Thursday, October 21, 2010
The Woman Warrior
Sent to me by the publisher in anticipation of the author's upcoming visit to Buffalo on December 1.
I am still recovering from Babel on Tuesday, which featured V.S. Naipaul. As I mentioned before, I was quite nervous leading up to the event, having read many an account of how difficult he could be. It appears, however, that, the "irascible" character has been smoothed over somewhat by age. He's seventy-eighty and unable to walk more than a few yards without assistance.
I met him and his wife, Nadira, at the hotel. We sat in a little drawing room for a few minutes going over the details. They were a bit put out that the hotel had no room service and that the food they'd had delivered wasn't very good. I promised to take them for a meal after the event.
As we drove over to Kleinhans Music Hall, both seemed charmed by the architecture of Buffalo and wondered aloud why all of the publishing people they'd met in New York were trashing it. They said everyone snickered when they mentioned he was coming here. After the show, which drew several hundred more people than the event in New York, Nadira said she intended to write a letter to Random House telling them they should send all the great authors here.
After a sound check, we went down to the VIP reception on the lower level of the music hall. I felt badly having to take him down two flights of stairs, but there was no easier way to get there. He held onto my arm with his left hand and to the bannister with his right. We stepped gently and in unison, one step at a time. He made a joke about our walking in a procession and that perhaps we should have musical accompaniment.
I sat him down in a chair and let everyone know they could come up and say hello. He seemed to be enjoying himself and to appreciate the fact that so many people were reading A House For Mr. Biswas at the same time.
He asked me to choose a section of the book from which he should read. I went through the book with Nadira. We both wanted him to read one of the sections where Mr. Biswas is being mean to his family -- calling them names and so forth. Sir Vidia worried he might offend some people, but we eventually convinced him that the humor would win the audience over. I did notice, however, that he censored himself when he read it, removing the word "bitch" from on of the insults hurled by the protagonist.
On stage, he seemed uncertain as he sat on a stool at the podium. I had to remind him that he was to make a few remarks before giving the reading. He spoke extemporaneously and was quite witty and charming, but he also seemed to lose his place several times, causing him to pause -- once for a painful fifteen seconds or so. I stayed with him on stage throughout to make sure he didn't lose his balance. At one point, Nadira jumped on stage to slide him over on the stool and bring the podium closer. She then reminded him of a funny story he'd forgotten to tell about leaving the manuscript of the book in a hotel room and not being able to enjoy his vacation in Venice because he worried it would be lost or stolen.
Once we'd sat down in comfortable chairs for the interview, he seemed much more at ease. Some of his famous feistiness came out, but for the most part he seemed to be having fun and didn't hold back at all when he had something to say. When he didn't he said so, and we moved on to the next question.
There was a certain amount of resignation in his tone throughout the evening, like a warrior who knew he no longer had the strength to do the one thing he knew how to do -- fight. In his introduction he talked of how the ambition that drove him as a young man had left him and that he now looked at that ambition from the outside, as an observer. In my last question, I asked if his new book would be his last. He said it very well might be, that writing books required quite a bit of strength and stamina and that that, too, seemed to have left him.
Afterwards, I took them out for dinner at Mother's in Allentown. We had a lovely conversation about cats.
Next morning I accompanied them in the limo to the airport to help with bags and wheelchairs and so forth. I liked them both quite a bit and felt a certain sadness seeing them leave, knowing I'd never get a chance to meet the great writer again.