How the Story of V.S. Naipaul’s Early Life Went Up in Flames
With the simple mistake of conflating boxes labeled ‘NAIPAUL’ with those that read ‘NITRATE,’ the author, who died recently, lost a third of his personal and professional archives.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Paris Review in 1998, V.S. Naipaul said, “as a writer, you can become very lazy. You can start using words lazily. I don’t want that to happen. Words are valuable. I like to use them in a valuable way.”
It’s an apt sentiment for a writer, one who was often described as “one of the greatest writers in the English language.” But beyond being careful with his own words, Naipaul, who died on August 11 at the age of 85, knew quite viscerally the damage that could be done when attention to semantic detail fails.
In 1992, Naipaul discovered that a trove of his early papers and manuscripts that he had entrusted to a London warehouse for safekeeping in the 1970s had been accidentally burned due to a misreading of labels.
With the simple and careless mistake of conflating boxes labeled “NAIPAUL” with those that read “NITRATE,” the author lost a third of his personal and professional archives.
Documenting personal history was important to Naipaul. The author, who grew up in rural Trinidad the son of Indian immigrants, spent much of his life examining and excavating his family history and heritage.
“Half a writer’s work . . . is the discovery of his subject,” Naipaul wrote in his essay “Prologue to an Autobiography” in the book Finding the Center. “And a problem for me was that my life had been varied, full of upheavals and moves: from grandmother’s Hindu house in the country, still close to the rituals and social ways of village India; to Port of Spain, the negro, and G.I. life of its streets, the other, ordered life of my colonial English school, which is called Queen’s Royal College, and then Oxford, London and the freelancers’ room at the BBC. Trying to make a beginning as a writer, I didn’t know where to focus.”
Naipaul was nothing if not contradictory, as many of his obituaries have pointed out. He was a brilliant writer, but a not-so-upstanding man. He prized his first wife Patricia Hale’s opinion of his work above all (Hale was an early reader and supporter firmly in the pantheon of women who were crucial to their husbands’ artistic achievements without receiving their proper due), but he was just plain horrible to her much of the time.
He believed in full disclosure to the extent of unconditionally sanctioning a 2008 biography by writer Patrick French that painted his personal behavior in a rather unfavorable light. Christopher Hitchens called the book “astonishing (and astonishingly authorized)” in a 2008 piece in The Atlantic.
Yet, despite allowing and championing a tell-all, he had little interest in reliving his early years and works himself. In 2000, a book of his correspondence with his family while he was studying at Oxford was published, and he declined to read it before publication, telling the New York Times “I don’t ever want to relive those years. They were too wretched.”
Given this philosophy, one can imagine how, when he decided to store his existing archives in the 1970s for safekeeping, he rounded up pretty much everything on hand. Personal censorship was strictly forbidden.
Included in the collection were his personal reflections—diaries from his time at Oxford, his days as a budding journalist, his travels around Africa and India, and his reflections as he went about creating some of his early work.
There were letters that he had received during his early years in England. He had copies of the scripts he had written while he was working for the BBC’s Caribbean Voices and copies of the pieces he had contributed to his “Letters from London” column in the Illustrated Weekly of India. And then there were the early manuscripts: two books that were never published, one written while he was living in Trinidad and the other called The Shadow’d Livery penned during his time at Oxford.
While Naipaul was enthusiastic about The Shadow’d Livery early on—a letter he wrote from Oxford called it his “magnum opus” and reported “the man at the Ashmolean Museum here, who has read the first 50,000 words, thinks it highly readable”—the book failed to sell and his opinion of it evolved. In an interview with the New York Times in 2000, he acknowledged “it was heavily dependent on Evelyn Waugh, but the idea was my own.”
Naipaul was rather unsparing with his judgements of his fellow writers. In his obituary for The Daily Beast, Allen Barra lists Naipaul’s scathing critiques of writers including Marcel Proust, Gabriel García Márquez, and James Joyce.
But just because an early novel of his own had failed was no reason to strike it from the history books and pretend it was never written. After all, this is the man who allowed his first wife’s diary, full of detailed documentation of the inexcusable insults and cruelty she endured from him, to be entered into the official archives of his later work, and to be used as source material in his authorized biography without ever having read it himself.
After rounding up his literary treasure trove, Naipaul’s initial plan wasn’t to simply store it for safekeeping. He thought maybe he could sell it for some quick cash.
In it, he requested, “Here is something I would like you to do for me, assuming that it is in your power to do so. I need a lot of money very badly (or at least it seems to me that I need a lot of money). The only asset I have is my manuscripts (drafts, etc.) & my other papers (correspondence etc). A pretty complete documentation of my writing life from 18 to 40…the minimum price I would like—for all that I have, >which is all that exists<—is £40,000.”
He asked Theroux to explore a sale, possibly to an academic institution in the U.S. But, Naipaul was still a budding writer with a limited international reputation, and no one was interested in acquiring his papers for that amount.
So, in what one can imagine was his unhappy back-up plan, these documents ended up in boxes labeled “NAIPAUL” and they were interned for safekeeping at Ely’s warehouse in London. Unfortunately, so, too, were the files for the Nitrate Corporation of Chile.
For nearly two decades, Naipaul lived his life—writing books, winning awards, and growing his reputation as his notoriously difficult personality grew in turn—assuming that his early records were safe and sound.
Then, in 1992, he decided it was time to have them appraised. He was getting on in years and Pat was gravely ill with breast cancer. It was time to take a look at the literary archive and maybe try again to find a new home for it.
Pat went to the warehouse to retrieve the files, but when she got there, they were missing. She discovered that when the order had came down to destroy the boxes for the nitrate company, the “NAIPAUL” files had been swept up in the haphazard collection.
One can imagine how devastating the loss was for the author who prized history and full disclosure above all else and who thought “the lives of writers are a legitimate subject of inquiry, and the truth should not be skimped.”
Two years later, Naipaul’s remaining archives would be sold to the University of Tulsa for over half a million dollars. But even with the over 50,000 pieces of paper that the Tulsa trove includes, a third of the writer’s archives encompassing his early papers, documents, and manuscripts remained absent, a dark void in the accounting of his personal history.
“I kept it for the record,” Naipaul told French about the materials he had stored in the London warehouse archives. “I am a great believer in the record, that the truth is wonderful and that any doctored truth is awful. Doctored truth is not truth. I destroyed nothing. I think the completeness of a record is what matters. I have great trouble reading other people’s autobiographies because I feel it is doctored. So the stuff that was destroyed in the warehouse, lots of embarrassing things, that was part of the record.”