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.