Saturday, April 12, 2008

On Patrick French's biography of VS Naipaul

A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.

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, 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.

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”.

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 malaises 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 immediately a bruising affair, in both the figurative and the literal sense. 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. In one of the book's most heartbreaking moments, French shows us Pat living by herself in London, researching, of all things, an anthology of love letters at the invitation of a common friend of her and her husband, the historian Antonia Fraser. 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.

French beautifully mines and marshals the sources all biographies are made of - entries in diaries and notebooks, letters, recorded interviews, reminiscences of people close to the subject. Sometimes glimpses of a figure - an anecdote, a memory - can tell us more than pages of analysis can. French's narrative is full of such glimpses, which allow us to put together a private picture of Naipaul (French wisely eschews the kind of moralising commentary and retrospective judgments that mar so many biographies).
Moni Malhoutra, an IAS officer who assisted Naipaul with An Area of Darkness, recalls that Naipaul "was very athletic and he used to do a particular movement with his leg, he used to pick it up and bring it up towards his head from the back. It's the kind of posture which you'll see in some sculptures in the Tanjore temples...He loved to do that." Asked to judge a literary competition while serving as a writer-in-residence at a university in Uganda, Naipaul, we are told, "awarded only a third prize". A harried manager of the Taj Hotel in Bombay writes to his demanding guest: "Dear Mr.Naipaul, thank you for filling in the Guest Comments form and bringing to my notice the flaw in the design of the Tea-pots." A journalist requesting an interview with the master is rebuked: "Dear Mr.Bellacasa, Nothing in your questions suggests any knowledge of my work. An interview would be a considerable waste of my time and energy." (That word "considerable" is the funniest part of that sentence).

Naipaul himself gave his consent for the project, and revealed freely of himself to French. “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 "attachments" is the correct word) is not offset, in French's narrative, 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.

For instance, since French was given access to all the Naipaul records and papers at the University of Tulsa archive, he had an opportunity to look at the draft versions of Naipaul's books and tell us by what stages they came to acquire their distinction (authors are never more interesting than when revising their work). As Naipaul himself has said, "The value of a literary archive is that it takes us as close as we can get to the innermost self of the writer who produced the work." French does, I think, not fully exploit the potential of the material to which he had access.

In the same way, French does not tell us enough about how Naipaul came to perfect his pellucid, ringing style - the unmistakable sound of his writing voice. Nor is there very much about Naipaul's reading, or the kinds of things he discussed with other writers. Glimpses of Naipaul's attention to the minutiae of composition appear here and there, as in a letter to Random House's Sonny Mehta in which he complains about the work done on his text by a copy editor: "I don't want anyone undoing my semi-colons, with all their different shades of pause; or interfering with my 'ands', with all their different ways of linking."

But the paucity of such material means that French's biography is finally somewhat unbalanced. The World Is What It Is exposes the many skeletons in Naipaul's closet, but it leaves the secrets of his books in the dark. Or to put it another way, French's book is too sexual, and not textual enough.

And two old posts: on Naipaul's book A Writer's People, and on an unusual experiment in literary biography, the Spanish novelist Javier Marias's Written Lives.

Update, April 21: I neglected to mention in my piece that about a third of the Naipaul archive - the notebooks, diaries, and letters of his early career - were inadvertently destroyed by Ely's, the firm which had been storing them. As French writes, "Ely's, instructed to destroy files marked NITRATE (belonging to the Nitrate Corporation of Chile) had taken those marked NAIPAUL as well." This loss would have caused French some difficulty in attending to questions of Naipaul's development as a writer.


Hari said...

It's only a partial answer to how Naipaul crafts his work, but this essay on writing gives some glimpses. I particularly like these passages:

"I do not really know how I became a writer. I can give certain dates and certain facts about my career. But the process itself remains mysterious. It is mysterious, for instance, that the ambition should have come first—the wish to be a writer, to have that distinction, that fame—and that this ambition should have come long before I could think of anything to write about.


I felt it as artificial, that sitting down to write a book. And that is a feeling that is with me still, all these years later, at the start of a book—I am speaking of an imaginative work. There is no precise theme or story that is with me. Many things are with me; I write the artificial, self-conscious beginnings of many books; until finally some true impulse—the one I have been working toward—possesses me, and I sail away on my year's labor. And that is mysterious still—that out of artifice one should touch and stir up what is deepest in one's soul, one's heart, one's memory."

amit varma said...

