A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling Picador, 2007 194 pages £16.99 ISBN: 978-0330485241
The World Is What It Is: the Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul Picador, 2008 555 pages £20.00 ISBN: 978-0330433501
Although he will never be short of admirers, V.S. Naipaul can probably claim the distinction of being the least liked man in English literature. Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001; his fiction and travel writing has helped broaden the cultural scope of the novel in English. Yet surely no figure in contemporary literature has been so reviled. Over the years, he has provoked the ire of Salman Rushdie, Derek Walcott, George Lamming, and Edward Said, mostly over political disagreements. But if the exact dimensions and contours of the personal ground covered by Sir Vidia’s shadow are unclear, we already have some idea of the harsh and bitterly inhospitable climate. Former friends and acquaintances such as Paul Theroux and Diana Athill have written at length to prove that V.S. Naipaul is not a very nice man. To stay the distance with Naipaul you clearly need to keep your distance. When the truth itself is a hatchet-job, it takes the cooler, more proportionate scrutiny of a skilled biographer to properly order our understanding of the man and his art.
To illuminate this area of darkness, Naipaul has called upon the services of the distinguished young travel writer Patrick French. Given special authorization to sift through and quote from his subject’s personal archive at the University of Oklahoma, which includes the previously unread diaries of his first wife, Pat, and the correspondence of his long-term mistress, Margaret Gooding, French has produced a stylish and comprehensive volume that has nonetheless let off the biggest stink in English letters since Andrew Motion’s biography of Philip Larkin. This is hardly French’s fault. The details must have caught even him by surprise. The World Is What It Is, bearing a title that suggests a somewhat resigned and down-at-the-heel James Bond flick, demystifies the sad story of a man who could hardly be described as a successful womaniser. With typically sober clarity, French confirms that we are dealing with a brutishly determined man. ‘Vidia had a view of the world that he would do anything to maintain, just as he would sacrifice anything or anybody that stood in the way of his central purpose, to be “the writer”.’ From his wife Pat, he derived vital encouragement and sound literary advice; from his mistress Margaret, sexual fulfilment. In return for their gifts, they were neglected and abused, and the unhappy situation only expired when Pat did, after a long and harrowing struggle with breast cancer in 1996. Just weeks after this sad demise, he married the present Lady Naipaul, Nadira Alvi, a woman with whom he finally appears to have found something approaching contentment. The book ends at this juncture, with a huge sigh of relief from French (the final, exasperated one-word sentence is ‘Enough’), which is understandable. Against the odds, French has succeeded in producing a remarkably dignified portrait of a very troubled man who somehow managed to channel his numerous resentments into genuinely great literature.
But the potentially lurid material can’t have been the only challenge facing French. Nakedly incorporating events and people from his life into his writing and perpetually toying with the confessional properties of various narrative forms, Naipaul has quietly expanded the personal frontiers of literature and made the biographer’s task all the more demanding. Strangely, Naipaul’s will-to-candour has never actually resulted in a full-length memoir; the closest he has come to that is the ‘Prologue to an Autobiography’ which takes up the first half of Finding the Centre (1983). A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling, the latest of these attempts at memoir, brings together the best and the worst of Naipaul’s accomplishments. In this quaint oddity, ostensibly a reflection on those writers and public figures that have influenced him most, he muses that ‘a rise to achievement makes a better narrative than random decay’. This might seem a strange comment from the author of A Bend in the River and Guerrillas, novels that chart the fungal rot of newly independent post-colonial states, but it serves as an accurate description of his own trajectory. Born in Trinidad in 1932, the descendent of indentured Indian labourers, he won the island’s scholarship to study at Oxford. He then became something of a giant.
