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 “act of vengeance” against a loyal friend.
She said: “In his memoirs, titled A Writer’s People, Naipaul claimed to have read no more [of Powell’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.”
Naipaul had written: “I didn’t know how to present myself to people who knew Powell. I didn’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 didn’t now think of him as a writer. It was a piece of Ibsen-like horror.
“It wasn’t something I could put to the editor, who had asked me to write about him. So I did nothing … 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.”
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 Powell’s novels in his sequence of 12 called A Dance to the Music of Time, Naipaul began with the words “A fan letter”.
He continued: “I’ve been reading The Acceptance World again. I cannot tell you the pleasure – much greater than before – it has given me. So original; so rich; so beguiling; so classical; so full of wisdom and gentleness and passion.” He likened “the language and the images” of one of its scenes to “the wonder and magic of a sonnet by Shakespeare”.
Spurling struggles to understand how Naipaul could have written a deeply moving letter about Powell’s writing, only to trash him after his death: “There was no call on him to do this, to go out of his way – and he does.” She added: “I 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. It’s weird.”
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 “a masterpiece”.
Spurling praises him as a “marvellous novelist”, but she questions why he felt the need “to attack a dead man”. She said: “It’s completely gobsmacking … That’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.”
She said that Powell had been Naipaul’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, “which was his lifeline”.
Spurling added: “In his first years, when he came to England, [Naipaul] had an incredibly hard time … 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. He’d send them books to review. That’s when he took up Naipaul. He reviewed his books himself. He thought they were wonderful. Then he met him, took him to lunch … and that’s how their friendship began. He introduced him to all sorts of other people … There’s a letter from Naipaul to Tony, again private, saying, ‘I just don’t know how I would have got through those years without you.’”
She added: “Tony 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. It’s an extraordinary thing to have done, but that’s just literary feuds for you.”
Naipaul’s literary agent declined to comment. His 1986 letter is now in the public domain following the Powell family’s decision to sell it, but there was no reference to it in Naipaul’s biography, Spurling said.
She added: “I’m stating facts … He’s likely to be hopping mad. But if you behave like that…”