Those of you who aren’t consumed by the “Sexts, Lies and Videotape”* scandal involving Anthony Wiener might have caught the news item that V.S. Naipul, the novelist, recently proclaimed that no female writer is his equal…in history.
(*Headline by the ingenious Rony)
Naipaul said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”
He then went on to claim that not even Jane Austen could rival him.
I mean, the claim is so ridiculous that it almost seems absurd to report on it. First of all, how many BBC miniseries have been made on a V.S. Naipaul novel? My count is zero.
Second of all, basically no one that I know gives a shit about V.S. Naipaul, or has read really anything that he’s written unless they are an academic, or live religiously by The New York Review of Books. Last summer, while I was alone and happily marooned in Buenos Aires, I gave A Bend In the River a shot, and found it to be so dull that I never finished it. Which says a lot, considering that under the threat of death of boredom, I have read the entirety of Pride & Prejudice.
So as a female writer, I say to V.S. Naipaul: “Honestly, I don’t give a shit if Mr. Biswas has a house or not. But that’s just my sentimental opinion. What interests me about you is your apparently wild sexual history. Perhaps it could have spiced up the beginning of A Bend In the River, which as far as I could tell, was mostly about how boring it is trade with Africans along…a bend in the river.”
For a wild sexual history is really what makes V.S. Naipul stand out from the rest of his pretentious, thick-paragraphed, long-winded, colonialism-obsessed contemporaries. The mythology of it all, full of prostitutes, infidelities, violent abuse and mistreatment of his wife, was most recently cataloged in “The World Is What It Is,” the 2008 unauthorized biography by Patrick French.
Conveniently enough, it is Naipaul himself—no doubt aware of the monstrous reputations of literary giants such as Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Nabakov—who provides many of the quotations that cement his own categorization as a beast.
“I am beginning to feel more and more that women are trivial-minded, incapable of analysing or even seeing their motives,” he said.
Call me imperialist, but it seems to me that Naipaul is a being who, like many an insecure man striving for greatness, thinks that in order to become a God, he must adopt and project devil-may-care, God-like behaviors. What he doesn’t realize, of course, is that not even mercilessly beating your girlfriend can cement your burdensome writing a place in literary history.
V.S. Naipul (also known as Vidia) met his first wife, Patricia Hale, while they were both students at Oxford. Their relationship started innocently: Vidia was an Indian from Trinidad who was striving to be accepted in a white, British world, and Pat was a shy, insecure young girl with a daddy complex and a lower middle class upbringing. Vidia courted her, and she was wooed by his attentions.
‘Yes, darling, I am missing you very much,” he wrote to her in the first year of their relationship. “At odd moments, I seem to smell you (don’t be angry: it’s a pleasant smell)… I think of your room tonight - at St Hugh’s - robbed of you, robbed of all its charm, its warmth, its cosiness.”
Sounds like the kind of shit someone writes who wants their papers to be donated, post-mortem, to a grand library.
Pat and Vidia lost their virginity to one another, got married, and soon after, their relationship, mostly sexless, digressed into something unhealthy. She supported him as he built his career, typed his novels for him, endured his infidelities. He responded to her devotion by demeaning her, by screaming at her, by forcing her to suffer through his moods and his tempers. At one point, he said: “You are the only woman I know who has no skill. You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station.”
A man with a self proclaimed low sex drive, Vidia, afraid that he was unable to seduce women he didn’t have to pay, turned to prostitutes to escape his passionless marriage. Or at least that’s what he said.
All the while he was fucking whores and treating his wife like a dog, his literary star was rising.
And then, while on assignment to cover the Argentinian political crisis for the New York Review of Books in 1972, he met Margaret Gooding, who would become his mistress for a quarter of a century. He wrote:
“I wished to possess her as soon as I saw her. She was wearing a kind of furry pullover because it was the beginning of the Argentine winter and it was slightly dirty, the way these things can get dirty, and that was very affecting to me. So she came in and I was completely dazzled. I loved her eyes. I loved her mouth. I loved everything about her and I have never stopped loving her, actually. What a panic it was for me to win her because I had no seducing talent at all. And somehow the need was so great that I did do it.”
And I thought Mark Sanford was a lover of Argentinian woman.
