“The World is what it is. Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” V. S. Naipaul, from A Bend in the River
I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet more than a few of the people I most admire in the world. Not everyone can meet his or her heroes. Most of mine are authors, and some of them are still living. Of all the people I have met (and this includes Pope John Paul II) I have only felt intimidated to meet just one: V. S. Naipaul.
I met Naipaul when I went to hear him speak at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. He was there to promote his book, an anthology of letters he exchanged with his late father. I had just finished reading his book, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, and I was very excited, if quite nervous to meet him. I had also just read Paul Theroux’s memoir of his friendship with Naipaul, titled, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, which is a vicious attack on Naipaul’s character—and maybe with good reason. At the time, I believed every word in that book. So, it was with a lot of hesitation that I decided to make my way to New York to hear Naipaul speak. If he turned out to be an asshole, my whole literary relationship with him would be ruined. It was a chance I wanted to take.
The usual Upper East Side rabble was in attendance. Most of them had grey hair and bad perfume (the men as well as the women), but I was happy to be there. Naipaul was introduced and came to the stage. He is even shorter in person than I thought. After reading some fiction, he went on to discuss how the letters to his father came to be published. Naipaul did take questions at the end, but only after those questions were first written down on note cards and passed forward. The cards were collected and then Naipaul and the interviewer went back stage. We were told that Naipaul would pick the questions he would answer. There seemed to be no problem with the form of the question session from what I could hear in the audience. This struck me as quite strange and more than a little arrogant, but then, this was the great V. S. Naipaul. When Naipaul came back to the stage the interviewer read the questions and Naipaul gave some very detailed and honest answers.
When it came time to line up for the signing we were told that Naipaul would only be signing one book. I was thankful, as I had a three-hour drive ahead of me and it was already 10 pm, and my car was parked in a garage on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue. It’s interesting hearing people talk when waiting in line to have a book signed. So many “admirers” think themselves experts on the author they come to see. It was during moments like these that I began to lose my taste for graduate students and pseudo literary critics. The older people in the audience were also waiting in line, but their conversations ran along different lines.
Nevertheless, I kept silent as I inched my way up to the great man. V.S. Naipaul is perhaps the most polarizing writer living today. He has been called ultra-conservative, racist, an egoist, arrogant, mean, intolerant, demanding, anti-women, and more. However, there are few writers than have his talent. Sentence for sentence he may be the most talented living writer, with the possible exception of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Naipaul is above all, honest. You find it in his interviews, as well as his fiction. It’s for this honesty that his is condemned. He is never politically correct. I once heard a professor at Binghamton claim that Naipaul’s Nobel Prize should be stripped on account of the things he says. At the time I thought that the professor displayed an incredible arrogance and intolerance herself, but as a grad student who could not afford to make political enemies, I kept silent. I regret not defending Naipaul to this day. I am happy to report that a few years after this outburst, the professor was denied tenure. Karma! Naipaul is a very hard man to like personally. Yet, as I said, his writing is wonderful. When I finally got to Naipaul to have my book signed we exchanged a few words and I found him charming, and even warm.
Then “it” happened.
As I was taking my signed book from him my finger touched his and slid all the way up its length. I was mortified. I had read how Naipaul did not like to touch strangers and Theroux even writes in his book how, when a delivery man sat on Naipaul’s bed, Naipaul threw such a fit that he got rid of the bed and bought a new one. I also hoped Naipaul would not think I was coming on to him. I smiled, and quickly left. As I made my way down to midtown all I could think about was the finger incident.
Later that year Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Now every time I am reading a book of his, or writing an article on him, all I can think of is our physical contact. This past October Naipaul published Masques of Africa, and was reading and signing books in Boston. I wanted to go, but was scheduled to be away in Portugal for a conference. When I expressed my sadness over missing Naipaul to my wife, she was less than sympathetic.