John Walsh: Tales of the city

'There's a dark, twisted braid of resentment and superiority that runs through Naipaul's make-up'
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The Independent Online

It's hard to open a newspaper without seeing the face of Sir Vidia Naipaul, expressing with every line, every crow's-foot and grey whisker of his noble physiognomy, his urgent wish that everyone would bugger off and leave him alone. It must be hard for a man who cares so little for the world's approval that the world is beating down his front door to ask why he doesn't want to chat. An authorised biography by Patrick French is the immediate pretext, but there's an Arena documentary coming up in April, and the ripples of his last book haven't died away. It was called A Writer's People: Ways of Looking and Feeling, and there in the title is the problem the literary world has with Sir Vidia: that his ways of looking at, and feeling about, the majority of humankind is not what we expect from a great writer.

The schoolmasterly tone is appropriate for the disapproval now seething around him: disapproval that he drove his wife round the twist by revealing that he'd visited prostitutes, or that he'd kept a mistress for 24 years, and also that, after his wife died, he left the mistress for someone else. I mean, of all the nerve. You can hear a public-school voice saying, "I'm not angry with you, Naipaul, just rather disappointed. You were supposed to marry the Other Woman. You've let the literary world down, your publisher down and yourself down."

People accuse Naipaul of lack of self-awareness, in swanning through life using people with what seems like breezy cruelty. I'm not so sure. I look at his pronouncements on race or literary achievement or friendship, and see someone gleeful with his inventive nastiness. I remember the shock of a friend who went to interview Naipaul in his Wiltshire retreat. Midway through, Naipaul said, "The questions you're now asking, my wife usually answers these, so I'll leave them to her," before he toddled off. I was oddly impressed by how, during Naipaul's stay at Makerere University in Uganda, he never gave local talent the slightest encouragement; when they asked him to judge a writing competition, he awarded only a third prize. You can practically feel the glee with which he decided to bring poor, aspirational African scribes down a peg.

In A Writer's People, he devotes an essay to the start of his writing career in England. He was taken up in 1957 by Anthony Powell, author of A Dance to the Music of Time, who helped him with friends, contacts and encouragement. Forty-odd years later, after Powell died in 2000, Naipaul was asked by a literary magazine to write about his old friend. As he explains in the essay, he had, in fact, hardly read a word by Powell and, when he now started on the books, he was "appalled... There was no narrative skill, perhaps even no thought for narrative". He belittles poor Powell for several pages before passing on the judgement of another critic (to whom Powell was "the apotheosis of mediocrity"), remarking that the man sounds like a "false friend" full of "rage or jealousy".

What the hell? How could he, after a 40-year friendship, stab his old pal in the back, posthumously, then criticise someone else for doing the same? But then, what was it about VS Naipaul and friendship? We know from Paul Theroux's wonderful account of their relationship how the Trinidadian responded to the younger man's overtures of friendship by ignoring him or telling him he was a hopeless writer. We know from French's biography that, after his wife Pat died, Naipaul had no friends left to provide a network of support, and he was forced to write to his ex-pal Theroux for the first time in years...

There's a dark, twisted braid of resentment and superiority that runs through Naipaul's make-up. His ancestors were indentured migrants who went from India to the Caribbean after the British abolition of slavery in 1830.

They weren't slaves but slave-replacements; at the same time, the Naipauls were high-caste Indians who considered themselves above the tradition-minded neo-Hindus of Trinidad; but they were also envious of the Western colonists. When Naipaul came to Oxford on a scholarship, he was therefore conflicted five or six ways. He was superior, he was inferior, he hated Indians, he looked down on West Indians, he looked up to the likes of Powell, but longed to show himself the better man...

All of which may explain why he still writes about the cultural poverty of his ancestors' homeland; and why he bangs on about class (he called Theroux "this rather common fellow who was in Africa teaching the Negroes... he wrote tourist books for the lower classes"). But it doesn't explain his perverse delight in tormenting or fending off friends, or betraying them in inventive ways.

Perhaps, like Iago, he just enjoys his own treachery. Perhaps having the Nobel Prize tastes sweeter when you can tell the global village you don't want their vulgar adulation.

I saw Naipaul in January, unexpectedly, at a private members' club in Soho. He didn't look like a knight, a Brahmin or a Nobel laureate. He was sitting among a group of male friends, laughing and carousing without a care in the world. You had to wonder which old friend was being scythed down by Naipaul's tongue – or how many of his guffawing clubmates will wake one day to find a nasty reference to them in a new book by the Great Writer with the Iago complex.