Hash, very nice review, but I'm afraid I disagree about the biography being unbalanced. My reasons are here.

Vinod said...

I don't agree with Amit. Yes, one ought to try to understand what the author wished to do. One should not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt. However, one would expect Naipual's biographer to shed some light on what makes Naipaul such a brilliant and incisive writer. Surely any reasonable reader of the biography will expect that. If French thought that unnecessary, then he has some explaining to do.

amit varma said...

Vinod, a biography of a writer need not include literary criticism. French's book -- have you read it? -- tells us as much about Naipaul the man as one can reasonably expect a biography to. I think Chandrahas would agree with that. Chandrahas and I, being writers, might love to know more about "how Naipaul came to perfect his pellucid, ringing style", but I don't think that's a necessary part of the biography of a writer, or something that French even attempts. That's why I think the criticism is misplaced.

Chandrahas said...

Amit - I can't say I agree with you, because I feel you make an artificial distinction. Is "Naipaul the writer" not part of "Naipaul the man"? He certainly is. No one would have bothered writing a biography of Naipaul the man were it not for the achievements of Naipaul the writer.

In fact Naipaul, because of his many deliberate provocations and delicious misdeeds, is something of a special case. The majority of writers live thoroughly boring, unexceptional lives outside of their studies. How would one communicate the drama of their lives if not by immersing oneself in the drama of their work?

I don't suggest anywhere that a biography of a writer should hold its own as a work of literary criticism. But it is certainly part of a biographer's task to illuminate, as fully as possible, his subject's distinctive contribution to the world. That is what I meant when I said that French might have spent more time analysing the drafts of Naipaul's books. There are enough critics to write about the finished books, but it is another thing altogether to be able to study great works as they were put together from day to day. Textual analysis in this case would amount to a kind of biography.

John Updike's guidelines are a useful thing for every reviewer to read. But the rule you cite ("Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.") would, if properly thought through, have to come with a couple of caveats - it can be hardly be treated as an absolute commandment.

I enjoyed and admired French's biography on many counts, and have said so in as detailed a way as I could. But there is nothing wrong, as far as I can see, in blaming an author(if "blaming" is really the correct word; actually this amounts to a kind of compliment) for not being ambitious enough. As far as I can tell, I have tried in my piece to understand what French "wished to do" while also arguing that "what he did not attempt" is in this case a matter of some significance.

I am certainly not critising an apple for not being an orange, as you seem to imply via Updike. I am saying the apple could have been a better apple.

amit varma said...

Actually, Hash, you're saying that the apple could also have been a bit of an orange. While such a apple might be delightful to an orange lover, I'm not sure it's a normal apple's fault that it isn't so.

I don't think that textual analysis is a necessary part of a good biography of a writer, but let me grant for a moment that it is: can you, then, name me five biographies of writers that include the level of textual analysis you consider desirable?

Also, if you do fulfill this whim of mine, may I also borrow those books the next time we meet, for my edification? :)

Chandrahas said...

Amit - I would prefer to cite a passage instead of thinking of lists of books that you should read for your edification (particularly as you have no problems with the French).

Here, by way of offering a model that both follows French yet differs from it in important respects, is a passage from Frederick Brown's Flaubert (2006), which is to my mind an exemplary writer's biography. The chapter I quote from is called "Madame Bovary" - I think is it worth noting that Brown stresses the book and the centrality of it to Flaubert's life for many years as he worked on it - and here is the passage:

"In the early 1850s, when Flaubert staying awake until 4 or 5 a.m., hours of the day and night were spent not at his desk with Madame Bovary but on his couch with Apuleius, Moliere, Chateaubriand, Dante, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Boileau, Stendhal, Balzac, La Fontaine, Montaigne, Bossuet, Hugo, Horace, and Homer, to mention only authors cited in correspondence ("One must know the masters by heart, idolize them, strive to think like them," he advised Louise, [and] warned his niece more than once that keeping bad literary company would inevitably show in one's prose.

...'What a poet! What a poet!' Flaubert wrote of Pierre de Ronsard. 'What wings! He's greater than Virgil and, in lyric spurts, the equal of Goethe. This morning, at 1.30, I was reciting verse that gave me so much pleasure my nerves went haywire. It's as if someone was ticking the soles of my feet.'"

