By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 16, 2008
THE WORLD IS WHAT IT IS
The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul
By Patrick French
Knopf. 576 pp. $30
V.S. Naipaul established himself as an important writer before he was 30, publishing a handful of fine and often sadly comic novels about his native Trinidad, among these his early masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). This early flowering was followed by a 25-year period when his nonfiction -- chiefly reports on the cultural and political Zeitgeists of India, Africa, the Caribbean and South America -- revealed him to be something of a modern-day Tocqueville. Like the author of Democracy in America, Naipaul could grasp the essence of a society or historical moment with uncanny precision and express that essence in beautiful, ice-water clear prose. (See, for example, An Area of Darkness, 1964, and The Return of Eva Peron, 1980.) During this period, Naipaul also continued to write fiction but with less frequency, though in his late 40s he produced his most admired novel, A Bend in the River (1979), a masterly Conradian vision of politics, sex and culture in modern-day Africa. Since then his writing, in whatever genre, has grown increasingly idiosyncratic, sometimes even formless and tendentious.
That, in précis, is the public career. The young and gifted Naipaul worked hard and gradually achieved literary eminence, wealth and fame through the power of his pen. On the surface, then, his life is a kind of fairy tale, in which the dark-skinned, Oxford scholarship boy from Trinidad steadily gathers up all the glittering prizes, including a knighthood in 1990 and the Nobel for literature in 2001.
Certainly, Naipaul deserves his acclaim -- as a writer. His prose is rightly esteemed for its simplicity, beauty and power; his vision of the world duly praised (or vilified) for its fierce honesty. But what of the private man? That's another matter.
As Patrick French's nuanced and generous but often dispiriting biography shows, there's not much to like or praise about V.S. Naipaul as a human being. He starts life as a twerp, then fairly quickly becomes a jerk and ends up an old sourpuss. The best overall epithet for him is infantile -- though one shouldn't neglect the claims of such adjectives as whiney, narcissistic, insulting, needy, callous, impolite, cruel, vengeful, indecisive, miserly, exploitative, snobbish, sadistic, self-pitying and ungrateful. Of course, his is, to some extent, the modern artistic sensibility writ very, very large. But even our favorite monsters and divas -- Picasso, Waugh, Callas, Brando -- are never as smarmy and nasty as Naipaul. He can make a spoiled 3-year-old look mature.
Nonetheless, according to French and such one-time friends as Paul Theroux, the young Vidia really could be humorous and charming, and he seems to have been the indulged pet of the English literary and social establishment. On his travels, surprisingly, Naipaul also shows a rare ability to win the confidence and help of other people -- not that he is a person one could ever actually trust. Writers, as Joan Didion once said, are always betraying someone. To all appearances, Naipaul's only loyalties are to his art.
Vidyadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in 1932 in the British island colony of Trinidad. His family, racially East Indian, was solidly middle-class, owning shops, a big house and even a quarry. Naipaul's father, however, worked as a journalist and dreamt of a writing career, eventually producing one admired book of island stories -- Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales -- and later serving his adoring son as the model for Mr. Biswas. The adolescent Naipaul was shy, intellectually ambitious and, according to one of his sister's, a "wimp," utterly unsure of himself around girls. After attending school at the prestigious Queen's Royal College, he competed for one of three scholarships to England, and came in fourth. But there was apparently some mix-up over Naipaul's exam, and it was decided to allow him a grant after all.
At Oxford the brilliant provincial failed to shine. He complained about the cold, the food (he was a vegetarian who occasionally ate chicken), racial prejudice, his fellow Indians and Trinidadians, almost everything. No doubt he had cause. It couldn't have been easy being a "wog," a "nigger" in 1950s Britain. Still, Naipaul managed to win the affection, then love of undergraduate Patricia Hale, whom he eventually married. Unfortunately, their sex life was temperate at best, and before long the repressed but lustful husband began to visit prostitutes regularly. Nonetheless, Naipaul needed the mothering and comfort that Pat delivered, and she, in her turn, dutifully believed in him and his genius for the rest of her generally wretched life. As the years went by, Naipaul increasingly treated her as little more than a servant. There were no children.
