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Alfred Chester

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'At least I was not married to Vidiadhar'
Diana Athill Writer
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What's the sad this is, that he lost his… he could write funny books, to begin with. I mean, brilliant. I think that very early book indeed, Miguel Street, is an absolutely delightful book. Just straight observation of character, with a… not trying too hard to be funny, but it is. And he did three early books. And he did his wonderful about the West Indies, about his father, really, A House for Mr Biswas, which is a superb book.

                         And he's written very interesting books since. I mean, he is good. And I like his nonfiction very much. I think it's extremely observant and interesting, and tends to be right about things. He will sometimes, just occasionally, draw big conclusions from small things. Too… you know, a little bit making too much of a limited experience of a place. But on the other hand, for instance, his book about the… about Muslim civilisation… there's… there's nothing… he's extremely… it was written some time ago. It's a very perceptive book. He's a very intelligent man.

[Q] And did you like him a lot?

I got so fed up with the glooms, and I couldn't like very much his relationship with his wife because he was so dismissive of her, really. I knew him for a year before I knew he was married. He used to say, 'I live, I've moved to new things, I went to a cinema last week'. Never, never said the word 'we'. And when I finally happened to see him at a party with a girl, and I thought, oh good, Vidiadhar's got a girlfriend at last, and said to him, 'Who's that girl you were with the other day'? When he came into the office. He said, 'My wife, of course', rather crossly. He'd never given a hint of being married. And then, shortly after that, I said something to her about it. Because by then she was allowed out of the shadows a bit. And I said something about it seemed odd that I'd never met her before, and she said, 'Oh well, you see, I don't come to parties very often, because Vidiadhar thinks I'm such a bore'.

                         I think, now, looking back… I mean, no marriage… all marriages, there are two sides of it. I think that that Pat was really rather masochistic. I don't think that it was just Vidiadhar being horrid to her. But… and I don't suppose he… they married very young. He was at Oxford and I believe he had a nervous breakdown and I think she stood by him and was kind. I don't suppose for a moment, he thought the marriage was going to be like it was, any more than she did. So probably he can't be blamed for it, but not wholly. But I did use to, quite cruelly… I mean, I said this, I think, when I was writing about him: If feeling low and trying to count my blessings, I have said before now, 'Well, at least I'm not married to Vidiadhar'.

[Q] I don't know whether I… no, sorry, I don't know. I mean, he had a mistress as well, didn't he?

Margaret. Yes, he did. And that seemed to have been… I mean, Pat knew about that, too. I mean, that was something that was accepted. I think he's now quite happy with his new wife. I hope so.

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Miguel Street, A House for Mr Biswas, VS Naipaul, Patricia Hale, Margaret Gooding, Nadira Naipaul

Duration: 4 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008