Half a Life

Half a Life


Roger said one day, "My editor is coming to London soon. You know I do him a weekly letter about books and plays. I also drop the odd word about cultural personalities. He pays me ten pounds a week. I suppose he's coming to check on me. He says he wants to meet my friends. I've promised him an intellectual London dinner party, and you must come, Willie. It will be the first party in the Marble Arch house. I'll present you as a literary star to be. In Proust there's a social figure called Swann. He likes sometimes for his own pleasure to bring together dissimilar people, to create a social nosegay, as he says. I am hoping to do something like that for the editor. There'll be a Negro I met in West Africa when I did my National Service. He is the son of a West Indian who went to live in West Africa as part of the Back to Africa movement. His name is Marcus, after the black crook who founded the movement. You'll like him. He's very charming, very urbane. He is dedicated to inter-racial sex and is quite insatiable. When we first met in West Africa his talk was almost all about sex. To keep my end up I said that African women were attractive. He said, 'If you like the animal thing.' He is now training to be a diplomat for when his country becomes independent, and to him London is paradise. He has two ambitions. The first is to have a grandchild who will be pure white in appearance. He is half-way there. He has five mulatto children, by five white women, and he feels that all he has to do now is to keep an eye on the children and make sure they don't let him down. He wants when he is old to walk down the King's Road with this white grand child. People will stare and the child will say, loudly, 'What are they staring at, Grandfather?' His second ambition is to be the first black man to have an account at Coutts. That's the Queen's bank."

Willie said, "Don't they have black people?"

"I don't know. I don't think he really knows either."

"Why doesn't he just go to the bank and find out? Ask for a form."

"He feels they might put him off in a discreet way. They might say they've run out of forms. He doesn't want that to happen. He will go to Coutts and ask to open an account only when he is sure that they'll take him. He wants to do it very casually, and he must be the first black man to do it. It's all very involved and I can't say I understand it. But you'll talk to him about it. He's quite open. It's part of his charm. There will also be a young poet and his wife. You should have no trouble with them. They will look disapproving and say absolutely nothing, and the poet will be waiting to snub anyone who talks to him. So you don't have to say anything to him. He is actually quite well known. My editor will be very pleased to meet him. In a foolish moment I wrote a friendly paragraph about one of the poet's books in a London Letter, and word somehow got back to him. That's how I've been landed with him."

Willie said, "I know about silent people. My father was always on a vow of silence. I'll look the poet up."

'It won't give you any pleasure. The poetry is complicated and showing off and perfectly arid, and you can think for some time that it's your fault it's like that. That's how I was taken in. Look him up if you want, but you mustn't feel you have to do it before the dinner. I'm asking the poet and his wife only for the nosegay effect. A little bit of dead fern, to set the whole thing off. The people you should study are two men I've known since Oxford. They are both of modest middle-class backgrounds and they pursue rich women. They do other things, but this is actually their career. Very rich women. It began in a small way at Oxford, and since then they have moved up and up, higher and higher, to richer and richer women. Their standards of wealth in a woman are now very high indeed. They are bitter enemies, of course. Each thinks the other is a fraud. It's been an education to see them operate. They both at about the same time in Oxford made the discovery that in the pursuit of rich women the first conquest is all-important. It piques the interest of other rich women, who might otherwise pay no attention to a middle-class adventurer, and it brings these women into the hunter's orbit. Soon the competition is among the rich women, each claiming to be richer than the other.

"Richard is ill-favoured and drunken and loud, and getting fat, not the kind of man you would think women would be attracted to. He wears grubby tweed jackets and dirty viyella shirts. But he knows his market, and some of that coarseness is an act and is part of his bait. He presents himself as a kind of Bertholt Brecht, the promiscuous and smelly German communist playwright. But Richard is only a bedroom Marxist. Marxism takes him to the bedroom, and Marxism stops in the bedroom. All the women he seduces know that. They feel safe with him. It was like that in Oxford and it's still like that. The difference is that at Oxford it thrilled his common soul just to sleep with rich women, and now he takes large sums of money off them. Of course he's made his mistakes. I imagine there has been more than one bedroom confrontation. I imagine a half-dressed lady saying tearfully, 'I thought you were a Marxist.' I imagine Richard pulling on his trousers fast and saying, 'thought you were rich.' Richard is in publishing, quite rich now, and rising fast. As a publisher his Marxism makes him more attractive than ever. The more he takes off the ladies the more other ladies rush to give him.

