“It could be said that I killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way." This is Nobel prize winner V. S. Naipaul discussing his first wife Patricia in a new official biography of the author by Patrick French, an excerpt from which appeared in The Daily Telegraph on Friday. “I felt liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable,” he says in another context.
An ‘official’ biography, authorised by the great man being written about, is usually a yawn. All incidents that show him in poor light, all the flaws in his character, are left out. But if the excerpt is any guide, French’s biography is quite the opposite — a hatchet job the likes of Kitty Kelley would have envied. And amazingly it often quotes Naipaul himself freely acknowledging and elaborating upon his own outrageous behaviour.
Knowing well what the outcome might be, Naipaul still gave French complete access to not only his papers and diaries, but also the 24 volumes of diaries kept by his late wife. The result is a portrait of a man who perfectly fits his former friend Paul Theroux description of him as “almost unlovable”, “deeply flawed”, “mean and cruel”.
The biography reveals that the author of more than 30 books (five of them on India) and some universally acknowledged as masterpieces, tormented his first wife for the 41 years that they were married. He told her “about his long standing mistress Margaret Gooding almost from the beginning,” the book notes, “and she suffered almost a quarter of a century trapped in the triangle”.
She was to learn much later — from an interview Naipaul gave to The New Yorker — that her husband had regularly visited prostitutes during the first years of their marriage. She was already suffering from cancer and went rapidly downhill thereafter.
But after her death Naipaul sprang another surprise — he married not the long time mistress, but Pakistani journalist Nadia Khannum Alvi, whom he had met only shortly before. “I feel that in all of this Margaret was very badly treated,” Naipaul admits freely in the book. “But you know there is nothing I can do. I stayed with Margaret until she became middle-aged, almost an old lady.” French’s biography claims Naipaul is supremely happy with his second wife.