V.S. Naipaul’s Mistress v. Patrick French: The Ultimate Showdown

The increasingly acrimonious exchanges between Margaret Murray and Patrick French in the New York Review of Books are simmering out of control.

By Ben Rossi

VS Naipaul and his mistress, Margaret Murray, in the early 1970s. Photo from the Washington Post.

The increasingly bitter exchanges between Naipaul’s longtime mistress, Margaret Murray, her mysterious proxy and friend Juliet Walker, and Naipaul biographer Patrick French–with Ian Buruma as referee–are simmering out of control in the back pages of the New York Review of Books.

It would appear that VS Naipaul has been able to recreate the incestuous, hostile atmosphere of his Trinidad childhood home on a global scale, with Murray in Argentina, Paul Theroux in America and Patrick French in England dueling it out on the pages of the NYRB (cf A House for Mr. Biswas). Let’s have a recap:

The review of French’s The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul by Ian Buruma–who himself is intimately involved in the Naipaul drama and tried to write a biography of the writer some years ago–came out in the November 20, 2008 issue. In the January 15 issue, Murray wrote that she “did not cooperate with Patrick French’s book; nor have I read it. There are a number of things wrong in Ian Buruma’s review of it.” She went on to challenge some of Buruma and French’s assertions, the most important being the claim, made by Naipaul himself, that Murray did not like the sadistic abuse she received at his hands throughout their long affair.

Paul Theroux also wrote in this issue that Murray “refused to speak” to Mr. French, and accused French of numerous distortions in the book, including an inaccurate portrayal of Murray herself.

In the Febuary 12 issue, French writes, “I was suprised to read Margaret Murray’s letter stating that she did not cooperate with my biography of VS Naipaul…She sent my cards, letters, and e-mails, called me to discuss Naipaul’s past and present indiscretions…she even asked me to courier a saucy letter to Sir Vidia.”

In response, Ian Buruma publishes a letter that the “Review received…from a friend of Margaret Murray” in response to French’s letter–the one just published. This friend, Juliet Walker, is never mentioned in French’s biography. Walker writes that French and Murray “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.”

So it would seem that Murray has recruited Paul Theroux and this Juliet Walker woman to defend her, when she herself cooperated fully with French–if he is to be believed. Why would Murray deny she cooperated with him in the first place? And why would French want to be dragged into this catfight? His vicious exposure of the “saucy letter” Murray had him send to Naipaul is an especially low blow. A juicy little scuffle this is turning out to be, indeed.