By Geoffrey Levy
Bigoted, arrogant, vicious, racist, a woman-beating misogynist and sado-masochist — the Nobel laureate Sir VS Naipaul has not turned a hair since this uniquely ugly list of traits was laid bare about him some months ago.
But then, again, it was he who allowed the descriptions of himself to be detailed by his authorised biographer Patrick French.
Almost mockingly, and perhaps even enjoying the notoriety, Naipaul set off for Africa and is now back at Dairy Cottage, his red-brick home in a Wiltshire hamlet, calmly writing about the journey for his next book.
Now 76, his every daily need is supplied by his energetic second wife Nadira, 55. Naipaul even communicates to local callers through Nadira, whom he married in 1996, having proposed to her while his downtrodden first wife, Pat, lay dying of cancer.
Among students of Naipaul, there is intensive curiosity about their married life.
Doubtless, loyal followers will absorb every word of the new book on Africa, their admiration for the Trinidad-born Indian (who claims he is a Brahmin, the lofty Hindu caste) undimmed by what they know about his private life. But that is not the end of the matter.
Not according to the explosive last line of a letter that has just been published in the celebrated New York Review of Books.
The letter was written by Naipaul’s cast-off mistress of 24 years, Margaret Murray, in response to a review of French’s biography.
They are the first — and possibly last — words from this dignified and rather remote woman about her years of chronic physical abuse at Naipaul’s hands.
The front cover of the controversial but authorised biography of V S Naipaul ‘The world is what it is’
The line, written with contemptuous brevity from her home in Buenos Aires, reads: ‘Vidia [Naipaul] says I didn’t mind the abuse. I certainly did mind.’
What prompted her to break her silence was Naipaul’s flamboyant version, as told to his authorised biographer, of their sex life. She has not read the book — only the review, which included Naipaul’s references to their relationship.
In the book, The World Is What It Is, the writer (knighted by the Queen in 1990 and awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001) details ‘their’ taste for sado-masochism.
Cursed by lifelong doubts about his own sexual inadequacy, he finds that he is able with Margaret — an Anglo-Argentinian who left her husband and two children for him — to indulge in abusive practices that had always fascinated him.
According to Naipaul, the more he abused her, the more she came back for more. Over the years, Margaret, who became obsessed with him after they met in Buenos Aires, wrote him letters about ‘worshipping at the shrine’ of the master’s manhood, depicting him as a man with extraordinary powers over her.
They indulged in anal sex, or as it was known between them, ‘visiting the very special place of love’.
Her submissive manner was undoubtedly intensified by his deliberate practice of leaving many of her letters unopened.
Naipaul told his biographer that on one occasion he beat her so severely that his hand hurt, while her face was too damaged for her to appear in public. Typically, the pain to his own hand is mentioned first, as though of greater importance.
Crucially, French quotes Naipaul as blithely saying: ‘She didn’t mind at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her.’ But now we know Margaret did mind.
She minded just as much as his loyal English wife, Pat, who, until her death, he also callously treated as a slavish figure expected to absorb his verbal and physical abuse, as well as occasional ‘confessions’ about his mistress Margaret, while dutifully continuing to read his manuscripts and take care of all his needs.
Sir Vidia Naipaul with his current wife Lady Nadira Naipaul.
As for the letters that Margaret wrote to him as his mistress, she says in her searing letter to the New York Review of Books that most were written ‘because he had a habit of saying “Please write me a little letter”. If he chose to leave them unopened, that was his business.’
Her sudden, and totally unexpected, intervention — a full ten months after the authorised biography was published — raises serious questions about Naipaul and his past observation that the lives of writers are a ‘legitimate inquiry and the truth should not be skimped’. But she is not alone in speaking out.
Enter the distinguished American author Paul Theroux, who was an English teacher in Kampala, Uganda, secretly aspiring to be a novelist, when he met the older and already feted Naipaul in 1966.
They became close friends for 30 years, until Nadira arrived on the scene and Theroux found himself an ex-friend.
Obsession: Writer Sir VS Naipaul with his then lover, Margaret Murray
He subsequently wrote an unofficial biography of his former literary hero, entitled Sir Vidia’s Shadow, that savagely exposed Naipaul as a racist who referred to Arabs as ‘Mr Woggy’ and strode through Africa in a safari suit dismissing its people as ‘bow and arrow men’.
Theroux’s biography attacked his former guru for racism, arrogance, misogyny, cruel treatment of insignificant people such as book tour escorts and secretaries.
He told Theroux loftily: ‘The melancholy thing about the world is that it is full of stupid people; and the world is run for the benefit of the stupid and common.’
A monstrous figure emerged, but with one glaring omission: unlike the authorised biography that Naipaul approved, there is not a word about his grotesque sex life. And only now do we know the reason why.
As Theroux, 68, writes in his letter to the New York Review of Books which was published alongside that of Margaret Murray: ‘I was restrained from publishing by Naipaul’s lawyers.’
This meant he was unable to describe how Naipaul, in the family’s cramped house in Port of Spain, was first abused and — in Naipaul’s own word — ‘corrupted’ as a boy of six or seven by his cousin Boysie, and that this treatment went on for two or three years.
