The Enigma of Marriage and Ambition

Wednesday, October 29, 2008
My husband is a trooper. Anyone who’s married to a writer deserves a medal of honor, in my book. We are moody types, prone to long bouts of introspective reticence, sudden bursts of manic energy, and a tendency to over-analyze everything from the state of the world to the state of our daily lives. “What’s it all for?” we’re constantly asking. Of course, we never have a definitive answer to that question.

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.

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.
She records this all in a painful, self-loathing way in her diaries. From The Atlantic:
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?
Anonymous said...

Per your last paragraph - I'm not sure that it's something one does but rather the way a person is when they behave that way to the people closest to them. I wonder if it's a manifestation of self haterd when people seek so much external praise.

Anonymous said...

inherent in ambition is always looking for the next best thing or accomplishment. maybe it spills over into personal relationships too.

deepa said...

I really don't want to believe that dysfunction and disregard for the people we love is a pre-requisite for "greatness." There must be myriad examples of "regular" or "functional" human beings who are also accomplished and amazing writers, painters, artists right? I, of course, am coming up blank in trying to think of them but there must be? Can anybody help me out?

Also, in my academic, scholarly and oh-so-wonderfully articulated opinion: Naipul sounds like a jackass.

Anonymous said...

dysfunction and disregard is not a pre-req for greatness but stems from the same ambitious drive or may even be a by-product for the self centered narcissistic folk.

i think that's why self-promoters make me ill to the bone. knowing that if something or someone better comes by they'll just toss aside a loved one - be it friend , colleague, spouse.

Buster said...

Two responses leap to my mind:

1. But Sir Vidia, for most of his career, has been a terrible person both in print and behind closed doors. The inimitable Derek Walcott addressed his hatefulness in Naipaul's written work earlier this year:

The Mongoose

I have been bitten. I must avoid infection,
Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.
Read his last novels. You’ll see just what I mean:
A lethargy approaching the obscene.
The model is Maugham, more ho-hum than Dickens.
The essays have more bite. They scatter chickens,
Like critics. But each studied phrase is poison,
Since he has made that sneering style a prison.
Their plots are forced, the prose sedate and silly.
The anti-hero is a prick named Willy,
Who lacks the conflict of a Waugh or Lawrence
And whines with his creator’s self-abhorrence…

Maybe not my choice of diction or my tack of criticism, but it gets to Naipaul's underlying venom on the page.

2. I thought of an interview I conducted with the widow of an anticolonial writer in London. When I asked how her husband managed to make ends meet in the 1950s, after being run out of academia by anti-Communists, she responded: "I paid the bills. I worked days and came home at night to make dinner and type up his essays. In retrospect, he was a terrible husband--he never had his affairs in order. But I thought nothing of it at the time." In no way do I mean this as a comment to mitigate Naipaul's horrible actions. Just a bit of historical texture.

carnaticdiva said...

deepa, you are right in that there were many well adjusted geniuses. I think Bach is the best example!

also, no way to get around it. Sure, we may not know what goes on "behind closed doors" in a marriage, but we do know that Naipal is an abusive and violent person, all brilliance aside.

Anonymous said...

Hosseini--the author of "The Kite Runner": Every time I read an interview with him I am struck by how accessible, normal, and down-to-earth he is. Greatness doesn't demand deviance.

Seemi said...

Here's an ambition within marriage that is odd. This young woman is appearantly a white American who grew up within a Hindu sect, partly in India, and I wonder what the devis here think of her take on polygamy.

jaime said...

Personally, I would never intentionally hurt the people I care about for success and fame. At the end of the day you have to live with yourself and your actions. What good is success if you can't share it with the people you love most? In my opinion, success is not only achieving your goal, but also the process that got you there, and you have to be proud of both to feel true greatness. I guess I'm old school.

Anonymous said...

He is an idiot.
I, like many other indians was proud to see an indian win the nobel prize.
After he won, he was NPR and answered questions from fans. He was incredibly rude and arrogant to callers who obviously had adored him.
I felt sorry for all the callers who had looked up this author and had been moved by his writing and were now undressed by him on national radio.
I refuse to buy any of his books until he dies.

Dua for Marriage said...

Marriage is very essential in men life

aijaz uddin said...

Nice Post frndzZz
other naats post
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