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.”