A way in his world

Melissa Richards meets Patrick French, biographer of V.S. Naipaul

Patrick French

Patrick French. Photograph by Jerry Bauer, courtesy Picador

What strikes you most powerfully when reading V.S. Naipaul’s authorised biography, The World Is What It Is, is the extent to which the book reclaims him for the Caribbean. It feels almost revelatory, given Naipaul’s determination to distance himself from Trinidad. As Naipaul’s biographer Patrick French reminds us in his introduction, in a statement issued after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Naipaul called the award “a great tribute to England, my home, and India, the home of my ancestors.” Explaining his failure to mention Trinidad, he said it might “encumber the tribute.”

“I noticed that when he was being rude or provocative in this way, Naipaul was full of glee,” French writes. “Creating tension, insulting his friends, family or whole communities left him in excellent spirits . . . Later, after I had visited Trinidad, I realised this style of conversation was not rare in the Caribbean. It was what Trinidadians call ‘picong’ . . . where the boundary between good and bad taste is deliberately blurred, and the listener sent reeling.”

French says he has felt this sense of Naipaul’s rootedness in the Caribbean even more strongly since the book’s publication, witnessing the response to it. “I’ve seen the kind of bafflement, for example, that people in India have about him. I don’t think people in the Caribbean necessarily feel that baffled.”

The World Is What It Is reveals a depth of understanding of the Caribbean that makes it hard to believe that, during three years of research, French only spent a few weeks in Trinidad. He says he was aware, starting out, that the huge gap in his knowledge was the Caribbean, and specifically, Trinidad. “I didn’t realise at all how different Trinidad is to other parts of the Caribbean. I pretty much saw it as a homogeneous thing, but realising that Trinidad is like Trinidad, it’s not really like anywhere else, was something that was quite important.”

Much of his insight came through interviews, with Naipaul himself but also with Trinidadian intellectuals such as the late William Demas and Lloyd Best.

“One of the things that I was very keen to do in Trinidad was to try to get away from Naipaul’s own version of his childhood, which I knew well through books like Miguel Street or A House for Mr Biswas. I wanted some more objective idea of what it was like growing up in 1930s, 1940s Trinidad, and so what I tried to do was to meet and chat with people who were either his age or a little bit older, who came from completely different ethnic or social communities. From that I tried to create a picture by using a sort of patchwork effect.”

The result is that there is much that feels fresh and new in French’s telling of stories that Naipaul has mined deeply for his fiction. He finds the roots of Naipaul’s misanthropy in the brutality of his extended family, and in the position of Indians in Trinidad in the 1930s.

“That sort of sense that he has of being wounded by history became a lot more intelligible once I learned more about the practicalities of what it was like to be living in Chaguanas in that pretty rough extended family. You could see so much of him in that, and then always this fear of the void because of his father’s breakdown.”

More interestingly, the Caribbean is also where French sees the roots of Naipaul’s ambition, despite the fact that this ambition has always been turned squarely away from the Caribbean.

“He certainly wants to be at the centre, he wants to be part of the place where achievement is being made. He certainly doesn’t want to represent the periphery in any sense,” French says.

“In a way what he wants to be is a kind of Caribbean intellectual of the 1940s and 50s, and I think that he’s not that dissimilar from the people among whom he was growing up, people like William Demas, in that he had — all of that generation had — very high academic and intellectual standards. They had an idea that there was an absolute to which they should aspire, and they had no time for people who wanted to do things in a second-best kind of way. I think that’s really what he comes out of.”

Although how this tallies with Naipaul’s many apparently racist proclamations is not easily resolved. Looking at the nature of his relationships at that time, race seems not to play a part, French says. The racial abuse that comes later is “sincere” and “not accidental,” but he nevertheless believes it to be “a distraction from what’s going on inside him. I think it’s done largely for effect.”

The World Is What It Is is finely balanced. French is very obviously a passionate admirer of Naipaul, but must reveal so many misdeeds that for the reader it is almost a surprise to discover that Naipaul the man really is as terrible as we always thought. The biography is remarkably honest, yet French is entirely nonjudgmental.

He describes himself as lacking the temperament to judge people morally, although his sympathies remain clear. He also recognises that his readers will inevitably judge Naipaul the man. Even so, he believes that the biography will seal Naipaul’s reputation as a writer. “I don’t think anyone can get to page 499 and deduce anything other than that he was a truly remarkable and prophetic writer, and that whether you were to look at those early books set in the Caribbean or look at novels like In a Free State or A Bend in the River, or look at the travel writing, you couldn’t doubt that he is one of the most remarkable writers of the late twentieth century.”

He also praises Naipaul’s willingness to allow so much to be revealed, something which in the book he describes as “at once an act of narcissism and humility.” But given Naipaul’s fondness for courting controversy, wasn’t this possibly egotistical or self-serving?

“I don’t think so . . . He has this pretty weird ability to detach himself from his own behaviour, and he saw that there was a genuine literary and historical interest in examining these things. It was actually, in a way, sort of a part of his dream of serving literature,” French says.

“I do think there’s something remarkable, and pretty much unparalleled, in any public figure being willing to expose the aspects of themselves that most people would like to pretend are not there, and that is completely in tune with his vision of literature, which is that you say things regardless of whether they will cause offence or not. You say the truth as you see it.”

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The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2008

Melissa Richards was born in Trinidad and now lives in London. She is a former journalist and is currently a desk editor at Hodder Education, UK.