Finding his centre

By Jeremy Taylor

The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography
of V.S. Naipaul
, by Patrick French
Picador, ISBN 9780330433501, 555 pp

The Strange Luck of V.S. Naipaul, directed by Adam Low
BBC Four/Lone Star Productions, 78 minutes

Copy of V.S. Naipaul's book The Loss of El Dorado; photo by Georgia Popplewell

A signed copy of V.S. Naipaul’s book The Loss of El Dorado. Photo by Georgia Popplewell/Caribbean Free Photo

Nadira Khannum Alvi, the second Lady Naipaul, has a message for her husband’s many detractors. In Adam Low’s film The Strange Luck of V.S. Naipaul, made for BBC Four, she is pictured in her kitchen in the English countryside, slicing up vegetables. Giving no quarter to enemies of the Laureate, she hisses: “Read the work, you creeps.”

She has filled out a good deal since her 1996 marriage to Naipaul, but is still lively and demonstrative. She says frankly that at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm in 2001 what she saw was an old man receiving the accolade, a man without his famous feistiness and anger. As far as I know, she has not been banished since, ejected, abandoned, or rendered invisible, as would once have been the case for such impertinence; which proves her point.

Perhaps the Naipaul Wars are finally winding down? It would not be before time. They have been going on for so long now, it’s a wonder anyone still cares about them. Naipaul’s many faults, as writer and man, are obvious to anyone who pays attention to what he writes and says. But Patrick French in this first-rate “authorised” biography stokes the fire with enough fuel to inflame both sides to a new intensity of disdain.

Provocation has always been part of the Naipaul persona, the self he has chosen to present to the world. He has played the fool on TV, in talk shows and interviews, with earnest academics, with friends and family, and in some of his books. At one time, he liked to talk of monkeys, infies (inferiors), bow-and-arrow men, Fuzzy-Wuzzies, Mr Woggy. He angered the whole of the Caribbean by saying that “nothing was created in the West Indies,” and the whole of India by claiming that Indians defecated everywhere and were incapable of seeing the outcome, as it were.

Other writers have been the most aggrieved, which perhaps was the intention. The Antigua-born writer Jamaica Kincaid, who has had plenty of sharp things to say about her own homeland, wailed: “He just annoys me so much, all my thoughts are intemperate and violent.” The late Palestinian writer and critic Edward Said called him “a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust for the world that produced him.” Naipaul has made a point of pretending he doesn’t know how to pronounce Said’s name, making it sound like the past tense of “say.”

More recently, Naipaul has turned to trashing the classic names of English literature, especially when he has a new book coming out. One is intolerable, another unreadable, a third is a dreadful old homosexual. French writes that when Naipaul is being rude or provocative, he is “full of glee.” “Creating tension, insulting friends, family or whole communities left him in excellent spirits.”

In this respect, Naipaul has become tiresome as well as foolish; he has long since ceased being funny, and apparently has no sense of when a joke goes sour. But at some level it’s something he clearly needs to do: it makes him safe, secure.

It’s easy to understand the anguish Naipaul’s mischief can cause. When you try to carry on your shoulders the aspirations and dignity of a postcolonial world, you soon get tired of someone pontificating about half-made societies and bush and dirt and how your homeland has no future. Nobody appreciates a fellow writer trashing your sanctities.

French reports that the shortest interview he had while researching this biography was with Derek Walcott, who said, “I feel jaded with him, I get increasingly irritated by him, I don’t want to talk about him, I don’t want to add to the legend of Naipaul.” This was before Walcott was mauled in the opening chapter (“The Worm in the Bud”) of Naipaul’s most recent book, A Writer’s People.

According to that small but disdainful book, Walcott’s first, self-published collection (25 Poems, 1949) was impressive, even overwhelming. But after that, apparently, Walcott went “stale” and “ordinary” and had to be “rescued by the American universities,” which failed to see that he was a poet whose “talent had been almost strangled by his colonial setting.”

