Naipaul's Darkness: Patrick French's 'The World Is What It Is'
At Oxford Naipaul received a steady stream of letters from his "Pa," which contained snapshots of his life at the newspaper ("The Guardian is taking all out of me--writing tosh. What price salted fish and things of that sort. Actually that is my assignment for tomorrow! It hurts"); inquiries for minutiae about the social and intellectual life at Oxford ("write me weekly of the men you meet; tell me what you talked; how they talked"); requests for books; and advice on writing ("Read Conrad for intensity of expression, but for the most part be yourself"). In late 1953 Naipaul received word that heart disease had killed his father at 47, and he dispatched a telegram to Trinidad: "He Was the Best Man I Knew Stop Everything I Owe to Him Be Brave My Loves Trust Me--Vido."
With his father gone and his prospects in London few, Naipaul, having taken his degree, nearly unraveled. "Our family was in distress," he recalled in the "Prologue," referring to his mother and younger siblings, who were in urgent need of money. "I should have done something for them, gone back to them. I couldn't go back." Trinidad, he had written to his mother, was too small ("40 X 40 miles"), the values "are all wrong, and the people are petty." He wouldn't even return for a visit until he had achieved some notoriety in Britain. Naipaul's mental condition was uncertain: he had suffered a nervous breakdown at Oxford, what he called "a great depression verging on madness." His destination was not Trinidad but Grub Street, and French provides a rich account of Naipaul's first year in London: he lived in a rat-infested basement and was rebuffed by numerous employers. When his girlfriend, Patricia Hale, suggested he look for a clerical position, he responded with a smoldering letter: "The people in authority feel my qualifications fit me only for jobs as porters in kitchens, and with the road gangs. My physique decrees otherwise." That morose child in Trinidad was now a penurious drifter in London: "No fire in my room for two days and only tea & toast in my stomach. That is what the whole policy of the Free World amounts to. Naipaul, poor wog, literally starving, and very cold." In December 1954 the BBC Caribbean Service offered him a position in London; decades later he admitted to an interviewer, "That saved my life, really."
Pat, whom Naipaul married in 1955, implored him to write. "Leisure kills a writer unless he's about sixty and has led a very active life," she told him in a letter. So at age 22, on an old BBC typewriter and on smooth "non-rustle" BBC script paper, he typed out the first sentence of Miguel Street: "Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, 'What happening there, Bogart?'" The book, a collection of wry, melancholy stories written from a child's perspective, chronicled the denizens, drifters and dreamers Naipaul had known in the streets of Port of Spain, the city to which the Naipaul family had relocated in 1938. Most of his subjects were Indians. We encounter, among others, a man whose wife runs off, after which he converts his house into a brothel for American sailors, and a boy who dreams of becoming a doctor but ends up carting trash on the streets. Naipaul returned to Trinidad in 1956 and found himself face to face with the man on whom he modeled Hat, the griot of Miguel Street and a central character in the book. "He really is a surly man," Naipaul wrote to Pat. "We never were really friends. He only knew me as the bright boy in the street. Yet he gave me a choice mango the other day. He told my mother, 'I have a mango for Vido.' And when he saw me he just gave me the mango."
At the time Trinidad was hurtling toward independence, and French skillfully evokes the atmosphere of political turmoil and transition there. Hindu politicians were reeling from the creation of a largely black political party led by Dr. Eric Williams, author of Capitalism and Slavery (1944). Naipaul's uncle Simbhoo was running for office, and one of his rallies ended in a riot involving bottles and knives. When Williams's party won at the polls, Naipaul shared his reactions with Pat in language he knew would inflame her liberal sensibilities: "With the present government of noble niggers, all sorts of racialist laws might be passed.... Indians are talking of leaving, so are the Chinese." (Naipaul would always be concerned about the safety of the Indian diaspora.) But the election gave him fresh material for a novel, The Suffrage of Elvira, a sly comedy about electoral machinations in provincial Trinidad. By the time it was published in 1958--to glowing reviews from Anthony Powell and Kingsley Amis--Naipaul had returned to London. He had left the BBC and was reviewing books for The New Statesman while formulating the novel that would become Biswas.
Serious writers require patrons, and in 1960 Naipaul found an unlikely one: Eric Williams, who was keen to lure gifted expatriates back to the island with open-ended fellowships. Williams wanted Naipaul, whose writing he admired, to produce a nonfiction book on the Caribbean. Naipaul accepted the fellowship, and he and Pat returned to Trinidad, where they lived on a stipend provided by Williams. They traveled to British Guiana, Jamaica, Suriname and Martinique at his expense. Williams even arranged to have his government purchase 2,000 copies of what became The Middle Passage. Naipaul launched his career as a travel writer by accepting handouts from what he had branded a "government of noble niggers."
Like much of the nonfiction that would eventually flow from Naipaul's pen, The Middle Passage is an engaging and disconcerting work. It contains incisive reporting and observation; lofty, provocative historical analysis; melancholy rumination ("Carnival in Trinidad has always depressed me"); gallows humor; lean, economical, elegant prose; and a pessimistic and sarcastic authorial perspective given to lashes of mockery and derision ("the malarial sluggishness of the Guianese is known throughout the Caribbean"). Underneath it all, a restless intelligence was at work. When setting foot in a country, Naipaul endeavored to measure its amnesia about the past, its ability to repair itself in the present and its economic prospects for the future. In his chapter on Martinique, he observed:
[It] produces nothing apart from sugar, rum and bananas. Couldn't they even make their own coconut oil for the margarine factory that employs seven people? Surely coconuts can grow in Martinique? "Impossible," says one. "The man is mad. Pay no attention," says another. And so the bickering goes on and coconut oil is imported, and milk is flown in from France...by the Air France milk plane. And because Martinique is part of France, her unique rum cannot be exported direct to North or South America, but must first cross the Atlantic to Paris and be redirected from there, enriching middlemen all the way.
By and large, reviewers in the West Indies disliked The Middle Passage. One critic likened Naipaul to "a surgeon who has surrendered to despair." In London, however, Evelyn Waugh hailed Naipaul's "exquisite mastery of the English language" and praised him for being "free of delusion about independence and representative government for his native land." Naipaul welcomed the acclaim, but he would never be entirely at ease among the British literary elite. Once he found himself in an elevator with Waugh's son Auberon, who inquired, "May I call you Vidia?" Naipaul replied, "No, as we've just met, I would rather you called me Mr. Naipaul."