V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born Nobel laureate whose celebrated writing and brittle, provocative personality drew admiration and revulsion in equal measures, died Saturday at his London home, his family said. He was 85.
With those few words, images and memories flooded my mind. It’s about 1980 and I attended my first writers’ conference, AAPP, in San Antonio with another writer friend, Bill. He knew many of the men there and our table crowded with them, telling alcohol-induced stories, one over the other, laughter rolling through the air with whorls of cigarette smoke. V.S. Naipaul one of them. A slew of well-known writers, one particularly, whose name I can’t recall, but a great bear of a man whom I coaxed onto the dance floor. He danced like a bear, but a laughing bear.
Naipaul was quieter. At one point, I found myself sitting beside him, and he told me stories of Trinidad in a quiet voice, almost as if they were painful to recall. What I remember most was his beautiful accent, an island patois varnished and overlaid by proper British English. Perhaps only patois could bring back the island stories, complete and whole again. I never heard brittleness in his voice. Sadness, yes, it showed up in his writing, too. Perhaps the brittleness was reserved for his battles with the world.
Some months later, maybe close to a year later, I saw him again at a conference in Connecticut. We walked the grounds and talked. I suppose if I dug through my journals of that time, I could find details of what we talked about. Mostly writing, I expect, and the demands of that life.
The Connecticut trip was the impetus for my move to New York City later that year. Naipaul and I kept in touch by mail for a few years, but then he moved or I moved or maybe both, and we lost touch. That was about the time I went to Mexico to live. As I’m a letter-saver, somewhere in my cavernous files there may yet lie one of his.
I suppose this is now the part of life I’ve come to–the part where old friends and acquaintances die, and unless he or she is famous or a family member, often I don’t know. They lie in my past, still alive, still telling me stories when I run across a letter or an old piece of writing, or even, on those few occasions, when I see a newspaper story.
And for that I am grateful. It brings a patch of my own life back in focus, and I smile as I tell a story for someone else to remember.