Patrick French, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul (Knopf, 2008)
Biographies of great novelists often expose the foibles of our literary heroes. They become human in a way that can detract from their genius on the page. By the end of The World is What It Is, Patrick French’s revealing biography of Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul, the esteem of even the most ardent fan of Naipaul will be tested. For those of us who have admired the fierce independence of his mind and the sweeping elegance of his prose, this biography leaves us in a somber state.
It’s hard to believe that Naipaul’s body of work can be diminished in any way. In a House for Mr. Biswas (1961), his novel about one man’s struggle to define himself in post-colonial Trinidad, Naipaul produced one of the finest works of the last half-century. He gave expression to the cultural displacement unleashed by decolonization in his magnificent A Bend in the River, a novel French rightly notes is a “late 20th Century global narrative that could have been written by no one else.’’ Its provocative opening sentence is the source of this biography’s title: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’’
In Among the Believers (1981), one of his many works of non-fiction, Naipaul delivered a lacerating critique of Islam, warning of the threat of fundamentalism long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. His travel writing has left us with enduring insights into the people of countries ranging from Argentina to India and Indonesia.
Yet Naipaul’s penchant for uttering uncomfortable truths has ensured a reputation far from pristine. His assault on cultural relativism earned him the disdain of the left. He made a “forceful rejection of the late twentieth-century academic convention that all cultures, peoples and belief systems are different but equal,’’ French writes. To his critics, including the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said and fellow Nobel Prize laureate Derek Walcott, Naipaul had “sold out.”
Though Naipaul’s work has often elicited criticism, his public remarks have triggered the most strident condemnation. In 1964, amid growing racial tensions in the England Midlands town of Smethwick, he said: “The whole world knows why there must be prejudice against Negroes. Negroes want to be integrated with whites; they want to sleep with white women.’’
Naipaul’s racial views stem from what French calls the “exclusivist Hindu thinking’’ passed onto him by his parents and from the Indian community’s resentment of Trinidad’s more politically powerful blacks. Naipaul was himself on the receiving end of racism in 1950s London. At the time, Naipaul wed Patricia (known as Pat), a white Englishwoman he met while studying at Oxford University and whose father sternly opposed her marrying a “wog.”
Naipaul’s antipathy toward Islam emanates from the enmity between Hindus and Muslims that was often as present in his native Trinidad as it has been in the subcontinent. When Hindu nationalists in India destroyed a mosque, Naipaul called it a “marvellous idea,’’ even as it unleashed days of bloodletting and left hundreds dead. “I didn’t kill them myself,’’ he tells French in half-hearted defense.
Naipaul’s reprehensible pronouncements have no doubt compromised his moral standing. But nothing will erode his stature more than the revelations of how he treated Pat, his wife of 41 years. Despite Naipaul’s relentless verbal abuse or infidelity, Pat was unable to leave him. When Naipaul admitted to his affair with an Argentine woman named Margaret, Pat was devastated but did nothing. Naipaul’s volcanic relationship with Margaret continued for 24 years while he remained married to Pat.
Like Pat, Margaret was slavishly devoted to Naipaul. Each was like a battered wife incapable of breaking away. In fact, Naipaul admits to hitting Margaret once. “I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt. She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her,’’ he tells French. When Pat asked Naipaul if he was still in love with Margaret years after the affair began, he said he was and that “It’s my life. I’m sorry.’’ Naipaul’s “unconscious hope may have been that if he were sufficiently horrible to Pat, she might disappear,’’ French writes.
Naipaul would later reveal to the New Yorker he was once “a great prostitute man,” delivering another blow to Pat, who was battling a breast cancer relapse that would eventually take her life. While she lay dying in England, Naipaul, researching a book in Pakistan, became romantically involved with yet another woman to whom he was quickly engaged. “And so it was that on the day after he had cremated his wife, V.S. Naipaul invited a new woman into her house as the funeral green olives did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables,’’ French writes.
Naipaul’s staggering acts of heartlessness will leave his admirers baffled. How can a man who in his work evinces such acute sensitivity to the most subtle cruelties be capable of such brutality in his personal life? How can we reconcile the astounding callousness he showed to those closest to him with the writer of such insightful prose? The astounding callousness that has marked Naipaul’s personal life will forever mar his considerable literary accomplishments.