Robert McCrum

The Sum of His Books

On V S Naipaul 1932–2018

The last time I saw V S Naipaul, on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall during the hoopla surrounding the so-called Golden Booker, for which I’d nominated his In a Free State, he was in a wheelchair and wore the ageless mask of Tiresias, seeming not to know how and why he was there, or who was who.

My neighbour at the event, another judge, whose family is friends with Naipaul’s, whispered, ‘How Vidia must be hating this.’ Sadly, it was as though he was already gone, his majestic oeuvre beginning to take on its posthumous immortality.

Such a verdict would probably not come as a surprise to Vidia himself. In life, for most of his eighty-five years, Naipaul was fully attuned to his own significance. ‘My story is a kind of cultural history’, he once told me. At the same time, resisting oversimplification, he liked to quote Proust’s Against Sainte-Beuve: ‘A book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits.’ The words of Proust, he’d add, should be with the reader who explores the biography of a writer. ‘No amount of documentation, however fascinating, can take us there. The biography of a writer … will always have this incompleteness.’

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