TYMON SMITH: The day V S Naipaul visited the office
'He was not giving interviews but was rather here to interview others, as I’d politely been informed when I tried to secure one for the paper'
It was the bleakest and most discontented winter of my life. My girlfriend and I had broken up and, filled with self-loathing and despair, I did what heartbroken, stupid young men in their late 20s have always done. I ran around town, drinking too much, making a fool of myself and bursting into tears in public at inappropriate moments.
On this particular Friday morning in 2009 I was feeling the after-effects of the previous night something fierce and trying to make sense, in my cloudy-visioned, head-pounding haze, of what new lows I had sunk to. As I looked at my lounge floor, with hundreds of bronze coins spilled on it, an empty bottle of whiskey and a sleeping neighbour lying uncomfortably on the hard wooden floor surrounded by the fragments of what remained of my Moon Dance LP, my befuddled head shaking, hand wringing and mumbled determinations that this was the last time were interrupted by the ringing of a phone.
It was already after 11am and, remembering that I still had a job as the books editor of the Sunday Times, I hurriedly tried to put on some clothes as I answered the call and was told by a voice belonging to journalist Khadija Barlow that she would be bringing Sir Vidia Naipaul to the Avusa offices in about half an hour and could I make sure that the editors were present to receive him.
I had heard that the irascible, contrary Nobel Laureate was in town. He was supposedly on an “under the radar” fact-finding mission for a new non-fiction book about Africa but had already been spotted and met by everyone from writers Fred Khumalo and Rian Malan to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and a friend who claimed he’d seen him wandering through the African market on Rockey Street. He was not giving interviews but was rather here to interview others, as I’d politely been informed when I tried to secure one for the paper.
So what on earth he wanted to visit a media house for was beyond me. I knew that his second wife, Nadira Khannum, was a former journalist in her native Pakistan. Perhaps she wanted to have a look around a real African newsroom just to see whether we did things any differently on the dark continent her husband had spent so many years scoffing at in the many accounts of his travels through it since the mid-60s.
Hungover, heartbroken or not – noblemen and Nobel laureates were not common visitors to the office and Sir VS Naipaul was both. Unwashed, unkempt, bleary-eyed and definitely underdressed for the occasion, I ran up to the office to corral the editors and maybe cobble together an impromptu journo marching band for the arrival of the man who fellow Caribbean Nobel laureate Sir Derek Walcott had once scornfully christened “VS Nightfall” in a poem.
The editors of both the Sunday Times and The Times were out, as were their deputies and just about anybody with a worthy enough title to receive our increasingly imminent eminent visitor. Things were not going well, and like the plot of one of Naipaul’s darkly comic early novels, they were about to get worse.
By the time he arrived in South Africa, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was both revered and reviled as one of western literature’s most divisive figures. He was a product of colonialism who idealised western civilisation and its manners but never felt quite at home in England, where he had arrived from his native Trinidad in 1950 to study English at Oxford and where he had remained ever since.
His work was celebrated for its clarity of style and sharply observed, often scornful dismissal of postcolonial countries and their people in Africa, the West Indies, Asia and the Middle East.
He had won every major literary award from the Booker for his novel In A Free State in 1971 to a knighthood for his services to the world of letters in 1989 and the Nobel prize for literature in 2001. His novels A House for Mr Biswas – published in 1961 when he was 29 – and 1979’s A Bend in the River had earned him an eternal place in the canon. He was also the embodiment of the debate over whether a man’s art could or should be separated from his personal beliefs and statements. He had said terrible and reactionary things about everyone from women to Indians, Trinidad, Africa and his fellow writers and former friends.
An outstanding authorized biography written by Patrick French and published in 2008 had added fuel to the debates about Naipaul’s character with revelations of the abuse and mistreatment of both his longsuffering first wife Patricia Hale and the Argentine mistress with whom he conducted a longstanding public affair for much of the marriage. His later novels and nonfiction works had been slammed by critics, especially those on the left, for lack of empathy and a self-loathing that was for many too cringeworthy to behold. Naipaul was unfazed and seemed to relish fighting back with increasingly controversial statements and insults.
So you can see how it was with some trepidation that I now waited alone in the foyer of the building for the notorious author’s arrival.
The man who eventually arrived was shorter than I expected, a little paunchy, seemingly unimpressed, disinterested and supported by a three-legged cane. He was dwarfed by his tall and somewhat aloof wife who ushered him towards the reception desk, where the head of the building’s security asked the couple to sign in. The security manager seemed gripped by an attack of temporary deafness as Lady Naipaul repeatedly and ever more irritably tried to tell him how to spell her famous husband’s surname. Sir Vidia stood by looking increasingly annoyed and was suggesting that they give up the whole visit before the guard let them through.
Mortified, I managed to lead the Naipauls up to the first floor and into the offices of The Times. This was a weekday newspaper tended by only a skeleton staff on Fridays, but my explanation for why no one was around did not seem convincing. Then the features editor appeared and began nervously talking a-mile-a-minute at the famous visitors – explaining the open-plan office layout and comparing the editorial desk to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
Sir Vidia, who had spent most of his time looking disinterested and bored, woke briefly at this and asked what on earth the features editor was talking about.
“It’s from Star Trek,” said his wife, to which her husband scrunched up his face in disapproval, shook his head and said: “Oh no we don’t like Star Trek. Rubbish.”
Popular culture was not the strong point of a man who once replied to director Francis Ford Coppola’s statement that George Lucas would be joining them for lunch by saying: “Georg Lukács, the Hungarian philosopher? I thought he was dead.”
Sir Vidia had had enough of this excursion to the bridge of the Enterprise. Realising that he would have to travel up another floor to look at the offices of the Sunday Times, he decided it was not worth the effort and it was time to go.
I led them back to the foyer, shook their hands, waved them off and shook my throbbing head in wonder at the strangeness of their visit. I did not see them again.
The book that resulted from that trip, The Masque of Africa, was published in 2010 and would be Naipaul’s last. It was generally panned by critics but it did cause some typical late-era Naipaulian controversy when he published an interview with Madikizela-Mandela in which she was heavily critical of her former husband. The mother of the nation denied that she had given the Naipauls an interview and the story made the front pages of many newspapers, including the one visited by Naipaul.
When it was reported that he had died on August 11 at the age of 85, the debate about Naipaul’s art versus his character re-erupted. Many of his former critics softened somewhat, perhaps deciding that the ornery novelist should be regarded in death as he was in life, as Jamaica-born reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson had once declared, a shining “example of how art transcends the artist ’cos he talks a lot of shit but still writes excellent books.”
I could only manage a wry smile as I recalled the unimpressed little man whose visit I will always associate with a heartbroken winter, an epic hangover and the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.