It can get tiring for us, but at least we can explain it away by saying it’s all fodder for the book we’re going to write or the short story we’ve been working on in our heads for the past two years. (Or, in my present case, a blog entry I’m putting up the next day!) For our partners, however, it’s maddening. They don’t understand why we have to live so much of our lives in our heads. They also carry a heavy burden: that of being our muses, our cheerleaders, and at times, our punching bags when things go south.
I use the term “punching bag” figuratively, of course, but for one of my favorite writers on the planet, it turns out this term is very close to describing what his ex-wife, Patricia Hale, was to him. I’m talking about Vidyadhar Suraj-prasad, “Vido,” Sir Vidia -- V. S. Naipaul. In The World Is What It Is, Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul releasing in the U.S. next week, this “cruel and unusual” relationship is depicted in all its horrors. Astonishingly, the biography is authorized: Naipaul gave French intricate details of his marriage, even handing over his late wife’s diaries to French.
Naipaul and Hale met at Oxford, married quickly, and spent the rest of their lives in pursuit of his many literary ambitions. Hale gave up everything to marry Naipaul, “a scholarship boy with no prospects, contacts or money at a time when the racial prejudice endemic at every level of British society prevented him getting a job or even renting a room in London.” She served as his editor, typist, and secretary, even on her deathbed as she lay dying of cancer. And in return? From The Guardian:
He stopped her acting on the grounds that it offended him, refused to buy her a wedding ring ('I had no interest in jewellery,' he explained blandly to his biographer) and stamped out any hope she may have had of an independent career, except in so far as he needed her initially to earn his keep.She records this all in a painful, self-loathing way in her diaries. From The Atlantic:
Her world contracted as his expanded. He undermined her confidence, derided her opinions and told her she was too dull to take to parties. She stopped travelling with him because, for the last 20 years of her life, he shared his favours with a far more sophisticated and no less compliant Argentinian mistress who crisscrossed the globe at his side, providing services, principally boastful, energetic and violent sex, outside the scope of his mute, sad, stay-at-home wife.
Vidia’s unconscious hope may have been that if he were sufficiently horrible to Pat, she might disappear. Alone in her room at the cottage, she dutifully recorded his insults … “He has not enjoyed making love to me since 1967 [the entry is for 1973]”; “You know you are the only woman I know who has no skill. Vanessa paints, Tristram’s wife paints, Antonia, Marigold Johnson” … Even when she was alone, Pat felt she had failed her husband. After going up to London to watch a play with Antonia, Francis and Julian Jebb, she concluded that while she was there she had “lived up to Vidia’s dictum: ‘You don’t behave like a writer’s wife. You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station.’”It finally became too much for her when Naipaul publicly announced in 1994 that he had regularly paid prostitutes for sex in the early years of his marriage:
The shock of this revelation devastated Patricia Naipaul, who had been in remission from a cancer that now became terminal. 'It could be said that I killed her,' her husband conceded dispassionately to his biographer in one of the brutally frank interviews that provide the backbone of this extraordinary book.The insult didn’t stop after her death, however. Naipaul proposed to his current wife, Nadira Alvi, a Pakistani journalist 20 years younger than the writer, as soon as it became clear that Hale was going to die:
'He felt angry that she was dying,' Nadira reported, 'and angry that she was not dying fast enough because he wanted to carry on with his life.' The day after Patricia Naipaul's brief, austere and impersonal funeral, her successor moved into her house and a few months later scattered her ashes in the nearest wood while reciting a prayer in praise of Allah.Naipaul’s “extraordinary callousness” has been well-documented in the past, most famously by Paul Theroux in his scathing 1998 biography of the man, Sir Vidia’s Shadow. As a student, I read and re-read his books, marvelling at his mastery of the English language. He was my favorite writer for years. He’s won the Nobel and been knighted, and it’s a prodigious accomplishment, especially given where he came from, as a penniless grandson of an indentured laborer.
But now, perhaps in part owing to my perspective as a Devi with baby, I chafe at what happened behind the scenes while all this was going on. All sorts of thoughts run through my head as I read. That poor woman! And, what kind of a man could treat such a loyal partner in this way? And, what kind of woman would put up with that?
We've often heard about how great men and women in history often have had flawed personal lives. So many examples in recent history come to mind, from Bill Clinton to Madonna. It makes me wonder if a worldwide level of fame or achievement is almost intrinsically at odds with a functional personal life. It seems to be the sacrifice one has to make in order to be great, because other parts of your life inevitably have to suffer.
Is Naipaul still one of the greatest writers in history? Yes. Can we still adore and admire his books knowing the pain and degradation he inflicted upon another human being in order to create them? That answer is personal for everyone. I am also a firm believer that you can't judge someone else's marriage, because you really have no idea what happens behind closed doors.
What I do know is, if that’s what it took for me to be as great a writer as Naipaul, it’s not a sacrifice I’d be willing to make. Would you?