In response to:
On V.S. Naipaul: An Exchange from the January 15, 2009 issue
To the Editors:
I was surprised to read Margaret Murray’s letter [NYR, January 15] stating that she did not cooperate with my biography of V.S. Naipaul. Fully aware that I was working on this project, she sent me cards, letters, and e-mails, called me to discuss Naipaul’s past and present indiscretions (but asked not to be quoted—which I cooperatively respected), suggested useful people I might interview, supplied me via her sister with important information on her own family background, education, and early life; she even asked me to courier a saucy letter to Sir Vidia. All of this was invaluable in biographical terms.
As to the other wronged party, Paul Theroux, he suggests I did not see “the hundreds of letters that Naipaul wrote to Ms. Murray.” Around twenty letters were written. I read some, and quote from them in The World Is What It Is. As to Mr. Theroux’s complaint that I did not interview the late Lawrence O’Keefe or the late Shiva Naipaul, I plead guilty. This is a common problem for biographers: it is impossible to arrange interviews with people once they are dead.
Ian Buruma replies:
In response to this letter the Review has received the following letter from a friend of Margaret Murray:
Margaret Murray has shown me Patrick French’s response to her letter published in the January 15 issue, and I send the following comment:
I met Vidia Naipaul in the late 1960s when I was secretary to his editor, Diana Athill, at Andre Deutsch, and I forwarded his mail. Vidia was a kind, encouraging, and mind-stretching friend to me—we share the same birthday, and once, with Margaret Murray, celebrated happily together.
In the summer of 1976, the day after Vidia had finally introduced me to his wife, Pat, he suggested I meet his lover Margaret. Margaret has been a close friend ever since.
When Margaret was contacted about the authorized biography, she suggested that Patrick French should talk to me. She did not wish to give interviews. Mr. French knew this, but he did not contact me until the book was almost ready for press. However much I knew about the relationship, I was not prepared to discuss it over the telephone, and without warning, with someone whose eyes I had never seen.
Meanwhile, Mr. French—like any diligent biographer—was determined that Margaret should help him. She was clear that she would not, for the reasons she stated in her letter to The New York Review. They had several cordial conversations and e-mails, mainly initiated by Mr. French. In particular he pressured her for permission to quote directly from her letters to Vidia. She did not give her permission; he was obliged to paraphrase. There is also the matter of Vidia’s early letters to Margaret (before they took to the international telephone): Margaret retains those letters, and she did not agree to show them to Mr. French.
I suppose what any friend of Margaret’s feels is that it seems outrageous that in her lifetime some of her intimate letters to her lover of twenty-four years were bundled up and sold for profit to the Tulsa University archives, without her permission (or indeed recompense); and that for Mr. French to imply that there was some kind of cooperation between himself and Margaret beyond a courteous exchange of e-mails and calls, etc., is stretching a point too far.
February 12, 2009