A decade after the Nobel laureate VS Naipaul published his autobiography, some of his words have come back to haunt him â€“ and sparked a literary feud involving three of Britainâ€™s foremost writers.
Passages in which Naipaul dismissed the writing of the late novelist Anthony Powell have sparked condemnation from Hilary Spurling, the prize-winning biographer, who accuses him of carrying out an inexplicable â€œact of vengeanceâ€ against a loyal friend.
She said: â€œIn his memoirs, titled A Writerâ€™s People, Naipaul claimed to have read no more [of Powellâ€™s novels] until Tony died, when he was asked by a literary editor to write about him. So he read the middle section of the sequence and was appalled by its narrative clumsiness and shallow characterisation.â€
Naipaul had written: â€œI didnâ€™t know how to present myself to people who knew Powell. I didnâ€™t think anyone would believe that, after all the years of friendship, I had not read Powell in any serious and connected way, had only just done so, and didnâ€™t now think of him as a writer. It was a piece of Ibsen-like horror.
â€œIt wasnâ€™t something I could put to the editor, who had asked me to write about him. So I did nothing â€¦ Through all our friendship, I had never ceased to think of him as a great writer. It may be that the friendship lasted all that time because I had not examined his work.â€
Having been given access to the family archives, Spurling has been taken aback by the contents of a 1986 letter from Naipaul to Powell, which takes a completely different view. Referring to The Acceptance World, the third of Powellâ€™s novels in his sequence of 12 called A Dance to the Music of Time, Naipaul began with the words â€œA fan letterâ€.
He continued: â€œIâ€™ve been reading The Acceptance World again. I cannot tell you the pleasure â€“ much greater than before â€“ it has given me. So original; so rich; so beguiling; so classical; so full of wisdom and gentleness and passion.â€ He likened â€œthe language and the imagesâ€ of one of its scenes to â€œthe wonder and magic of a sonnet by Shakespeareâ€.
Spurling struggles to understand how Naipaul could have written a deeply moving letter about Powellâ€™s writing, only to trash him after his death: â€œThere was no call on him to do this, to go out of his way â€“ and he does.â€ She added: â€œI presume it was jealousy. I can see no other reason why you would attack a dead man for writing books that when he was alive you thought were absolutely wonderful. Itâ€™s weird.â€
Naipaul, a Trinidad-born British writer, won the 2001 Nobel prize for literature, with his autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival, singled out by the Swedish Academy as â€œa masterpieceâ€.
Spurling praises him as a â€œmarvellous novelistâ€, but she questions why he felt the need â€œto attack a dead manâ€. She said: â€œItâ€™s completely gobsmacking â€¦ Thatâ€™s a real act of vengeance for someone who had never been anything but kind, and a reversal of what he thought when he read the books before.â€
She said that Powell had been Naipaulâ€™s mentor and supporter when he needed it most, and that they remained close friends; he secured regular work for him on Punch and a column in The Statesman, â€œwhich was his lifelineâ€.
Spurling added: â€œIn his first years, when he came to England, [Naipaul] had an incredibly hard time â€¦ People were very conscious of race in those days. Tony was literary editor of Punch. Writers he knew were hard up he was especially good to. Heâ€™d send them books to review. Thatâ€™s when he took up Naipaul. He reviewed his books himself. He thought they were wonderful. Then he met him, took him to lunch â€¦ and thatâ€™s how their friendship began. He introduced him to all sorts of other people â€¦ Thereâ€™s a letter from Naipaul to Tony, again private, saying, â€˜I just donâ€™t know how I would have got through those years without you.â€™â€
She added: â€œTony understood what a good writer he was from the very start, from his first novel, when he was just a young West Indian that nobody knew. Itâ€™s an extraordinary thing to have done, but thatâ€™s just literary feuds for you.â€
Naipaulâ€™s literary agent declined to comment. His 1986 letter is now in the public domain following the Powell familyâ€™s decision to sell it, but there was no reference to it in Naipaulâ€™s biography, Spurling said.
She added: â€œIâ€™m stating facts â€¦ Heâ€™s likely to be hopping mad. But if you behave like thatâ€¦â€