Yet A Writer’s People follows no such triumphal course. Writing sympathetically of Gandhi, Naipaul observes, ‘there was no completeness to him. He was full of bits and pieces he had picked up here and there.’ The same is true of Naipaul who, in this book, mentally traverses those times and places that have moulded his own view: the Caribbean, India, and literary London of the 1950s. The fragmentary tone is set in the opening chapter on Derek Walcott, where isolated images taken from Walcott’s first volume of poetry chink about like so much loose change without purchasing anything in the way of critical insight. But critical insight isn’t Naipaul’s goal. ‘My purpose in this book is not literary criticism or biography […] I wish only, and in a personal way, to set out the writing to which I was exposed during my career. I say writing, but I mean more specifically vision, a way of seeing and feeling.’ At the beginning of his essay on Flaubert, he gives us more of a clue as to his method by explaining how he approached book reviewing for The New Statesman. ‘I found it helped if in a review I didn’t mention the names of the characters; in that way I got nearer to a book’s essence; certain books condemned themselves. I had no further reviewing scheme.’ Reader, you will forgive me if I avail myself of a slightly more rigorous model. This dogged pursuit of ‘essence’ does not tell us much about Naipaul’s ways of seeing and feeling (about what they involve and to whom they belong) or define that frustratingly bland word ‘vision’. The result is that too often throughout the book the prose slumps into the very quality that Naipaul has spent his entire career guarding against. Although we are told what he felt at the time, how he read and what he remembers now, it is all too vaguely presented: choice morsels glimpsed through a fogged shop window.
Ungenerous readers (and there are those who might suggest that Naipaul hardly deserves any other kind) will describe A Writer’s People as the withered fruit of a creative senescence. Indeed there are times when the narrative reads as a sort of rambling, off-the-record fireside chat at the gentleman’s club: A Writer’s People is garrulous in spirit, if not always in style. The problem becomes most obvious in the now notorious chapter devoted to his former mentor Antony Powell. In the late 1950s, Powell let ‘Viddy’ loose on Grub Street, securing for him a regular job as reviewer with The New Statesman and offering him friendship and support. In the chapter, Viddy repays him by savaging the achievement of the extraordinary 12-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time, which took Powell several decades to compose, even going so far as to suggest that their relationship wouldn’t have lasted had he read the book while his old friend was still alive. In fairness to Naipaul, it should be recognised that he pays uncharacteristically warm tribute to Powell’s generosity and writes appreciatively of his criticism. But ineptitude rather than ingratitude is the problem here, and in dispatching the life’s work of the friend who helped him to find his place among London’s literary milieu, Naipaul dilutes the signature precision of his sentences. ‘There was less and less care in the writing; everything was over-explained,’ he opines before going on to claim, ‘there was no narrative skill, perhaps no thought for narrative.’ We might not have expected a close reading, but these stern remarks require some supplementary quotations if they are to appear as anything other than invective. Powell is probably performing indignant cartwheels in the grave: it is likely that he would be more disappointed by Viddy’s sloppy want of discretion than by the opinions themselves.
But Naipaul does not entirely forsake the many virtues of his prose. He really can write about literature, even if he reads another author’s work largely to confront his own anxieties and ambitions. The essay ‘Conrad’s Darkness’ from the non-fiction miscellany, The Return of Eva Peron, is a compelling example. Here, he describes his earliest encounters with Conrad’s short stories and provides his readers with valuable insights into the development of a creative writer’s standards. In A Writer’s People, he most fully reveals himself in considering the achievements of Flaubert and the historians and poets of antiquity. Naipaul’s vivid renditions of various people and landscapes have been distinguished by the deliberate economy of his style, and at their best, his observations on literature impart a similar substance and vigour to a writer’s specific imaginative vision. Contemplating Madame Bovary and the comparative failure of Salammbo, he evokes his own proclivity for la mot juste by writing with firm lucidity and enthusiasm. Attention to detail is fine, we gather, so long as it is itself strictly controlled; this seems a balanced assessment of what has been the presiding principle of Naipaul’s own style. It has been insufficiently acknowledged that, more than almost any other writer of the last half-century, he has recorded the painful severity of literary application as well as the great rewards of such discipline. This process was movingly characterised in Finding the Centre. ‘To write was to learn. Beginning a book, I always felt I was in possession of all the facts about myself; at the end I was always surprised.’ The most convincing passages from A Writer’s People are those where one suspects Naipaul is unwittingly describing his own travails, learning more about the peculiar obligations of his craft as he analyses others’ struggles to make themselves understood or heard.