"Peter's style is entirely different. His background is more modest, country estate agent, and at Oxford he began to develop his English-gentleman style. Oxford is full of young foreign women studying English at various language schools. Some of them are rich. Peter by some instinct ignored the university women and chose to operate among these people. They would have thought him the genuine article, and he, quicker than they, learning soon to sort the wheat from the chaff, scored some notable successes. He was invited to two or three rich European houses. He began to meet rich people on the Continent. He cultivated his appearance. He began to wear his hair in a kind of semi-military style, rising flat above the ears, and he learned to work his lantern jaws. One day in the junior common room, when we were having bad coffee after lunch, he said to me, 'What would you say is the sexiest thing a man can wear?' I was taken aback. This wasn't typical common room conversation. But it showed how far Peter had got from estate-agenting, and where he was going. He said at last, 'A very clean and well-ironed white shirt.' A French girl he'd slept with the night before had told him that. And he's worn nothing but white shirts ever since. They are very expensive now, hand-made, very fine two-ply or three-ply cotton, the collar fitting close to his neck and riding well above the jacket at the back. He likes them starched in a certain way, so that the collar looks waxed. He is an academic, an historian. He's written a little book about food in history--an important subject, but a scrappy little anthology of a book--and he talks about new books and big advances from publishers, but that's only for show. His intellectual energy has actually become very low. The women consume him. To satisfy them he has developed what I can only describe as a special sexual taste. Women talk--never forget that, Willie--and word of this taste of Peter's has spread. It is now part of his success. His academic interests have always reflected the women he's been involved with. He's become a Latin-American expert, and now he's got a great prize. A Colombian woman. Colombia is a poor country, but she's connected to one of those absurd Latin-American fortunes that have been created out of four centuries of Indian blood and bones. She's coming with Peter, and Richard will be tormented by the most exquisite jealousy. He won't take it quietly. He will do something, create some fierce Marxist scene. I'll arrange it so that you talk to the lady. That's our nosegay. Our little dinner party for ten."

Willie went away counting. He could only count nine. He wondered who the tenth person was.

On another day Roger said, "My editor wants to stay with me. I've told him the house is very small, but he says he grew up in poverty and knows about back-to-back houses. The house really has only a bedroom and a half. The editor is a very big man, and I suppose I will have to take the half bedroom. Or go to a hotel. That'll be unusual. I'll be like a guest at my own dinner party."

On the day Willie knocked and waited for some time at the door of the little house. At last Perdita let him in. Willie didn't recognise her right away. The editor was already there. He was very fat, with glasses, bursting out of his shirt, and Willie felt it was his shyness, an unwillingness to be seen, that had made him not want to stay at a hotel. He seemed to take up a lot of room in the house, which in spite of all the little tricks of the architect was really very small. Roger, oppressed-looking, came up from the basement and did the introductions.

The editor remained sitting down. He said he saw Mahatma Gandhi in 1931 when the mahatma came to England for the Round Table Conference. He said nothing else about the mahatma (whom Willie and his mother and his mother's uncle despised), nothing about the mahatma's clothes or appearance; he spoke only of seeing him. When Marcus, the West Indian West African, came, the editor told in a similar way about seeing Paul Robeson.

Marcus looked confident and humorous and full of zest, and as soon as he began to talk Willie was captivated. Willie said, "I've been hearing about your plans for a white grandchild." Marcus said, "It's not so extraordinary. It'll only be repeating something that happened on a large scale here a hundred and fifty years ago. In the eighteenth century there were about half a million black people in England. They've all vanished. They disappeared in the local population. They were bred out. The Negro gene is a recessive one. If this were more widely known there would be a good deal less racial feeling than there is. And a lot of that feeling is only skin deep, so to speak. I'll tell you this story. When I was in Africa I got to know a Frenchwoman from Alsace. She said after a time that she wanted me to meet her family. We went to Europe together and went to her home town. She introduced me to her school friends. They were conservative people and she was worried about what they would think. In the fortnight I was there I screwed them all. I even screwed two or three of the mothers. But my friend was still worried."