After Oxford (where he gained only a second-class degree and failed his post-graduate B.Litt), Naipaul eventually landed a job working for the radio program "Caribbean Voices," a position that allowed him to hone his skills as a writer and journalist. In relatively short order, he produced the colorful Trinidadian stories that became Miguel Street (1959), which won the Somerset Maugham Award, as well as the comic novels The Mystic Masseur (1957), recipient of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), which garnered accolades from Anthony Powell, among others; and his Dickensian masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas. When Naipaul brought out his first work of nonfiction, a study of the Caribbean called The Middle Passage (1962), that connoisseur of the classical style, Evelyn Waugh, applauded its author's "exquisite mastery of the English language." Naipaul was hardly out of his dazzlingly productive 20s.
Despite these prizes and rising critical esteem, the Naipauls remained relatively poor, and Pat often seems to have drudged at pick-up teaching jobs to pay the rent. But Naipaul's 1964 book on India, An Area of Darkness, finally established his bona fides as a political observer and gadfly. Before long, there were repeated assignments from the New York Review of Books and other publications to report on the post-colonial third world, from Africa to South America. It was while he was in Buenos Aires that Naipaul was introduced to an Anglo-Argentine woman named Margaret Murray.
Murray was married and bored, had run through earlier lovers and casually submitted to the writer's impulsive attentions. Before long, the two had fallen into a serious sadomasochistic relationship, Murray eventually declaring herself Naipaul's slave and his penis her god. The hitherto sexually backward wimp in heavy Clark Kent glasses took full advantage of this rapt obeisance. Murray left her husband and three children, repeatedly abased herself in love letters (some of which Naipaul never bothered to open) and even entered into a temporary sexual arrangement with a banker just for a free trip to England to visit her sadistic master. Their carnal games could grow rough, and sometimes Naipaul actually beat her, once bruising her face so badly that she couldn't go out in public.
For 25 years the writer encouraged this folie a deux, which verged on a ménage a trois after he told Pat about his mistress. Of course, he framed his confession in such a way as to make it seem that he deserved the real sympathy -- he was cruelly distraught, the emotional turmoil interfered with his work, etc. etc. Pat stayed with him because he needed her. Then after she died from cancer in 1996, Sir Vidia -- as he now was -- threw over the long-suffering Murray and two months later married Nadira Alvi, a Pakistani journalist. French's biography ends at this point.
Now in his late 70s, Naipaul has in recent years come to seem increasingly blimpish, less a cultural scourge than a mean-spirited, intolerant crank. He has likened Africans and Indians to monkeys, asserted that there are no great writers any more, broken with friends and repeatedly insulted strangers. French tries to explain such behavior as savage indignation à la Swift or typically mischievous Trinidadian humor. Perhaps. To most people, though, it's just boorishness.
Of course, none of this affects the books; they stand on their own considerable merits, especially those published before 1985. Later work, such as the novel Magic Seeds (2004), can be rambling and self-indulgent, or repeat themes better treated earlier. Nonetheless, as a distinguished novelist, Naipaul merits this comparably distinguished biography, one that aims to understand rather than simplistically condone or chastise. French was permitted access to all of Naipaul's papers, and while his book is "authorized," its subject exercised no review or censorship over its often unflattering content. How should one interpret this? As a genuine desire by Naipaul to be remembered in all his complexity? As a sign of smug self-confidence? As utter indifference to people's approval? Perhaps all three. In any case, The World Is What It Is -- the title derives from the desolate opening words of A Bend in the River -- is a superb, clear-eyed study, always sympathetic, balanced and thoughtful, as well as rich in what Joseph Conrad called "the fascination of the abomination."·
Michael Dirda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org