Biographies always have to navigate between small and large concerns, between the humdrum detail and the world-changing intervention. But rarely is the
gulf between high and low as vast as it is in The World is What it is, Patrick French’s long-awaited biography of V.S. Naipaul. On the one hand, we make an intimate acquaintance with the oddities, infidelities and perfidies of an exceptionally egotistic and unreasonable man, a man suffered rather than loved even by those closest to him. On the other hand, we see that the larger journey of this man (from provincial outpost to metropolitan centre, and thereafter eagerly, restlessly, back and forth across the newly decolonized world) is the story of the 20th century in miniature: the story of mass migration, of failed nation-states, of changing race relations, of multiple personal histories and affiliations.
Open book: French says Naipaul was the frankest among those he spoke to for the book
French’s biography is exemplary on the details of Naipaul’s childhood, and later on his troubled (and troubling) conjugal life. One of the best sections of his book is the early one on Trinidad, tracing the Naipaul family story all the way back to the first arrival of indentured Indian labourers in Port-of-Spain in 1845. As Naipaul has himself said on many occasions, his father Seepersad, the son of an agricultural labourer who taught himself to read and write and became a journalist, spurred his dream of becoming a great writer. But French also shows how Naipaul’s projected sense of himself as a Brahmin, a lover of learning with a native sense of entitlement, fastidious about details of food and clothing, is in a way a disguise, as Seepersad was probably not a Brahmin.
Brought up in a fractious joint family, the details of which he would later use in his fiction, the young Vidia longed to escape from Trinidad and set about studying for the scholarship to England that would allow him to do so. Naipaul later saw his arrival in England in 1950 as being at the vanguard of “that great movement of people that was to take place in the second half of the 20th century”. At Oxford, he was to meet his future wife Pat, who offered support for his ambitions and soothed his insecurities about being a brown-skinned man in a predominantly white country.
After Oxford, Naipaul worked grudgingly at a variety of jobs (as a presenter on the BBC programme Caribbean Voices, as a book reviewer, even as a clerk), married Pat, and produced the brilliant early works of fiction (The Mystic Masseur, Miguel Street, A House For Mr Biswas) that won him acclaim in England as a promising writer from the Caribbean. French is particularly acute in his analysis of how, in his late 20s, realizing that the vogue for Caribbean fiction in England was dying, Naipaul reinvented himself as “a displaced, unaffiliated, un-Caribbean writer” and inserted himself into what the Indian publisher Ravi Dayal called “the mainstream of history”.
The World is What it is: Picador, 556 pages, Rs595.
Thus began his travels around the world. A commission from the Trinidad government led him to write a short, critical book about the island; he journeyed to India with Pat in 1962 and produced his unsettling and controversial book An Area of Darkness; an offer from a university in Uganda became the launchpad for a series of books on Africa. Naipaul’s life settled into a pattern. He visited several countries, travelled widely with the assistance of local guides, spoke to people, transcribed his notes every evening, came back home and wrote up a book in a burst of focused work. His books, which almost always stoked controversy, tried to unveil the deep structure and crippling malaise of these civilizations through a combination of keen observation and recorded testimonies.
Meanwhile, Naipaul’s relationship with Pat had swiftly degenerated into a scene of relentless egotism and volatility for one, and suffocation and self-abnegation for the other. Sexually unfulfilled, he took to visiting prostitutes. Then, on a trip to Argentina in 1972, he met and instantly fell in love with an Anglo-Argentine woman called Margaret Murray, a mother of three. There began instantly a bruising affair, both literally and figuratively. Over the next 25 years, Naipaul and Murray loved and lacerated one another without ever coming close to marrying or living together, which was what Murray wanted.
Naipaul could not bring himself to leave his wife, the first reader of his manuscripts, yet, pitilessly, he told her about Margaret and often flew out to meet his lover in different parts of the world, leaving her to deal with her grief. French’s book is as much a biography of Pat as it is of Sir Vidia. He quotes often from her diaries, which are housed in a vast archive of Naipaul’s papers at the University of Tulsa, and closely tracks her attempts to make a life for herself during her husband’s absences (among her projects, ironically, was work on an anthology of love letters). French’s narrative ends in 1996, with a moving description of Pat’s death and the scene of a tearful Naipaul and his new wife, Nadira, scattering her ashes in the woods near their country estate.
“Of all the people I spoke to for this book, he was outwardly the frankest,” writes French of Naipaul. “He believed that a less than candid biography would be pointless, and his willingness to allow such a book to be published in his lifetime was at once an act of narcissism and humility.” This seems an astute judgment, and French’s biography is certainly candid.
But, for this very reason, long sections of it make for depressing reading. The darkness of Naipaul’s attachments (if that is the correct word for it) is not offset by the excitement of the work—and there must have been such an excitement on an almost daily basis, given Naipaul’s ambition, talent, and dedication to his craft. The World is What it is lays bare the secrets of Naipaul’s life, but it does not tell us enough about the secrets of his books.
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