Walcott took the bait at this year’s Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica, retorting with a scurrilous poem called “The Mongoose”:

I have been bitten, I must avoid infection
Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.
Read his last novels, you’ll see just what I mean:
A lethargy, approaching the obscene.
The model is Maugham, more ho-hum than Dickens;
The essays have more bite, they scatter chickens
Like critics, but each stabbing phrase is poison
Since he has made that snaring style a prison.
Their plots are forced, the prose sedate and silly:
The anti-hero is a prick named Willie . . .

And so on, for 108 lines. (Forgive any errors in transcribing the text from a recording — the poet’s voice is not always clear.) The poem (“it’s going to be nasty”) attacked Naipaul’s appearance, his work, his attitudes, his origins, his sexual preferences, his beard, even his pet cat Augustus.

Some later lines dealing with Naipaul’s acceptance of the Nobel (“India and England were in his citation / Of gratitude, but not the Negroid nation / That nursed his gift”) earned applause in Jamaica, and identify an important casus belli: Naipaul’s supposed anti-black racism. The shot went wide (Trinidad is not a “Negroid nation”); but no doubt Naipaul (“I settle all my accounts”) will in time fire back, and the pointless hostilities will go on.

What a spectacle: two Caribbean-born heavyweight septuagenarians, both Nobel Prize-winners, entertaining the literati with their schoolboy skirmishes. Nationalism versus absolutism; literary criticism as ideology.

What a writer ought or ought not to be or to write is, of course, academic. Wishing that things were otherwise is generally a waste of time. What counts is the work; and beyond that, the interesting question of how a writer arrives at a particular view of the world.

French’s excellent biography is especially valuable for answering this question.

Adam Low’s TV film is no use in this respect. It is entirely English in feel and outlook, made for an English audience, and essentially a whitewash, if not a beatification. Naipaul is on his best behaviour, pottering around his English garden, playing the elderly English gent leaning on a stick and thinking of the past. His agent Gillon Aitken and his first editor Diana Athill read from his books in upper-crust accents which are practically extinct in England outside the “royal family”. There is no hint of controversy, anger, or rudeness: except for Lady Naipaul in the kitchen, all is calm and bland. The effect is to enshrine Sir Vidia as a grand old man of English letters, the squire on his estate, a knight of the shires; all validation has been finally bestowed. He has arrived where he always wanted to be.

Naipaul’s narrative has been rehearsed often enough, not least by Naipaul himself, and French presents it as well as any biographer could: Trinidad childhood, escape, Oxford, marriage, London, poverty, the BBC, struggles, India, travels, restless moving from one shelter to another, the Wiltshire cottage, eventual success, the Booker Prize, the Nobel Prize, knighthood.

French is very good at relating the life to its political and social context, and to specifics in the books that spring from life experience. He inspects Naipaul with the same sort of objectivity with which Naipaul inspects the world. Only occasionally does the author’s voice intrude: to correct a blatantly false claim, or to articulate an irritation (e.g. that Pat Naipaul, Vidia’s first wife, was obliged to focus completely on her “increasingly cranky and infantilised husband”). But otherwise French is faithful to the objective he sets himself — not to sit in judgement, but to record the facts and let them speak for themselves. The book ends abruptly in 1996, with the death of Pat and Naipaul’s swift remarriage to Nadira Alvi, the present Lady Naipaul — though at the end French writes “Enough” and a footnote adds “For now,” perhaps a teaser for a second volume.

Whether he now regrets it or not, Naipaul made a shrewd choice of “official biographer.” French is an excellent writer himself, and a formidable researcher; he orders a huge mount of material with great skill. He has written two previous biographies, both dealing with men on the fault line between radically different cultures (colonial adventurers Francis Younghusband and Henry Norman). He has written an outstanding history of India’s trek to independence and fragmentation (Liberty or Death), and is thoroughly familiar with the realities of India, correcting Naipaul on the occasional point of detail. He has travelled a good deal himself, and has written a book about a personal odyssey through Tibet. These are all things that help him to understand his subject.

Naipaul gave French extensive interviews, and took the view that there is no point to a biography that is less than candid. He asked for no changes in the text. Given the skeletons that tumble out of the author’s cupboard in this book, Naipaul surely gets marks for honesty and courage.