The poet, when he came, received his homage from the editor, and then he and his wife sat sullenly together in one corner of the little room.

The Colombian woman was older than Willie expected. She might have been in her late forties. Her name was Serafina. She was slender, delicate, worried-looking. Her hair was black enough to suggest a dye, and her skin was very white and powdered up to the hair. When eventually she came and sat next to Willie she said, "Do you like ladies?" When Willie hesitated she said, "Not all men like ladies. I know. I was a virgin until I was twenty-six. My husband was a pederast. Colombia is full of little mestizo boys you can buy for a dollar." Willie said, "What happened when you were twenty-six?" She said, "I am telling you my life story, but I am not in the confessional. Obviously something happened." When Perdita and Roger began to pass the food around she said, "I love men. I think they have a cosmic strength." Willie said, "You mean energy?" She said with irritation, "I mean cosmic strength." Willie looked at Peter. He had prepared for the evening. He was wearing his expensive-looking white shirt with the starched, waxy collar high at the back; his semi-military blond-and-gray hair was flat at the sides, with just a touch of pomade to keep it in order; but his eyes were dim and fatigued and far away.

Roger, passing with food, said, "Why did you marry a pederast, Serafina?" She said, "We are rich and white." Roger said, "That's hardly a reason." She ignored that. She said, "We have been rich and white for generations. We speak classical Spanish. My father was this white and handsome man. You should have seen him. It is hard for us to get married in Colombia." Willie said, "Aren't there other white people in Colombia?" Serafina said, "It is a common word for you here. It isn't for us. We are rich and white in Colombia and we speak this pure old Spanish, purer than the Spanish they speak in Spain. lt. is hard for us to get husbands. Many of our girls have married Europeans. My younger sister is married to an Argentine. When you have to look so hard and so far for a husband you can make mistakes."

Richard the publisher called out from across the room, "I would say it's a mistake. Leaving Colombia and going to live on stolen Indian land."

Serafina said, "My sister has stolen no land."

Richard said, "It was stolen for her eighty years ago. By General Roca and his gang. The railway and the Remington rifle against Indian slings and stones. That's how the pampas were won, and all those bogus smart estancias. So your sister moved from old plunder to new theft. Thank God for Eva Peron, I say. Pulling down the whole rotten edifice."

Serafina said to Willie, "This man is trying to make himself interesting to me. It's a common type in Colombia."

Marcus said, "I don't think many people know that there were large Negro populations in Buenos Aires and Uruguay in 1800. They disappeared in the local population. They were bred out. the Negro is recessive. Not many people know that."

Richard and Marcus carried on the cross-room talk, Richard always moving around what Marcus said and aiming to be provocative. Serafina said to Willie, "He is the kind of man who will try to seduce me as soon as he is alone with me. It is boring. He thinks I am Latin American and easy." She went silent. Through all of this Peter remained perfectly calm. Willie, no longer having to listen, and idly looking around the room, let his eyes rest on Perdita and her long upper body. He did not think her beautiful, but he remembered the elegant way she slapped the striped gloves down on the Chez Victor table, and at the same time he thought of June undressing in the room in Notting Hill. Perdita caught his gaze and held it. Willie was inexpressibly stirred.

Roger and Perdita began clearing away the plates. Marcus, in his brisk, zestful way, got up and began to help. Coffee and brandy came.

Serafina said absently to Willie, "Have you felt jealousy?" Her thoughts had been running along ways he didn't know. Willie said, "Not yet. I have only felt desire." She said, "Listen to this. When I took Peter to Colombia the women all ran to him. This English gentleman and scholar with the strong jawline. After one month he forgot everything I had done for him and he ran away with somebody else. But he didn't know the country, and he made a big mistake. The woman had fooled him. She was a mestiza and she wasn't rich at all. He found out in a week. He came back to me and begged to be forgiven. He knelt on the floor and put his head in my lap and cried like a child. I stroked his hair and said, 'You thought she was rich? You thought she was white?' He said, 'Yes, yes.' I forgave him. But perhaps he should be punished. What do you think?"

The editor cleared his throat once, twice. It was his call for silence. Serafina, turning away from Willie, and looking away from Richard, sat up straight and fixed her gaze on the editor. He sat big and heavy in his corner, overflowing the waistband of his trousers, his shirt pulling at every button.

