Naipaul's Darkness: Patrick French's 'The World Is What It Is'
French contends that by the early 1970s, critics and readers were ready for a Naipaulian perspective on the Third World: "A rising disillusion with the post-colonial project in many countries led to Vidia being projected as the voice of truth, the scourge who by virtue of his ethnicity and his intellect could see things that others were seeking to disguise." Owing to the singularity of his vision, and to his politics (he stood for "high civilization, individual rights and the rule of law"), Naipaul was worthy of such a pulpit, French suggests. "He was the man without loyalties...who would write the truth as he saw it.... His moral axis...was internal, it was himself." But some of Naipaul's most attentive readers were dismayed by the extent to which darkness now permeated his work. After reading In a Free State, Peter Bayley, Naipaul's mentor at Oxford, wrote to his former student, "Perhaps I was wrong to see personal unhappiness, alienation, loneliness, humiliation so clearly behind it all." Salman Rushdie would later observe that "an affection for the human race" infused Miguel Street, The Suffrage of Elvira and Biswas, but the "dark clouds" that gathered over "Naipaul's inner world" have "not lifted, but deepened." Edward Said wanted Naipaul to be like Nadine Gordimer, a writer who examined the Third World with "sympathetic insight" rather than with the despondency of a "scavenger."
The 1971 Booker Prize, and the success of Guerrillas, brought Naipaul an avalanche of invitations, awards and teaching offers, and in 1978 he spent a year as a visiting professor at Wesleyan. French says his courses were "brilliantly inventive," but his patience with students who missed deadlines was short: "You are like officials in the Congo," he informed them. "You are corrupt." Rancor toward Naipaul was percolating in the American academy, where he became "indefensible." "Vidia's response to the growth in his reputation as a villain was to stoke it," French writes. His rhetorical prod was wielded in a "Trinidian street style." In response to a barrage of criticism from Said and others, Naipaul made a point, during interviews, of consistently mispronouncing Said's last name (as the past participle of "say") and shooing the reporters away: "I don't know these people.... You must go and talk to Mr. Said about it."
For the first time in his life, Naipaul began to earn substantial amounts of money. In 1983 Vanity Fair paid $75,000 for his essential "Prologue to an Autobiography," which was reprinted in Finding the Center. In 1986 William Shawn offered $78,000 for the right to excerpt The Enigma of Arrival in The New Yorker. In Naipaul's negotiations for fees, old and noted friends were treated shabbily. In the early '70s, Robert Silvers, who had showcased Naipaul's work in The New York Review of Books since 1963, borrowed money from a friend to send Naipaul on a reporting trip to Argentina. In 1990 Naipaul and his agent offered extracts to Silvers for $125,000; Silvers could offer $10,000. "Never one to forgive a past favor," French writes, "the man without loyalties threatened to break his links with The New York Review."
In 1990, nearly four decades after he arrived penniless in London, Naipaul was knighted. He went alone to the palace, by train, wearing a charcoal gray suit. His personal darkness began to abate slightly. In 1993 Harold Pinter invited Vidia and Pat to view his play No Man's Land. As Pat would later write to Pinter, "I cannot remember sitting next to Vidia emanating approval and enjoyment to that degree for so long for years and years." In later books like The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World, the old rage and fury were, to a certain extent, supplanted by elegiac rumination. In a sense Naipaul even reconciled with an India that was no longer down, aligning himself with the Hindu chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party, which did not endear him to Indian liberals. As he told the Financial Times in 2004, "I am staggered by the amount of intelligence and education that now exists in India and the strivingness of the culture."
Patrick French conveys a better sense of the man than the work. Focused on the life, he for the most part neglects the books. French devotes just several hundred words of tepid analysis to a description of A House for Mr. Biswas, and his assessment of Naipaul's best-known work is wan: "The novel...is universal in the way that the work of Dickens or Tolstoy is universal." French seems to assume that his readers have digested Naipaul's oeuvre, and so, with certain exceptions, like A Way in the World, he does not describe or analyze the books in any serious detail. With the novels, one longs to hear more about the plot, the tone, the narrative style, the themes and obsessions. With the travel writing and nonfiction, French sidesteps questions and debates that have always swirled around Naipaul's work: was India in 1975 really a "wounded civilization"? Of The Return of Eva Perón, Edward Said remarked, "There isn't any real analysis in his essays, only observation"; Joan Didion parried that "he is a writer for whom the theoretical has no essential application." Is Didion's defense persuasive? Does French accept the Swedish Academy's assertion that Naipaul occupies the same rarefied heights as Voltaire?
