Robert Fulford's column about V.S. Naipaul & Diana Athill

(The National Post, January 2, 2001)

V.S. Naipaul, who has written more than 20 books, some brilliantly acerbic and some merely peevish, is now starting to make a contribution to literature of quite another sort. A richly gifted writer, he happens also to be a great subject for other writers. The words written about him by friends and colleagues, many of whom are probably polishing their memories at this moment, could someday add up to a distinct literary sub-genre.

Naipaul is supremely, defiantly odd -- so cross, so contradictory, so audacious, so angry and resentful, so smart about everything except Naipaul. Much of this comes through in print. He's a stern moralist who studies and judges his fellow humans. Most of humanity is clearly beneath his contempt, though not beneath his notice.

He finds many parts of the globe lacking in civilized values and has (so far as his readers know) never found a place on Earth he can honestly describe as worth emulating: He's a preacher who speaks often of Hell but never mentions Heaven. Even so, readers find his tortured and highly dramatic reactions to the world enthralling. Watching his moralistic twisting and writhing has been among the perverse pleasures of literature since the 1960s.

Paul Theroux will always be considered the pioneer explorer of Naipaul as subject. In Theroux's confessional 1989 novel, My Secret History, Naipaul appears as a writer from India, S. Prasad, mentor and guide to Andre Parent, the chronically randy narrator, who closely resembles Theroux. That was written when Naipaul and Theroux were on good terms. Then their relationship soured. In 1998, Theroux presented another version of Naipaul, this one devious, arrogant, selfish and disloyal, in Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents, a book that left readers with the firm belief that the author and his subject richly deserved each other.

This season has brought from England Diana Athill's delightful book of memoirs, Stet, written with easy grace and perspicacious wit, somehow naive and sly at the same telling moment. Here again, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul performs a star turn.

The proofreader's term "stet" means "let it stay" -- ignore previous attempts to change or eliminate a passage. Athill means this chronicle to stand permanently as her personal account of the period, starting in the early 1950s, when she was the much-admired, much-discussed editor at the London publishing house of Andre Deutsch; she retired at age 75, eight years ago. Athill was the editor who ushered Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore into the limelight, and with the greatest difficulty, revived the career of the famously drunk and demanding Jean Rhys. One young writer led her to another, and apparently Richler helped her find both Moore and (indirectly) Naipaul. The company published 18 books by Naipaul, building its own reputation as well as his.

Athill discovered that as a colleague Naipaul was prickly, defensive, a man of infinite elbows. He grew up as an Asian in Trinidad, hating the place for its incompetence and provincialism, and hating his mother; then he went to England and hated Oxford. He has never felt at home in Britain, no matter how many of its literary grandees have hymned his praises; and his feelings didn't change in 1990 when the queen made him Sir Vidiadhar. While his novels are acutely sensitive, his travel writing reads like a relentless search for the deplorable: Much of it consists of Naipaul finding various huge geographic areas (India, Africa, the Islamic world) appalling --though sometimes, admittedly, interesting.

For Athill, Naipaul turned out to be the classic case of what editors call a high-maintenance writer. That sometimes means the writing needs a lot of editing in the office (not true for Naipaul) but more often means that the writer requires constant reassurance and indulgence on a scale approaching what we might expect of a full-time psychiatric social worker.

Naipaul seems to have regarded the publication of each of his books as a tragedy: The publishers refused to do their job, the reviewers (usually enthusiastic) failed to understand him, and sales, in his view, were disappointing. Each modest success sent him into another depression, from which Athill had to rescue him. She became the servant of his vagrant moods.

Athill worked with him for months before learning he was married, and then she only occasionally ran into the wife, Pat, Naipaul's long-time helpmate, whom he had married at Oxford. On one of those rare occasions, Athill said something about rarely seeing her. Pat responded with one of the most chilling lines in the history of marriage: "Vidia doesn't like me to come to parties because I'm such a bore." After that, whenever she felt depressed, Athill would remind herself that at least she wasn't married to Naipaul.

As the years passed, he became something of a bore himself, and Athill had to force herself to feel sorry for him, "in order to endure him." She learned that "self-brainwashing" is part of an editor's job, a point few editors ever admit to themselves. "I simply could not allow myself not to like him."

In 1975, she read the manuscript of his eighth work of fiction, Guerrillas, which concerned political psychopaths in Trinidad. She knew something about the people who inspired that story, one of them having briefly been her lover. (Her own extensive erotic life glides quietly through her book, like a black cat in the darkness, never quite clear in its outlines but never absent, either.) Guerrillas seemed to her undeveloped and incoherent. She knew she should have held her tongue, but she committed the sin of telling Naipaul, in a gentle way, that it wasn't up to his best. This was unforgivable.

Immediately, he withdrew the book from Deutsch. Athill's response to his cold and angry departure comes across as one of the most revealing passages ever set down by an editor: "It was as though the sun came out. I didn't have to like Vidia any more." Coming where they do in the book, those eight words are as resounding as "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty I'm free at last!" It sounds extreme. Perhaps only another editor would entirely understand.

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