"These effusions," Brown remarks, "were a dominical binge after weekdays of stoical labour, a popping of the cork that released all the effervescence Flaubert kept bottled up in the practice of his art."

Now here is the drama of the writing life - I find it thrilling even as I copy it out. And here is an example of the biographer's understanding of, and fidelity to, the dialogue between the reading life and the process of composition that is at the centre of all writers' lives.

Chandrahas said...

And while I am at it, here is Brown again on Flaubert's labours over Salammbo, his novel set in Carthage in the 3rd century BC:

"Toward the end of 1861, Flaubert informed Maurice Schlesinger that his days from 8 a.m. to dusk were spent in Paris libraries taking notes (though we note from another letter that he generally napped during the late afternoon), and his evenings on the boulevard du Temple doing the same. [...]

"Amassing encyclopedic knowledge of the Mediterraneean world in 250 BC required total immersion. What vegetation was there in North Africa, and what was the lie of the land? What could be learned or inferred about Punic deities?...What were the weapons and tactics of land warfare? With what jewels and robes might he deck a Carthagian woman?"

The reader is drawn into the questions that vex and animate Flaubert, and for a second we wonder how he would have set about writing a historical novel ourselves.

Thank you though for your demands, which have led me into some very pleasurable browsing.

Chandrahas said...

And here is Viktor Shklovsky in his biography of Leo Tolstoy (Raduga publishers, 1988). Shklovsky puts himself in the position of every reader of War and Peace who wonders, "How did Tolstoy put together such a massive work, and what were his motives for doing so?" Shklovsky writes (and how useful it is to know this):

"It should not be assumed that the writer first ascertains everything, then ponders on it, and then sits down to record it on paper. The process of creating a work is one of cognition, and this determines the process of formulation....There is no finished author's manuscript of the whole of War and Peace. The many forewords and the many beginnings are signs of Tolstoy's effort to determine the conditions of cognition...

"The idea of a current sweeping up the destinies of people only came to Tolstoy while he was writing the novel."

..."Work on the book continued steadily: at the beginning the epic was called Three Periods, then All's Well That Ends Well until, finally, Tolstoy gave it the title War and Peace.

Shklovsky's study of the drafts shows us something valuable: that Tolstoy was not superhuman (although War and Peace seems like a book written by such a being). Tolstoy was just as fallible, as confused, as any other writer at his desk, as you or me. It was only through arduous labour, after many false starts, that he achieved what he did.

amit varma said...

Hash, these are fine passages from two books, and I'm glad we had this little conversation. I suppose we can agree to disagree on how essential textual analysis is to a writer's biography -- though I agree with you that it's desirable. And I think you've been more than fair to the merits of French's book, even if I don't agree with your judgement of it being unbalanced.

I think I should provoke you more often, though, if it makes you quote such interesting material at such length! :)

michalis said...

Hash, nice review as usual. I was wondering if the biography explains the paradox (?) in Naipaul's life: How can a man who is so penetrating and lucid in his assessment of people (and harsh in his criticism and demands of them), be, as Hash puts it, an 'exceptionally egotistic and unreasonable man, a man suffered rather than loved even by those closest to him'. Not quite the socratic idea of knowledge as virtue. And maybe that question is relevant to your discussion here, Hash and Amit? Understanding Naipaul as a writer, the making of his clear style and ideas, must be one element to somewhat understand Naipaul the person and this basic contradiction (is it?) of his life?

Chandrahas said...

Amit - You've used all up all your provocation tokens for a bit now, after all those hours I spent looking up books in my cupboard instead of attending to important, urgent, and essential work, such as taking my afternoon nap.

Michalis - Yes, the idea of knowledge as virtue certainly collapses in the case of Naipaul, and in fact in many other cases.

Perhaps we might amend the socratic idea - or shall we say ideal - of knowledge as virtue to a more realistic one of knowledge, because it also leads to worldly fulfillment and channels many worldly motives, as involving questions of both power and virtue, ego and virtue. Naipaul appears to have thought so highly of himself and his quest for the truth that it seemed fine to ride roughshod over others in the process. That is - as the biography shows - he seems to have lived only on one level, instead of moving up and down between levels as most human beings do.

