Brilliant and beastly: the enigma of VS Naipaul

Reading Patrick French’s hefty biography of VS Naipaul brought back memories of my once playing Mahjong with incipient conjunctivitis; the game was challenging enough without the tile details going in and out of focus.

French’s writing style in general has little appeal for me – a little dry and academic and when he presents, as he often does in this tome, a lengthy, name-dropping paragraph, the hotchpotch of third-party comments and attributed quotes undermines clarity. Things become a little blurred – my response was often to skip ahead.

french bookPloughing through ‘The World Is What It Is’, I was also reminded of a lecturer long ago who recited his words of wisdom to us students while absently leafing through the pages of a newspaper. Like that academic, French is not, for me, a natural at engaging with his audience.

Published in 2008, this authorised biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author covers Naipaul’s life from his birth in1932 to his second marriage in 1996. The author, who won the Booker Prize for his novel ‘In a Free State’ (1971), died in 2018.

The biography’s title derives from the opening of Naipaul’s book A Bend in the River (1979):

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

The sentence, channeled through a fictional character, tells us much about the author’s view the world and his fellow travellers.

While French’s is not a hagiographical work, he is not overtly critical of his subject who was, it is clear from this book and other accounts, a difficult person to like.

Naipaul’s intelligent, unassuming wife Pat remained pitifully loyal to the author even though he treated her like a lowly servant.

You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station,’ he once cruelly barked at her. And then, in a moment of self-pitying regret, he wrote to her: ‘I love you, and I need you. Please don’t let me down. Please forgive my occasional lapses. At heart I am the worthiest man I know.’

His ‘occasional lapses’ included habitual visits to prostitutes, furious and violent domestic outbursts, a perpetual haughtiness and taking up a long-term intimate association with another woman who became, effectively, a second wife. This was how he treated  his nearest and supposedly dearest. Others, friends, associates, publishers who crossed him and so on found themselves subject to the notorious Naipaul ‘blank’. They simply became non-persons; he did not just cut them, he did not notice them.

A hatchet job on Naipaul’s disagreeable qualities could fill a book. French’s commendably objective approach brings balance but there is no getting away from unpleasantness of the person under scrutiny. To take our minds off personality issues, French dwells at length on rather fringe and uninteresting threads – largely irrelevant family background and affairs, political machinations in Naipaul’s birth country of Trinidad, the humdrum details of foreign trips and so on.

Academics and professional reviewers will argue that such detail is necessary and required in a thorough biographical work. But that doesn’t make them any the less dull for the ordinary reader.

There is much here, rightly, about Naipaul’s output. The author’s work divides opinion among readers but I fall into the fan camp having enjoyed both his fiction (particularly ‘The Enigma of Arrival’) and non-fiction (‘An Area of Darkness’).

french

Patrick French

But French’s accounts of the critical reception of each book is exhaustive to the point of being exhausting. And this is where some of those confusing paragraphs tend to crop up. Like many biographers, French has laboured long on thorough research, having had complete access to the Naipaul archives at the University of Tulsa and spent many hours  conducting face-to-face unrestricted interviews with his subject. The word count demonstrates that French wants us to know how industrious he has been but the extraneous detail is overwhelming and of little interest to anyone not engaged in writing a dissertation on Naipaul.

Critics universally lauded ‘The World Is What It Is’ on its release in 2008 so my comments here are very much against the current. I admire French’s achievement in writing this comprehensive biography but I am left with little sense of really knowing or understanding the man who is its subject. Naipaul once remarked ‘whenever we are reading the biography of a writer … no amount of documentation, however fascinating, can take us there.’ 

Given Naipaul’s nature – elusive, mistrusting, narcissistic, aloof, judgemental – perhaps it is unavoidable that little of the real person comes across. Perhaps there was no real person. Perhaps the man was unknowable, even to himself. An enigma.

About Edward Colley

A lifetime working with words and I'm still moved by them – or rather by what good writers can do with the slippery monkeys. A book can be a refuge, an escape, an adventure, a laugh ('I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.'), a heart-breaker (poor Tess!) ... I can't imagine life without a book (or two) on the go. My favourite read, by a mile, in the past 12 months: East of Eden by John Steinbeck. An epic masterpiece. Runner-up: The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings. Hefty but not heavy.

Posted on January 4, 2020, in Biographies and autobiographies, Book Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Naipaul is an author that has always fascinated me. Thank you for this review.

  2. The book sounds worth the read and Naipaul worth learning about. I have not read Naipaul so I would want to read him before reading a biography.

    • There’s a broad consensus that ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ was his best work of fiction. ‘A Bend in the River’ is an ambitious, sometimes disturbing novel. ‘In a Free State’, Naipaul’s Booker winner, is a compelling read with some unpleasant scenes. My personal favourite, ‘The Enigma of Arrival’, is probably not the best place to start with his fiction. A later work, ‘Half A Life’, is also very readable.

  3. Wow, sounds like a tough read, I’m amazed you made it through. This is really a good review though, very informative and gives a good idea of the content. Thanks for sharing.

    • It was a bit of a marathon and I admit to skipping some of the content that didn’t deal directly with Naipaul’s life. If I admire someone’s work I want to know about them as a person. ‘The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham’ by Selina Hastings was a much better stab at biography. Later this year I’ll tackle biographies on Kingsley Amis and Georges Simenon, two more intriguing authors.

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