He said, "I don't think any of you here can understand what an occasion this evening has been for a provincial editor. You have each one of you given me a glimpse of a world far removed from my own. I come from a smoky old town in the dark satanic north. Not many people want to know about us nowadays. But we have played our part in history. Our factories made goods that went all over the world, and wherever our goods went they helped to usher in the modern age. We quite rightly thought of ourselves as the centre of the world. But now the world has tilted, and it is only when I meet people like yourselves that I get some idea where the world is going. So this occasion is full of ironies. You have all led glittering lives. I have heard of some of you by report, and everything I have seen and heard here tonight has confirmed what I have heard. I wish from the bottom of my heart to thank you all for the great courtesy you have shown a man whose life has been the opposite of glittering. But we who live in dark corners have our souls. We have had our ambitions, we have had our dreams, and life can play cruel tricks on us. 'Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid some heart once pregnant with celestial fire.' I cannot hope to match the poet Gray, but I have written in my own way of a heart like that. And I would like now, with your permission, and before we separate, perhaps for ever, to make you an offering of what I have written."

From the inner breast pocket of his jacket the editor took out some folded sheets of newsprint. Deliberately, in the silence he had created, looking at no one, he shook out the sheets.

He said, "These are galleys, newspaper proofs. The copy itself has been long prepared. A word or two may be changed here and there, an awkward phrase or two put right, but by and large it is ready for the press. It will be printed in my paper in the week of my death. You will guess that it is my obituary. Some of you may gasp. Some of you may sigh. But death comes to all, and it is better to be prepared. These words were composed in no spirit of vainglory. You know me well enough to know that. And it is, rather, in a spirit of sorrow, and regret for all the might-have-beens, that I invite you now to contemplate the course of an obscure provincial life."

He began to read. "Henry Arthur Percival Somers, who became editor of this paper in the dark days of November 1940, and whose death is reported more fully on another page, was born the son of a ship's fitter on 17 July 1895..."

Stage by stage, galley by galley, one narrow column of print to a galley, the story unfolded: the little house, the poor street, the father's periods of unemployment, family bereavements, the boy leaving school at fourteen, doing little clerking jobs in various offices, the war, his rejection by the army on medical grounds; and then at last, in the last year of the war, his job on the newspaper, on the production side, as a "copyholder," really a woman's job, reading copy aloud to the typesetter. As he read his emotion grew.

The poet and his wife looked on aloof and unsurprised and disdaining. Peter was vacant. Serafina held herself upright and showed her profile to Richard. Marcus, mentally restless, thinking of this and that, more than once began to talk about something quite unrelated, and then stopped at the sound of his own voice. But Willie was fascinated by the editor's story. To him it was all new. There were not many concrete details to hold on to, but he was trying as he listened to see the editor's town and to enter the editor's life. He found himself, to his surprise, thinking of his own father; and then he began to think about himself. Sitting beside Serafina, who had turned away from him, and was stiff, resisting conversation, Willie leaned forward to concentrate on the editor.

He, the editor, was aware of Willie's interest, and he weakened. He began to choke on his words. Once or twice he sobbed. And then he was on the last galley. Tears were running down his face. He seemed about to break down. "...His deepest life was in the mind. But journalism is by its nature ephemeral, and he left no memorial. Love, the divine illusion, never touched him. But he had a lifelong romance with the English language." He took off his misted glasses, held the galleys in his left hand, and fixed his wet eyes on a spot on the floor three or four feet in front of him. There was a great silence.

Marcus said, "That was a very nice piece of writing."

The editor remained as he had been, looking down at the floor, letting the tears flow, and silence came back to the room. The party was over. When people spoke, saying goodbye, it was in whispers, as in a sickroom. The poet and his wife left; it was as though they hadn't been. Serafina stood up, let her gaze sweep unseeing past Richard, and took Peter away. Marcus whispered, "Let me help you clear away, Perdita." Willie was surprised by a pang of jealousy. But neither he nor Marcus was allowed to stay.

Roger, saying goodbye to them at the door of the little house, lost his worried look. He said mischievously, not raising his voice, "He told me he wanted to meet my London friends. I had no idea he wanted an audience."

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Excerpted from Half a Life by V.S. Naipaul. Copyright © 2001 by V.S. Naipaul. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.