(By the way, Mark, the former governor of South Carolina, ended up with Maria Belen Chapur, the woman who ended his political career, and to whom he wrote some pretty beautiful love letters. I hate to admit it, but I find their union to be pretty moving.)
Soon after, Vidia devised a plan to seduce Margaret in Bariloche, the Argentinian ski resort at the foothill of the Andes. He scared her shitless by appearing unannounced, at her hotel. In no time at all, however, she succumbed to his stout charms, cheerfully enduring what she later described as his problems with premature ejaculation.
Interestingly enough, almost exactly a year ago, I spent a weekend with my friend MM in Bariloche, who not only failed to seduce me (not that he tried), but also stopped talking to me after an incident on the slopes when I abandoned him, a second-time skier, in a drift at the top of the mountain. Unfortunately, I cannot report whether or not he ejaculates prematurely, but I will say that he only eats kosher food.
Yours for the taking, ladies.
After her trip to Bariloche, Margaret, a married woman with three children, entered into a twenty-four year long relationship with Vidia, one that he claimed would liberate not only his sexuality, but also his writing.
On their initial encounter, Vidia said:
“I felt good for the first time. I was passionately looking for sensual fulfilment, but passionately, and when it came it was wonderful, and I will never run it down. All the later books in a way to some extent depend on her. The books stopped being dry after Margaret, and it was a great liberation. Nothing was missing. The world was complete for me.”
Unsurprisingly, whenever Vidia speaks of their love affair, he never mentions how Margaret felt, or who she is. He only talks about how their relationship fulfilled him. But I have a feeling that Margaret, who is flattened into a beautiful woman who loves to be beaten in Vidia’s accounts of his own life, has some compelling character flaws roiling underneath the surface of her submissiveness.
Apparently, the two got into some sado-maschocistic shit together, re-tellings of which occasionally appear in Naipaul’s fiction, but I haven’t read it, nor do I plan to, so I can’t relay the instances here.
At one point, after Vidia found out that Margaret was having another affair, wrote: “I was very violent with her for two days; I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt … . She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her”.
Where Margaret really comes to life is in the diaries of Patricia Hale, who wrote thousands and thousands of entries about her husband’s mistress, never mentioning the Argentinian woman by her actual name.
“‘Vidia told me he was “grieving for that girl”… Says he has no one to talk to about it so must talk to me. So we talk till one in the morning.’ Later, he ‘emerged to ask me to come and make love.’”
This kind of shit goes on for years and years and years. Eventually, Pat dies of cancer, an act of God that Naipaul attributes to his revelation in the media that he frequently slept with prostitutes.
“I couldn’t see that this would be front page news,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be like that. But that’s how Pat [heard about] it. And she ran to get the newspaper. I told her, please don’t get it. Please don’t read it… She read it privately. Shortly after that she became ill again, and people say that this cancer business can come with great distress and grief. She was very upset. She was tearful and wounded.”
Oh hey, Vidia, did you think saying you were better than any female writer in history would make the news? I certainly wouldn’t have expected it. Lucky break, my diminutive little man. Slow news week.
Pat’s death left Vidia free to marry Margaret, an idea that repulsed him, so he broke up with her, and took up with the Pakistani journalist Nadira Khanum Alvi, the current Lady Naipaul.
“I feel that in all of this Margaret was badly treated. I feel this very much. But you know there is nothing I can do… I stayed with Margaret until she became middle-aged, almost an old lady.”
For you, Patricia Hale, for your long suffering as the wife of an ugly, mean, and selfish man. For you, Margaret Gooding, for your general invisibility. For being Argentinian. For the relationship that existed between the two of you, in Naipaul’s literature, in Pat’s diary, and in Margaret’s silence. For existing beyond the words of an overstuffed, pretentious writer, for life that is not fiction or self propaganda, for the ability of women to endure, and to be unconditionally loving. For the strength it takes to be good to someone else, to take care of them, to forgive them. For the way that such a strength can allow a woman to write fiction that stands on no one’s shoulders, that will endure history for as long as our current type of history exists.
For women writers in general, those who are deities, and those who will become canonized, increasingly, as we are freed from the binds of traditional domestic life, and allowed to flex our muscles. For you, Patricia and Margaret, and for women writers, and for me, I say “fuck you V.S. Naipaul.” You’ll never be my Icon of the Week.