French cannot hope to compete with the guileless authenticity of these revelations, but this is not to detract from his achievement. There are elements of the creative process that Naipaul himself cannot hope to explain. After all, A Writer’s People is the story of the previously unfelt presences that indelibly shaped Naipaul’s work. Given the enormous influence that she had on his writing, Naipaul’s wife Pat might seem an obvious choice to include in A Writer’s People; and yet inclusion has never been an emotional technique available to Naipaul. His callous neglect of her was interrupted only by the occasional recognition that she was among the most astute readers of his work. French unflinchingly presents Pat’s emotional suffering, which was now and again coloured by the awareness that maybe Vidia had not earned her abject devotion, and in so doing French allows us to see that Pat was a woman of independent taste and judgement. Her ‘soft left’ opinions might not have prevented her husband from holding increasingly reactionary positions, but they were sufficiently strong to mould those positions by contrast. Margaret, on the other hand, ‘was addicted to Vidia’ and ‘liked to be dominated by him’. But she misunderstood the rival claims of his literary vocation and, in her turn, was cruelly shunted aside.
Those who feared a warts-and-all account may be surprised to discover that French’s biography is far from being all warts. Although Naipaul emerges as a capricious and often extremely unfeeling man, French’s penetrating and sympathetic assessment of his literary achievement makes us understand how Naipaul’s attraction to disappointment, taken by many as the token of a pitiless conservatism, belies a vast fund of frustrated compassion. In case we had forgotten, he points out that Naipaul’s ‘chosen subject was the powerless: those who, although in the majority in the world, had appeared in European literature only as peripheral characters, or at best as Man Friday’. French perhaps underestimates the extent to which Naipaul’s early criticisms of post-colonial societies proceeded in part from his powerful inclination towards self-betterment, which as we learn in Finding the Centre, led Naipaul to think of writing as ‘a fantasy of nobility’. This urge impels several of his protagonists, but Naipaul was also aware that this fantasy could slide into a sterile mimicry of the colonial master—a sad process that had been effectively satirised in his very first novel, The Mystic Masseur, and later in the figure of Indar from A Bend in the River. Whether or not this made Naipaul’s judgements on the post-colonial world accurate is another matter altogether. French acknowledges that there were those who were too willing to incorporate Naipaul into their own ultra-reactionary perspectives. Evelyn Waugh was one and although he privately moaned to Nancy Mitford about ‘that clever little nigger Naipaul’ winning yet another literary prize, he saw in The Middle Passage incontrovertible proof that the struggle for independence in the Caribbean and elsewhere was doomed. Discussing Naipaul’s contentious book on Islamic societies, Among the Believers, French persuasively maintains that Naipaul never really occupied the role of mandarin intellectual in which Said and others cast him. He was much too willful, too reliant on ‘close observation’ of his immediate surroundings to slot into any grand neo-colonial schemes. If anything, Naipaul’s work advances a misconceived notion of cultural authenticity, and French justly sees his recent advocacy of extremist Hindu nationalism in India as a worrying example of that.
There are those who would find in French’s book enough material for a damning indictment of Naipaul’s place as an elder statesman of contemporary prose. His misogyny, his ill-tempered dismissals of what he once called the ‘half-made societies’ of the developing world, as well as the appalling treatment meted out to people intimately connected to his work are all too plain to see. Without the undeniable fact of his achievements in fiction and travel writing, however, we would scarcely be interested in the baroque contortions of his private life. Naipaul’s more critical readers become stunned when they recognise that his elegantly organised and often very sensitive writing can harbour a vicious disregard for other people’s and other culture’s ways of looking and feeling. But a writer’s personality is never given to us unfiltered through his or her writing; indeed, artists themselves will always be taken aback by what they find in their own work. Naipaul’s most recent novels, Half a Life and Magic Seeds, represent no attenuation of his strengths, and mark the latest stage of this process of self-discovery. Over half a century since his debut, V.S. Naipaul is still standing. Most disturbing of all, he deserves to be.