Naipaul's Darkness: Patrick French's 'The World Is What It Is'
V.S. Naipaul Archive, U of Tulsa
In 1998, a young English journalist named Patrick French arrived in India on assignment for The New Yorker. One day in Delhi, a well-connected friend offered to drive French to a press conference, and he found himself in a car with V.S. Naipaul and his wife. Naipaul "was wearing many layers of clothing and a tweed jacket, despite the heat," French recalls. "He held a trilby hat carefully in his lap. A roll-neck sweater merged with his beard, completing the impression that he was fully covered." Mrs. Naipaul inquired about the New Yorker article, and French replied that he was having some difficulty with the magazine's fact-checkers. "Don't let The New Yorker worry you," Naipaul sniffed. "The New Yorker knows nothing about writing. Nothing. Writing an article there is like posting a letter in a Venezuelan postbox; nobody will read it."
Three years later, French was invited to undertake a project as grueling as writing scores of New Yorker articles: an authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul. (French has not elaborated on the circumstances that led to the invitation.) At first, French hesitated; the scope and complexity of the project seemed daunting. Naipaul, after all, has written twenty-nine books, which include novels, linked stories, travel writing (three books on India among them), history, literary criticism, reportage and genre-defying masterpieces that delicately fuse autobiography and fiction.
Moreover, French would have to confront the least radiant and most cynical of contemporary writers. In "Conrad's Darkness," a superb essay he wrote in 1974, Naipaul defined his preoccupations: "the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of beliefs and the hideous simplicity of actions, the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made." Declarations of this sort, combined with Naipaul's abrasive views on India and the developing world, have made many critics in left-liberal circles clench their teeth. Derek Walcott, an old sparring partner, once dubbed him V.S. Nightfall. "Naipaul is saying what the whites want to say but dare not," C.L.R. James remarked. "They have put him up to it." Edward Said called him "a kind of belated Kipling [who] carries with him a kind of half-stated but finally unexamined reverence for the colonial order."
Certain literary soothsayers insist that left-of-center writers have a natural advantage in the nomination process for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2001 the Swedish Academy proved them wrong by selecting Naipaul. The citation praised him as "Conrad's heir" and "a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice," and celebrated him as a writer who is "singularly unaffected by literary fashion." Indeed, French reports that Naipaul was "initially unwilling to take the call from Stockholm, since he was cleaning his teeth." Like other great writers--Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Doris Lessing spring to mind--Naipaul has endeavored to be outrageous and provocative, if not scabrous. French noticed that "creating tension, insulting his friends, family or whole communities left him in excellent spirits." In 1989, when the Iranian government issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Naipaul laconically announced, "It's an extreme form of literary criticism."
For Naipaul and his handlers, French was a shrewd and honest choice: a writer not given to extremes. A regular contributor to British newspapers and Indian newsmagazines, and the author of several books (a biography of the British colonial explorer Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, a literary travelogue about Tibet, a history of the Indian independence movement), French is a graceful, confident and subtle writer. Still, before agreeing to the task, he presented Naipaul with two ironclad conditions: a series of candid face-to-face interviews and unrestricted access to his archive at the University of Tulsa, which contains more than 50,000 items, including the diaries of his first wife, Patricia Hale. Naipaul responded with silence; months passed. Eventually, French received a letter of acceptance, "written as if unwillingly in a fast, cramped hand, in violet ink." Over the years many readers have been drawn to the evocative title Naipaul selected for a novel he published in 1987, The Enigma of Arrival (a 1912 painting by Giorgio de Chirico inspired its title). The World Is What It Is, the product of years of toil, offers a vivid, and sometimes enthralling, portrait of a deeply enigmatic writer.
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. At the time the country had a population of 400,000, one-third of whom were Indians employed as clerks, agricultural workers, spirit vendors, merchants and small-time shopkeepers. Naipaul's family had joined those ranks in the late nineteenth century, when his mother's father migrated to the island as an indentured laborer. Naipaul spent his earliest years in the small country town of Chaguanas, in the house of his imposing and imperious grandmother, whose business acumen in real estate enabled her to rise. Built in "the North Indian style," the house, as Naipaul explained in 1983 in his "Prologue to an Autobiography," "had balustraded roof terraces, and the main terrace was decorated at either end with a statue of a rampant lion." It was crowded. Naipaul's mother had eight sisters, and each resided at Lion House with her husband and children, one family per room. Hindi was spoken, and vegetarian food was prepared communally in "a dingy, blackened kitchen." The men usually wore shirts made from flour sacks.
Lion House simmered with intrigue and tension, and occasionally boiled over into violence, a situation rendered with exquisite sadness and comedy in Naipaul's breakthrough novel, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). "The family was a totalitarian organization," Naipaul wrote in the "Prologue." Decisions "were taken by a closed circle at the top--my grandmother and her two eldest sons-in-law." (The remaining sons-in-law toiled in virtual serfdom, forced to work on the family property but denied their own spending money; they drowned in bitterness.) It was an arrangement that Naipaul's father, Seepersad--who, in his son's words, "dangled all his life in a half-dependence and half-esteem" between two groups of powerful relatives--found suffocating. "What happens in that kind of awful set-up," Naipaul informed French, "is that lots of quarrels break out between people, and those quarrels were my training for life, my training in life and society--propaganda, alliances, betrayals--all these things. So, in a way, nothing that happened later ever really shocked me."
The young Naipaul--French refers to him as Vidia--was a gloomy and morose child. He refused to participate in religious thread ceremonies organized by his grandmother; he complained about the food; and he groused about the fumes from the kerosene stove, which aggravated his asthma. He excelled at Queen's Royal College (the same school C.L.R. James attended), and he was one of four students from Trinidad to win a full scholarship to study in England; he chose Oxford University. According to French, Naipaul was admitted by Peter Bayley, a Fellow of English at University College, who many years later recalled, "because I loved India and had many Indian friends, because of being there for nearly four years in the war, I just didn't hesitate, just took him."
Naipaul went to Oxford in 1950. He worked hard, in his literature classes especially: "I want to come top of my group," he wrote to his parents. "I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language." It was Seepersad who, in a powerful and lasting way, instilled the literary vocation in his son. Seepersad read Dickens, O. Henry, Somerset Maugham, J.R. Ackerley and R.K. Narayan, and he wrote fiction himself, in bed with a pencil. Since 1929 Seepersad had been a reporter for the Trinidad Guardian, a stodgy paper then being revitalized by an energetic editor from London, who brought a Fleet Street sensibility and "a tourist's eye" to Trinidad's local excitements--"French fugitives from Devil's Island, voodoo in negro backyards, Indian obeah, Venezuelan vampire bats," in V.S. Naipaul's words.