Nor could he include Naipaul’s deep-seated ‘interest in women who would do unimaginable sexual things for money’.
For years, having met Pat at Oxford and married her in 1955, Naipaul secretly visited brothels, though he would declare untruthfully-‘I have never met a man who has been with a prostitute.’
And Theroux was, of course, forbidden from writing what he knew about Naipaul’s sexual brutishness and abuse of Pat, or his attacks on Margaret Murray, who had never said a word in public about the relationship, until now.
‘In 30 years of knowing the man . . . I never saw Naipaul attack anyone stronger than himself,’ says Theroux in the published letter in which he rails against ‘the myth’ of Naipaul’s candour.
‘He talked big and insultingly, but when he lashed out it was always against the weak — women who loved him, his wife and waiters; people who couldn’t hit back, the true mark of a coward.
‘I mainly saw his sadness, his tantrums, his envy, his meanness, his greed and his uncontrollable anger.’
From Hawaii, where he lives, Theroux tells me: ‘Of course Margaret minded the abuse. What woman wouldn’t? Naipaul’s version of this 24-year affair is self-serving, inaccurate and deeply unfair to Margaret. I wish she’d tell her story. Just hearing how she travelled all over the world with Naipaul would be a great narrative — he dictated his Congo diary to her.
‘She is dignified, remote, unapproachable and correct, so we’ll probably never know her story.’
Just like Theroux, for whom Naipaul had been something of a literary father-figure, Margaret was dumped after 24 years as Naipaul’s travelling companion and mistress when he met Nadira Khannum Alvi.
The attractive Pakistani journalist and mother of two saw him at a party in Lahore in October 1995 and boldly asked if she could kiss him as ‘a tribute’.
At that time his long-suffering wife Pat was dying in England.
Back at Dairy Cottage, as she lay riddled with cancer and close to death, Naipaul read her his notes from his recent trip to Indonesia, just as he always had. Even before her death in February 1996 (after 41 years of marriage), he proposed marriage to Nadira.
After Pat’s cremation, as friends gathered at Dairy Cottage, Naipaul’s conversation callously centred on the fine quality of the wine he was serving. Two months later, in April, he married Nadira.
Pat’s diaries, notebooks and letters, which Naipaul had probably felt it beneath him to bother to read, were deposited in his archive at the University of Tulsa. Researching the writer’s biography, French read them, says Theroux, having ‘found the journals quite by chance in boxes that were sold by the pound by Naipaul to the university and “closed to public access”.’
Theroux points out that through her 24 notebooks, ‘Pat Naipaul was able to speak from beyond the grave about . . . her husband’s infidelities, screaming fits, hypocrises, and his physical and mental abuse of her — which all of us who knew him were well aware of, but were restrained from publishing by Naipaul’s lawyers’.
But no one, not Theroux and certainly not Naipaul, expected Margaret Murray to break her lifelong silence, especially as she refused to be interviewed for the authorised biography.
Now, Naipaul is deeply into his relationship with Nadira. Mindful of what we now know about his sexual predilections, the literary world’s curiosity about the inner workings of this marriage to the woman blamed for breaking a number of the author’s lifelong friendships is understandable. Does he abuse and beat her as well?
At home in Dairy Cottage this week, Nadira was to be found perching her curvaceous figure on a purple gym exercise ball in the tidy cream-carpeted sitting room, while Naipaul, still in a black towelling dressing gown at midday, worked in another room.
She planted her feet firmly on the floor and stood up very straight and serious, tossing her shoulder-length hair.
‘Do I look like the kind of woman who takes abuse?’ she inquires in a voice that requires no answer.
‘Not at all. I’m very happy — terribly happy with my life. There are other writers who have more sordid lives — why focus on my husband? Everyone has an experience, everybody does it.’
Though Naipaul is said to have approved the manuscript of the biography before publication, Nadira insists that he has never clapped eyes on it.
‘My husband hasn’t read it. He will read it one day,’ she declares. ‘It will be in his own time and in his own way. Then he will speak his mind.
‘At the moment, he doesn’t give a damn. He doesn’t give a toss.
‘I have read it. It’s more like a salacious newspaper than a biography. I don’t give a damn either.
‘Patrick French should stick to writing about dead people. But the book has changed nothing in our lives. In fact it’s better, much better, absolutely better.
‘As for Paul Theroux, when you are dumped you say all sorts of things. Look at him now, talking a lot of rot like a jilted lover.’
From his home on Hawaii, where he has been finishing his latest novel, A Dead Hand, about a crime in Calcutta, Theroux exudes a polished calm in the face of Nadira’s onslaught, and continues to twist the knife.
‘I have no response to her invective,’ he says. ‘I bear her no illwill. As Naipaul’s spouse, Nadira has the hardest, loneliest job imaginable, and I feel with her recent outburst she may be showing the effects of this hardship.
‘Naipaul’s prayers were answered. He got his millions, a knighthood and the Nobel Prize, but the karmic twist is that no one gives a toss about his books.’
Such a considerate, caring place, the world of books. ¦
Additional reporting: Fay Schlesinger.
*First published in the Daily Mail