Into the Heart of his Darkness
Patrick French's brilliant and candid The World Is What It Is lays bare the demons that drove one of our greatest - and most controversial.
`I would take poison rather than do this for a living,' said VS Naipaul after teaching a creative-writing course to American students who divided into those who thought him by far the most brilliant teacher on campus and those for whom he was a bigot ('He was simply the worst, most closed-minded, inconsiderate, uninteresting and incompetent professor I have ever met').
Over the past 50 years, the London literary world has been split along similar lines. For a reclusive literary ascetic with patrician attitudes and a Miltonic sense of destiny, Naipaul has maintained a consistently high gossip quotient, trading public provocation and personal insults, pursuing and pursued to this day by private vendettas vigorously conducted in print with ex-friends and once faithful supporters. His strange character and stranger career, coupled with rumours about his triangular private life, mystified people who knew him almost as much as people who didn't.
Naipaul and his English wife met as fellow undergraduates at Oxford, married almost at once and dedicated themselves ever after exclusively to his writing. Patricia Hale gave up everything - her family, her future, her faith in herself - to marry a scholarship boy with no prospects, contacts or money at a time when the racial prejudice endemic at every level of British society prevented him getting a job or even renting a room in London. Naipaul's uncles in Trinidad were 'Hindi-speaking cane-cutters'. His grandfather had been shipped out of India as indentured labour ('slavery with an expiry date', as Patrick French puts it). In the half a century after he first landed in England, Naipaul rose up the ranks of wealth, fame and privilege to collect every available worldly honour, including a knighthood and the Nobel Prize for literature.
His wife understood from the start both the scale of her husband's ambition and the punitive price to be paid in human terms. He stopped her acting on the grounds that it offended him, refused to buy her a wedding ring ('I had no interest in jewellery,' he explained blandly to his biographer) and stamped out any hope she may have had of an independent career, except in so far as he needed her initially to earn his keep.
Her world contracted as his expanded. He undermined her confidence, derided her opinions and told her she was too dull to take to parties. She stopped travelling with him because, for the last 20 years of her life, he shared his favours with a far more sophisticated and no less compliant Argentinean mistress who crisscrossed the globe at his side, providing services, principally boastful, energetic and violent sex, outside the scope of his mute, sad, stay-at-home wife.
Blatant long-term infidelity proved easier to endure than Naipaul's public announcement, printed in the New Yorker in 1994 and reprinted in headlines around the world, that he had regularly paid prostitutes for sex in the early years of his marriage. The shock of this revelation devastated Patricia Naipaul, who had been in remission from a cancer that now became terminal. 'It could be said that I killed her,' her husband conceded dispassionately to his biographer in one of the brutally frank interviews that provide the backbone of this extraordinary book.
French received similarly candid confessions from virtually everyone close to his subject, including the current Lady Naipaul, Nadira Alvi, a Pakistani journalist 20 years younger than the writer, who proposed to her in Karachi as soon as it became clear that his first wife had no chance of survival. 'He felt angry that she was dying,' Nadira reported, 'and angry that she was not dying fast enough because he wanted to carry on with his life.' The day after Patricia Naipaul's brief, austere and impersonal funeral, her successor moved into her house and a few months later scattered her ashes in the nearest wood while reciting a prayer in praise of Allah.
The speed and ruthlessness of this takeover cost Naipaul many friends ('Friendship has not been important to me,' he told French grandly). It also meant dumping the mistress, who had hoped to marry him, but found herself paid off instead with a lump sum because, as Naipaul pointed out, she had disqualified herself for the job by becoming, 'middle-aged, almost an old lady'. It is at this point, in October 1996, that French abruptly breaks off a biography that reads on one level like a contemporary variation on Bluebeard's Castle, the kind of malign fairy tale at which, according to Naipaul, English writers excel.
But on another level, this book tells a different story. The young Naipaul notoriously dismissed the achievements of better-known contemporaries still working in the great 19th-century tradition of the European novel for the same reason that artists like Matisse and Picasso struggled at the start of the last century to overthrow the canons of Western Renaissance art. So far as he was concerned, their time was up: 'The late 20th century ... needs another kind of interpretation.' He dismantled the barriers between fiction and non-fiction in bulletins on a world in flux filed from Trinidad, India, Africa, South America, Indonesia, even the etiolated manorial setting of the English South Downs. His view is exhilarating, alien and unforgiving, at once phenomenally accurate and unsoftened by the consolations of familiarity. If works such as A Bend in the River or The Enigma of Arrival are not novels in any conventional sense, so much the worse for the novel.
The harsh emotional honesty that made him as a writer destroyed him as a man. Its tensions constantly threatened to wreck the fatal fruitful pact with his wife. An inherent lack of self-assurance in Patricia Naipaul ('I have nothing but contempt for myself') latched on to the opposite in her husband, the terrible ingrained response of an acutely sensitive child to the insecurity, shame and humiliation of the poor and dispossessed in the colonial setting from which he came. 'Contempt, quick, deep, inclusive, became part of his nature,' Naipaul wrote in his semi-autobiographical novel, A House for Mr Biswas. 'It led to inadequacies, to self-awareness and a lasting loneliness. But it made him unassailable.'
Beneath that invincibility lay the raw wounds of a jealous, angry, egotistical child, wounds Naipaul displayed to his wife while simultaneously punishing her for an intimacy he hid from the world. She discussed, revised and retyped his books for him, recording the process in unpublished diaries as bleak in human terms as they are richly rewarding from a literary point of view. In a grim entry made during the writing of his novel Guerrillas, she recognises herself both in the murder victim and in the sidekick who finally turns on and kills the murderer. A few years later, in a rare, marvellous moment of mutual satisfaction, she describes her husband dictating a key transitional passage from A Bend in the River at speed, with his eyes closed and successive expressions chasing one another over his face, 'like weather'. Even on her deathbed, Naipaul was still reading work in progress aloud to his wife and taking her advice about what to do with it ('A few days before her death she was able to judge it,' he told French).
There is something monstrous about the urgent, exorbitant need that overrode any consideration of human feeling, compassion or basic decency. But radical innovation has rarely been the work of kind, tidy-minded, well-adjusted people sticking to procedures compatible with mental health and safety. Twentieth-century Modernism was invented in the first place by artists who struck their contemporaries as freaks and madmen spewing out the contents of sick or perverted minds. Patricia Naipaul bore the brunt of her husband's disturbed and disturbing imagination. Her diaries recording his life as a writer, together with his own cold, hard analyses of his conduct as a man, take us probably as far as it is possible to go to the core of the creative process.
The World Is What It Is must have taken nerves of iron to write. Its clarity, honesty, even-handedness, its panoramic range and close emotional focus, above all its virtually unprecedented access to the dark secret life at its heart, make it one of the most gripping biographies I've ever read.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009