Remembering my friend Vidia Naipaul
‘The Vidia Naipaul I knew was friendly, warm-hearted (not quite the same as kind-hearted), curious, responsive, humorous (and able to laugh at himself), convivial, mischievous, never hypocritical’
The first word that comes to mind when I think about Vidia Naipaul is loveability. This may surprise some people, the Times obituarist for example, who claims that “he succeeded in getting up the noses of almost everyone he encountered”. But it won’t surprise Vidia’s many friends.
Loveability is, of course, completely subjective. The Vidia I knew was friendly, warm-hearted (not quite the same as kind-hearted), curious, responsive, humorous (and able to laugh at himself), convivial, mischievous, never hypocritical, fearless — and vulnerable. And he had a lovely face, which always helps.
He was nothing if not surprising. I remember one occasion, for example, while picnicking in New York’s Central Park with Vidia and his first wife Pat. I had taken my camera in order to take pictures of my children and of the Naipauls. When I asked Vidia to glance in my direction for a moment, he said “No, no Miriam,” (he often used one’s name in conversation), “that’s not how you do it. What you do is this: you ask someone to pose for you, you aim the camera at them, and then you do nothing. You wait. Finally, their face will disintegrate. Then you click.”
I first met Vidia and Pat nearly 50 years ago, when I was invited with my former husband John Gross (a close, lifelong friend of Vidia’s) to a dinner party at their house in Stockwell, south London. Two things particularly struck me on that evening: that Vidia dominated the room with his charm and ebullience; and that he shamelessly treated his wife like a servant. In fact Pat, as I soon learned, was his housekeeper, his secretary, his editorial adviser and, in the early years of their marriage, the breadwinner.
Later, when we became friends, I realised that Pat, despite being a very intelligent person, accepted her submissive role as the price for being the wife of a literary genius. In fact her doormatty attitude seemed to me to irritate Vidia into being more rather than less imperious. But marriages are always mysterious, and theirs appears to have been for many years a close partnership.
Twenty or so years after they married I was talking to Vidia at a drinks party when he suddenly announced, in a rather loud voice, “Miriam — I have fallen in love.” The way he said it implied that this was a novel experience for him. Luckily Pat, who was somewhere in the room, was not within earshot. Vidia went on to tell me that he had met an Anglo-Argentinian girl, Margaret, and could think of nothing else, day and night.
A few weeks later I was invited, along with a few other friends, to a lunch to meet this Margaret. We were braced for a raven-haired beauty with castanets and flashing eyes. Margaret, it turned out, was a typically English-looking girl. She had a slight resemblance to Pat — though she was much more vivacious and assertive. The affair lasted for more than ten years.
It is mainly his private relationships with these two women which led so many people to regard Vidia as a misogynist. This is complete nonsense. He had many close women friends whom he treated in the same way as he treated men. True, he made some disparaging generalisations about women authors, but that was in his cantankerous old age — and hardly constitutes misogyny. Vidia definitely liked women.
Indeed, Vidia was much nearer to being a misanthrope. He was certainly a pessimist and a realist. The perfectibility of humankind did not figure in his thinking. No doubt his childhood in Trinidad, and his Hindu background, influenced his views. But his warnings about the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism and his dismay at the failures of post-colonial Africa were based on his own extensive experiences as a traveller and on his powers of clear-sighted observation. His judgments may sometimes have been too sweeping, but it’s surely difficult to deny that there is truth in what he said. Yet people do deny it.
Of course Vidia had flaws. He could be arrogant and conceited (due perhaps to feelings of self-doubt), irascible and intolerant. In his later years he occasionally flung around absurd statements about the decline of everything. But he had always enjoyed shocking the bien pensants and puncturing prevailing orthodoxies. Virtue-signalling was not his thing — he could be more accurately described as a vice-signaller.
In some areas he was a snob — in the area of wine, for example. Indeed, his attitude to wine momentarily clouded our friendship, though he may not have been aware of this. We had invited Vidia and his glamorous, clever new wife Nadira for dinner and I was very anxious to get a good wine. Not being an expert, I sought advice and finally plumped for an Australian shiraz which I was assured was superb. The fact that it cost under £50 a bottle was a factor.
When we sat down for dinner Vidia, who had been in a very jolly mood, picked up one of the bottles. “What are you giving us?” He looked at the label and his face fell. Then he cast an imploring glance at Nadira, sitting at the other end of the table, as though to say, “Let’s leave as soon as we decently can.” Which they did. I was very upset.
In later years I saw Vidia much less frequently, but when we did meet I was always elated. The wine incident did not in the least alter my view as to his loveability.