Naipaul is a virtuoso of English prose, but French has nothing of substance to say about his style, including his scrupulous employment of the semicolon. Nor does French explore the writers who influenced and inspired his subject. Naipaul has an affectionate interest in the work of R.K. Narayan, whose Chekhovian novels, set in the imaginary south Indian town of Malgudi, have lost none of their insight and charm. Naipaul cited Narayan in his Nobel lecture and offered provocative readings of his fiction in An Area of Darkness and India: A Wounded Civilization. French also neglects Conrad. A Bend in the River, as many have noted, owes much to Heart of Darkness. Naipaul was also a close reader of The Secret Agent, and his most wicked thrusts at left-wing charlatans--like Michael X, who engineered grisly murders in Trinidad in 1972--resemble Conrad's magnificent disgust with London's anarchist milieu. Perhaps French believes that all these matters are best left to the professors. Whatever the case, a consideration of them would have added intellectual depth to the book.
What does interest French, to a lamentable degree, are the intimate details of Naipaul's personal and sexual life, and his relationships with three women in particular. This preoccupation distorts the book's architecture and almost derails its narrative: French's normally crisp prose becomes slack, gossipy, slightly incoherent and meddlesome. Naipaul married Patricia Hale when they were both 22. He neglected to give her a ring (she purchased one herself), and he soon misplaced the marriage certificate; his callousness and cruelty knew no bounds. In some notes he scribbled in 2001, Naipaul confessed, "The relationship--on VSN's side--was more than half a lie. Based really on need." He was speaking not of sexual need but rather of emotional, domestic and professional fortification. He came to rely on Pat as a reader and critic of his work. French, who is deeply and properly sympathetic to Pat, shows in numbing detail how she served as her husband's amanuensis; he even compares her to "great, tragic, literary spouses" like Sonia Tolstoy, Jane Carlyle and Leonard Woolf.
In April 1972, while reporting from Buenos Aires, Naipaul met a 30-year-old Anglo-Argentine named Margaret Gooding, whom French describes as "tempestuous, cynical, sexy." On the same day he met Gooding, Naipaul received a letter from Pat, vacationing in Trinidad, who wrote, "Look after yourself and dress sensibly but don't pile on the clothes indoors with central heating.... I suppose you would be impossible if you were here but I would not mind." Naipaul began an affair with Gooding, one that would last twenty-four years, and he soon informed Diana Athill, "I am having carnal pleasure for the first time in my life." The affair, in addition to Naipaul's later public confession that he had patronized prostitutes, had a devastating effect on Pat (she succumbed to cancer in 1996). "She suffered," Naipaul told French in 2005. "It could be said that I had killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way."
French devotes many pages to Naipaul's affair with Gooding (fewer pages would have sufficed), and not many details escape his attention: "Vidia flew to meet Margaret in... Marrakech at the Hotel Mamounia, where their bill listed little but 'étage' (room service), suggesting they were too busy to leave the room." Scrutinizing hotel receipts, peering through keyholes: this is hardly French at his finest. He does provide a chilling coda, however. During the final months of Pat's life, Naipaul was reporting from Pakistan, where he met a journalist named Nadira Khannum Alvi. He dumped his longtime mistress and began an affair with Nadira, who arrived at Naipaul's home in Britain six days after Pat's death. Several weeks later she became Lady Naipaul.
Despite its shortcomings, The World Is What It Is is a formidable achievement. It contains a remarkable accumulation of rich, minute detail; covers a vast amount of history and politics in an effortless manner; and navigates difficult emotional territory with a very high degree of compassion, subtlety and authority. The book is engrossing, with French pulling surprises out of his hat from the opening pages. A startling sentence appears in the introduction: "He had the opportunity to read the completed manuscript, but requested no changes." A book launched with a note scrawled in violet ink wasn't torpedoed by Naipaul's red pen. Reviewers in Britain (where the book was published last spring) have commented on Naipaul's unusual decision to expose himself to withering biographical scrutiny. John Carey put it nicely in theSunday Times: "He has chosen to submit himself to the truth-telling and ruthless objectivity that have always characterized his own work." (French calls it "an act of narcissism and humility.") In a speech in Tulsa in 1994, Naipaul declared, "The lives of writers are a legitimate subject of inquiry; and the truth should not be skimped." And so it wasn't.