French also had free access to the Naipaul archive at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma — fifty thousand pages of it. Among those papers is the diary his first wife Pat kept off and on for several years, recognised by French as a vital biographical source. “It puts Patricia Naipaul on a par with other great, tragic, literary spouses such as Sonia Tolstoy, Jane Carlyle, and Leonard Woolf,” he claims. This, and the couple’s letters to each other, allowed him to write the first detailed account of Naipaul’s first marriage. (“Dry,” Naipaul discreetly calls it in Low’s film.)

To begin with, Pat and Vidia are obviously in love; but both are sexually timid, and they never really get over that. Vidia reveals his capacity for rage and jealousy. Pat tends towards submission and sacrifice: she breaks with her English family and foregoes her ambition to act, in order to support Vidia and his writing. “I have absolute faith in your ability to do something great,” she tells him: “I am convinced that we are going to be a distinguished couple.”

Faced with the prospect of marriage, Vidia quickly goes off the boil, and doesn’t even buy a wedding ring. As French notes,

[Pat’s] dependence was, underneath everything, what he wanted and needed; it would enable him to reinforce his idea of himself, and pursue much larger ambitions . . . He knew that Pat held him together emotionally, and decided without enthusiasm to marry her.

Vidia comes to rely on Pat professionally as well. She reads his work and comments on it with excellent instinct and taste. “She always gave good advice, literary advice,” Naipaul tells French. “She was always very good. A few days before her death she was able to judge it.” She also becomes Vidia’s punching bag, absorbing his anger and petulance. Vidia gets bored with her. He tells her she behaves like the wife of a jumped-up clerk rather than a writer’s. By the early 1970s,

Pat was alone, lonely and childless, her hair was lank and grey, her clothes were wrong and she was underweight. Her husband was having sex with prostitutes and wanted another life, yet he still depended on her.

Vidia starts going to prostitutes quite early in their long marriage. Pat does not discover this until 1994, when she reads about it in a New Yorker interview (“So I became a great prostitute man . . .”). By this time she is battling cancer, and the shock and humiliation are shattering. She dies in 1996 after refusing further treatment (“What do I have to live for?”). Naipaul tells French: “All the remission ended . . . She suffered. It could be said that I had killed her.”

There was another humiliation which Pat did know about: Vidia’s mistress in Argentina, who was on the scene for more than twenty years. He visited her in Buenos Aires, making no secret of where he was going, and travelled with her, researching his books. Margaret Gooding, née Murray, was no great brain (Naipaul said she had a vocabulary of fifty words), but was young and feisty and sexy, and her physical needs meshed with Naipaul’s: liberated sex, rough sex, without inhibition or timidity or guilt.

“I never really believed that I could be the recipient of love,” Naipaul tells French. “I don’t know why, probably a deep diffidence.” Margaret has a profound effect on his books from 1972: “They stopped being dry . . . it was a great liberation . . . The world was complete for me.”

Margaret becomes addicted to Vidia, who is happy once she does not become demanding, but backs off rapidly at any thought of long-term commitment or marriage, and whenever passion might disturb his work. According to French,

He wanted [Margaret] to be his mistress, six thousand miles away, behave like a nun and sometimes come to England — or wherever in the world he happened to be travelling — for eight or ten days at a time to be the object of what she called his cruel sexual desires . . . For Vidia, the combination of lust and control could hardly be more potent.

Once, Naipaul tells French, at the English cottage, with Pat safely in London, “I was very violent with her for two days . . . my hand began to hurt . . . She didn’t mind it at all . . . Her face was bad. She couldn’t appear really in public. My hand was swollen.”

In Low’s film, Naipaul sums up this relationship: “It was very feeding. Very feeding. Very important.”

Margaret leaves her husband and children; she has three abortions. Pat leaves Wiltshire and goes to London, but comes scurrying back whenever Vidia summons her. For two decades this tense triangle continues, no one giving way. French says:

He relied on [Pat’s] guidance and support, even while he harried her; he said he could not imagine working without her. So Pat stayed, cooking and washing for him . . . fetching the coal from the outhouse, overhearing his telephone calls from Argentina . . . Vidia’s unconscious hope may have been that if he were sufficiently horrible to Pat, she might disappear.