Anirudh said...

May I also add Joseph Frank's biography of Dostoevsky. (Admittedly, it is a five-volume work.)

Rohit Chopra said...

Dear Chandrahas,

I enjoyed your characteristically insightful review of French's book on Naipaul. If I may engage in a excursus, albeit with a purpose, the obsessions of French's biography might be illuminated in light of his earlier work on Gandhi.

The following review by William Dalrymple on Chowk describes French's focus, in his earlier work, on Gandhi's quirks and peccadilloes and the 'patriotic outrage' it supposedly evoked. See

A chat with French on rediff sees him making similar points. See

I think there is an anxiety in French (and similarly disposed authors -- see, for instance, the Dalrymple piece) to prove that Gandhi was singularly unoriginal. This anxiety manifests itself in both Western and Indian commentators, who are unable to assimilate Gandhi into liberal / modern / rationalist epistemological, intellectual or political frameworks in any simple way. They are much more comfortable
with Nehru and Ambedkar in this respect.

Both Nehru and Ambedkar can easily be described as creatures of the enlightenment and their example can always be adduced as proof of the liberal and redemptive aspects of the colonial encounter, to counter the claims and charges of the violence of colonialism. Indian historian, Vinay Lal, calls this the 'balance sheet' model of empire. Gandhi, on the other hand, consistently argued that the project of Western modernity was based on hollow ideals, for all its noble claims, especially as it manifested itself in the colony.

This is not a nationalistic defense of Gandhi: that is too easy an accusation that Dalrymple and French seek refuge in. Gandhi, one may note, has been critiqued enough by Indian commentators across the political spectrum, including Marxists, feminists, Hindu nationalists, modernists, rationalists. And many of those who read Gandhi differently from French, academics or otherwise, Indians or otherwise, are far from jingoistic or hagiographic in their approach to him.

I wonder then if French's interest in Naipaul is, partly at least,
structured by the same kind of sentiment: Naipaul after all, is not unlike Nirad C. Chaudhuri, in finding almost nothing of value in
Indian or non-Western society and in his barely concealed loathing of
most things Indian (or non-Western).

In Naipaul's extended biography that is his work, one finds that self-hatred manifested as apparent recognition of the pathologies of the non-Western world. (This is a different argument, I should emphasize, than the generalization that all writing is essentially autobiography.) Naipaul reads himself constantly as proof of the power of Western liberal ideas, traditions, and society.

Might this be the reason for French's fascination with Naipaul?
Does French also, like his subject, find the redemptive
power of the West at work in Naipaul's temporary respite from his tormented, bitter, and divided self?

The politics of sympathy at work here are surely deserving of attention.


PS: Here is a blog post from This Space on Yasmin Ali-Bhai Brown's recent article on Naipaul and his biography that may be of some relevance to this discussion

Chandrahas said...

Anirudh - That is a very fine and relevant example to bring into the discussion. Frank's massive project - one that took more than twenty years to complete and that, almost like a human being, gradually reformulated its own sense of itself as it progressed, starting out with one set of aims and guiding principles and ending with another - is a classic example of all the places to which literary biography can go.

Chandrahas said...

Rohit - Outside of books I don't know if there is anybody whose thoughts on Gandhi, and his relation to and reception by various traditions, I enjoy more than yours.

I looked at both the links you've cited in this comment and they did seem like mean-spirited portrayals of Gandhi: his crankishness is emphasised, and his moral genius underplayed. Among the things they missed, and which have always struck me as being most admirable about Gandhi, was the constant subtlety of his arguments: his ideas about means and ends, for example, or his careful distinction that he was not against white people per se, but only against Empire. A hundred other nationalist movements have thrown these distinctions by the wayside in their ardour and their bloodlust.

You are right: the politics of sympathy at work here are surely deserving of some scrutiny. I would look forward to reading a longer essay by you on the subject.

I had read the Alibhai-Brown essay and thought some of the points it made were laughable. If her advice were to be taken seriously we every writer would need a good-conduct certificate stuck at the back of his or her book, assuring us of his virtue like organic milk or fair-trade coffee.

"I'll buy no more books by this monster." I myself have thought such thoughts on several occasions, but only in response to reading a really bad book by the monster in question.