his open affair with the much more lively Margaret,  though his public disclosure that in the early years of his marriage he was a great prostitute man, seemed to quicken the cancer that would kill her.


Why did Pat put up with it all.  Why did Pat suppress her own ambition to support her husband?   Why did she tolerate his blatent infidelity?  Was she so lacking in self esteem that she ignored her own considerable intellectual abilities and accepted her husbands conclusion that she was dull?  Are some women so encultured to the role of supporting their mate that they will suppress any personal ambition?   Do they attach themselves so completely to their man that their life has no meaning without them?  Does the cycles of abuse and reparation generate a type of addiction – as  Saul Bellow memorably expressed it, ‘like the knife and the wound aching for each other’. Although awful to live with, the excitement can be so good that it takes an enormous effort of will to let it go.  Naipaul would demand the unconditional devotion of a mother who can absorb all the pain he could inflict on her and still be there.  


But in a strange, almost perverse way, he was devoted to Pat. Their marriage lasted 41 years.  She was the only person he could really trust.  Even four days before her death, he was still giving her manuscripts to read.  And although in a haste that smacked of a terror of loneliness, he took another wife within weeks after Pat’s death dismissing Margaret overnight with a lump sum, when he and his new wife went to scatter Pat’s ashes in the woods, Vidia was inconsolable.


Oh, knock hard enough at the door of many, seemingly respectable middle class families and you may get a similar story.  The way people treat the people they love the most can be dreadful. You always kill the one you love ….. Oscar Wilde wrote in De Profundis.  Naipaul was different inasmuch as he felt it his mission as a writer to expose everything, warts and all.  He gave his biographer, Patrick French, access to all his letters, twenty searching interviews and complete freedom to write as he found.  


So what made Naipaul behave so badly?  French, who was talking about his new biography,  ‘The way it is’, at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, suggested that he his self obsession with being a literary genius justified the ruthless exploitation of people.  But such self obsession always protects an enormous fragility..VS undoubtedly needed people, but his behaviour suggests that he was scared of getting too close to them.  Attempts at familiarity by others would could be fended off.      


French relates the story of him descending in a lift with Margaret Drabble, Auberon Waugh and John Betjman.   Waugh said, ‘Everyone calls you V.S. But what is your name?’  ‘Vidia’ was the reply.  ‘May I call you Vidia?’  ‘No,as we’ve only just met, I would prefer you to call me Mr Naipaul.’  It took ages before the lift doors opened. 


The travel writer, Paul Theroux, considered himself a close friend but never quite got over the callous, seemingly inexplicable manner of his rejection, an experience he described in his book, ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’.  Naipaul reportedly reduced his long term agent to tears when he dismissed him. He seemed to be constantly in dispute  with people.  ‘Friendship has not been important to me,’  he told French grandly.   

But the curious thing was that when he fell out with somebody he always felt that he was the one who was hard done by. 


VS Naipaul just couldn’t belong.  He shunned the company of the Caribbean Authors.  He was disgusted by the living standards of the Indians; he hated their superstition.  He ridiculed the ‘expat community’.  He wanted to be recognised as a great international author without being tied to any nationality. 


The impression is that unless people were prepared to worship him or could be of use to him, he had no time for them. French tells the story of an Irish journalist who travelled to his house in Wiltshire to interview him, taking an early morning flight from Dublin, a bus from the airport and finally walking the last three miles.  Tired, she unwisely admitted she hadn’t finished his book.  He was so incensed that he screamed at her to get out of his house and she had to walk all the way back without the interview.. 


Naipaul’s behaviour is a textbook description of how fragile, narcissistic people relate.  Narcissism is a reaction formation that is created out of distrust; fear that others will take them over and reject them.  So it’s a case of  exploit or be exploited.  Never let anybody get too close.  Being a literary celebrity gave him the power to do just that, but at a cost of the most profound loneliness.  That was his tragedy.    


Although Naipaul behaved as if every relationship was expendable, it is clear that he yearned to be loved on a grand scale.  Why else would he want to be a ‘great’ writer, the best in the world.  And he had the will and the talent to realise his fantasies.  He felt he had deserved the right to be treated as a very special person. The fact that he wanted his biographer to tell it as it really was, warts and all,  demonstrates the depth of his need to be known, to be forgiven, to be given the kind of unconditional love that only a mother would give him.   


This raises the question of what his relationship with his own mother was like.  Curiously we get few clues about this from French’s biography.  We know she was burningly ambitious for her children and scathing about the Moslems, the negroes and the white masters.  When love is expressed as ambition instead of acceptance and nurturing, it creates an ambivalence that characterises the way a child relates throughout their life. For V.S.Naipaul, this was inscribed in block capitals.  



The history of arrogance teaches us that overweaning self regard is born out of abject emotional and often physical deprivation. Vidia Seepersad Naipaul was born into a community of indentured labourers on Trinidad’s sugar plantations.  They were no better than slaves.  They just didn’t belong.  Vidia grew up with the terrible ingrained response of an acutely sensitive child to the insecurity, shame and humiliation of the poor and dispossessed of the colonial setting from which he came. ‘Contempt, quick deep, inclusive, became part of his nature,’  Naipaul wrote in his semi-autobiographical, ‘A House for Mr Biswas’.   


He was determined to leave his background. By sheer will, he won a scholarship to Oxford.   But when he arrived in England, he found that he didn’t belong there either.  There were just 25,000 Caribbean immigrants living in England in the 1950’s.  He  couldn’t get a job after leaving Oxford.  His writing was ignored.  Deprivation creates iron in the soul.  He knew he was the best.  They would accept him and he would despise them for it.   


But although V.S. Naipaul desperately wanted to be successful, it would never be enough.  He would have found what all those with a conviction of the importance of  their own destiny find,  that success breeds a pale simalcrum of love, that consists of   admiration, sycophancy, envy and fear. He would never really get the unconditional love he so desired from his work.  Instead, his success would be devalued into a means of controlling people while shielding himself from dependency.  No wonder his writing was so harsh and uncompromising.  It dazzled with its brilliance yet fended off.  He would have despised his achievements as an expression of himself and he would have hated those who were taken in by it.  And without the struggle to rediscover himself again and again, he would not exist.   He could never accept himself or be accepted for who he is, only for what he does.  His writing is empowered by the devastating self disgust;  it’s his way of projecting the hatred.  


Naipaul would have to devalue himself, if not as a writer, as a man. If he ever believed he was really good, there would be no purpose in his life.  His script had been written many years ago.  He embodies the grudge of the poor incomer, he had to establish his credentials, again and again and again.  In a way, the Nobel Prize, the Booker Prize and  the knighthood, the manor house in the country represent a kind of death.  What more is there to achieve?  Why bother?  There’s only the memory of how exciting it was before he made it, the publicity he could court by being outrageous, the purpose he would acquire and fomenting conflict with others.  In a way he would want to provoke other people to let him down.  That would provide the justification to relieve the burden of his own self denigration.  But Naipaul has hidden his fragility behind these defences for so long that as French so cleverly expresses it, he has become the mask that eats into the face.    . 



My guess is that at 76,  Sir Vidia Naipaul, for all his accolades, is a deeply lonely and fearful man, for whom writing has become an increasingly desperate means of connecting with people.  He is like a man lost in the wilderness, frantically sending out messages on a mobile phone and the battery is running out.