Nadira, the present Lady Naipaul, appears only near the end of the book. She meets Naipaul a few months before Pat dies, while he is in Pakistan researching Beyond Belief. It seems that Vidia is able to open up to her emotionally in a way that has not been possible with either Pat or Margaret. He is not a man to waste time. Pat dies on February 2, 1996, and is cremated on February 8; the following day Nadira arrives to join him; they are married in April. She tells French: “He was very angry with Pat, he felt angry that she was dying and angry that she was not dying fast enough because he wanted to carry on with his life.”

The first that Margaret hears about Nadira is when she reads about her in a newspaper in Argentina. She might have thought that with Pat’s death her time had come: but she is unceremoniously dumped. “I stayed with Margaret until she became middle-aged, almost an old lady,” Vidia explains. Pat’s sister Eleanor tells French: “It amused me that he had married a Pakistani. He used to say, they’re dreadful people, they’re liars, they’re murderers — and then he marries one.”

The final pages describe movingly how Nadira scatters Pat’s ashes in woodland, as she had wanted, offering Muslim and Christian prayers, while Naipaul watches and weeps. “Pat behaved very beautifully when she was dying,” he tells French. But he also says: “I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable.”

All of which makes V.S. Naipaul sound like a monster. There it is, on the page, unapologetically; the world is what it is. But French is scrupulously even-handed. He also inspects a writer who has paid his dues, suffered, endured, worked like a slave, done the legwork, opened up new forms of writing, and amassed a body of work which is likely to last; who took on the big subjects of the day, “extremism, global migration, political and religious identity, ethnic difference, the implosion of Africa, the resurgence of Asia, and the remaking of the old European dispensation in the aftermath of empire.”

“Contrary to much critical and popular judgement, Patrick French concludes that V.S. Naipaul’s “moral axis was not white European culture, or pre-Islamic Hindu culture, or any other passing culture: it was internal, it was himself”

French notes how Naipaul’s contrariness has backfired on him: at the time of his Nobel award, “half a century of work as a writer seemed less significant than his reputation for causing offence.” He rates Naipaul’s best books very highly, especially A House for Mr Biswas and A Bend in the River. The only book that clearly underwhelms him is A Turn in the South, Naipaul’s 1989 account of his travels in the southern American states — “slavery, religion, and the nature of rednecks” — which developed his method of allowing multiple voices to speak for themselves. (Naipaul thought The Loss of El Dorado was his “dud,” but it is a much better book than A Turn in the South.)

But what comes across most clearly in this biography is Naipaul’s total and absolute commitment to his art, his determination to live the life of a writer and nothing else. He would “sacrifice anything or anybody that stood in the way of his central purpose, to be ‘the writer,’” French says, just as he had “a view of the world that he would do anything to maintain . . . Every situation and relationship would be subordinated to his ambition.” This was the basis of his idea of himself: “following his unique vision, apparently convinced his calling was hereditary and noble,” no matter how much conflict that caused.

French’s title goes to the heart of this. It comes from the opening sentence of A Bend in the River (1979): “The world is what it is. Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” Becoming nothing, having no place in the world, is the emptiness Naipaul has spent a lifetime trying to escape. To become something — something great — he had to compensate for his father Seepersad’s failure as a writer, prove himself a master of the only literary tradition he knew, dedicate himself to creation, find absolute values to frame his work, deal with a powerful libido, protect the inner writing self, and make himself “unassailable.” It was never going to be an innocent journey.

In her diaries, Pat Naipaul began to call her husband “the Genius”: and there is this idea that genius has the right to pursue its own goals to the exclusion of all else, excused from the niceties of civilised living. Genius can hurt and destroy, seduce and exploit and discard, because it is self-justifying. Only thus can The Truth, The Unique Vision, The Work, emerge.

Naipaul had to escape what he felt had been a nightmare childhood and an island which would stifle and exterminate him. He had to construct a persona in England which would protect the work he wanted to do, and protect him from the rejection of Trinidad and the fear of being “nothing.” So he became an “apparently stateless, hyper-perceptive global observer.”

Naipaul often claimed to be unhappy, unrooted, friendless, as this role required; but French produces ample evidence that he was well liked. He could be immensely charming, witty, great company; he could also be cynical, contrary, and cruel. His Oxford tutor remembers him as “positively popular . . . exceptionally charming . . . completely natural and very unselfconscious. He fitted in” — though he also remembered that Vidia “wanted to be an Englishman” and already had a “really polished English voice.” The college porter recalled that Naipaul “took the mickey out of people.”

The role of the unattached observer, owing loyalty to no one and nothing, suited the time: England in the 1950s was feeling the first anxieties about immigration, the moving and mixing of populations and cultures. As Naipaul explored India, the Caribbean, Africa, South America, the Islamic world, he found that the same techniques could be applied to whole societies and cultures. French notes: “A rising disillusion with the postcolonial project in many countries led to Vidia being projected as the voice of truth, the scourge who by virtue of his ethnicity and his intellect could see things that others were seeking to disguise.” He could ask the questions which white writers could not ask. “Why were so many African countries ruled by thieves? Why was Iran having an Islamist revolution? What had become of the gracious optimism of the 1960s and 1970s? Where was Black Power now?”

From this vantage point, Naipaul denounced the relativism and multi-culturalism (“multi-culti”) that were becoming intellectually fashionable. Why should allowances be made for developing societies that couldn’t get their act together? Why shouldn’t they measure up to the same standards of order and civilisation which their people scurried to enjoy in the UK and the US and Canada? There should be no excuses for backwardness, slackness, idleness, corruption, self-satisfaction, underdevelopment. To describe a society as half-formed, or as “bush,” was simply to tell the truth as he observed it.

French comments, in connection with the first India book, An Area of Darkness: “At a time when relativism was starting to become the accepted theoretical response to any postcolonial nation’s failings, the strength of Naipaul’s views looked like a shocking return to the days of absolute, imperial judgements.” But they were more than that.

The resulting controversies gave Vidia a preoccupation with different ways of seeing, and a growing exasperation with the world. French defines the basic conflict that surrounded Naipaul:

Was it right for Vidia, a former colonial subject, to write so unsentimentally and even cruelly about the failings of countries that were struggling to come to terms with independence? Why did he not turn a comparable searchlight on the more stable and prosperous countries of the West?

That is still the basic issue behind the Naipaul Wars. But, contrary to much critical and popular judgement, French concludes that Naipaul’s “moral axis was not white European culture, or pre-Islamic Hindu culture, or any other passing culture: it was internal, it was himself.” Maybe that begs some questions, but it is not the same as assuming that Naipaul simply pisses on his own people from a great height.

French recognises that Naipaul is well past his creative peak. By the mid 1980s, he thinks Naipaul too understood that

his years of creation were behind him . . . The quickening impulse had gone from his work; in its place was a technical brilliance, and an uncanny ability to analyse the information he received through his eyes. Remarkable books were to come . . . [But] all his subsequent work would in some form be a reconsideration of what had come before, a reprise — or reprisal.

It may even be that there has been a mellowing, some change of heart, as Lady Naipaul suggested (with apparent disappointment) to Adam Low. Caryl Phillips, reviewing A Way in the World (1994), thought that “even Naipaul now realises that to give up everything to be a writer, particularly the generosity of spirit that allows one to tolerate the foolishness often to be found in one’s fellow man, is to commit an act of great folly.” Though how far Genius is really capable of compassion is another story. And the sour essays of A Writer’s People display little mellowness.

The Jamaican-British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson has a blunter assessment of Sir Vidia, which French quotes in his introduction to this definitive biography: “he talks a load of shit but he still writes excellent books.” Apart from a small emendation — “has still written” — that sounds about right.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2008

Jeremy Taylor was born in the United Kingdom, and has lived in Trinidad for over thirty years. He is a writer, editor, broadcaster, and publisher. Many of his essays and reviews and collected in Going to Ground (1994).