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Cruel and Unusual

The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. NaipaulThe World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul by Patrick French

Reviewed by Christopher Hitchens
The Atlantic Monthly

While recently rereading The Enigma of Arrival, considered by many to be Sir Vidia Naipaul's masterpiece, I was struck all over again by the breathtakingly observant operations of his eye and brain. In a novel that is so plainly autobiographical as to be scarcely classified as fiction, he describes the atmosphere and context of his home on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, and the many obvious contrasts -- as well as surprising comparisons -- it affords to his native Trinidad. One comes to know the lives and characters of all the workers and servants on the landed estate of which the author's cottage is a peripheral part, and when he introduces other real-life characters, such as the novelist Anthony Powell and the reclusive '20s survivor Stephen Tennant, Naipaul's landlord, there is no attempt at disguise; many are given their real first names. So great was my absorption in Sir Vidia's descriptions of the grain and contour of southern England, and the habits and vernacular of its people, that an immensely salient detail escaped me until I was almost closing the book. The narrator's domestic arrangements are often touched upon, as are his everyday encounters with other human beings. But he is evidently a bachelor, or at any rate a person living on his own -- whereas for the entire period of Naipaul's residence in Wiltshire, as for many decades of his life, he was married to the late Patricia Hale.

It isn't very profitable to inquire whether she might have felt hurt by this kind of literary neglect, indeed airbrushing. The reception of Patrick French's astonishing (and astonishingly authorized) biography has already focused very considerably on the ways in which Naipaul maltreated his wife, not only through his extensive resort to the services of prostitutes and his long-running affair with another woman, but through what might be called a sustained assault on her self-respect:

Vidia's unconscious hope may have been that if he were sufficiently horrible to Pat, she might disappear. Alone in her room at the cottage, she dutifully recorded his insults...."He has not enjoyed making love to me since 1967 [the entry is for 1973]"; "You know you are the only woman I know who has no skill. Vanessa paints, Tristram's wife paints, Antonia, Marigold Johnson"....Even when she was alone, Pat felt she had failed her husband. After going up to London to watch a play with Antonia, Francis and Julian Jebb, she concluded that while she was there she had "lived up to Vidia's dictum: 'You don't behave like a writer's wife. You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station.'"

And Naipaul himself loftily handed this diary to Patrick French. In 1982, he had been asked for a piece of autobiography, by Richard Locke at the revived Vanity Fair. His running the idea past his wife produced the following diary entry on her part:

Last night I spoke of him letting me know the morning, nay the afternoon after our marriage, that he didn't really want to be married to me. Yes, he said, he wanted to ask my permission to write about that....Would anyone, I asked, enjoy reading about that? I put in my usual plea: fiction & comedy....I am very low. But then perhaps it is my own fault.

One feels quite pierced with pity at reading those last eight words, indicative of perhaps some sort of masochism or self-abnegation. If so, it is perfectly matched by the interstellar coldness of her husband's attitude. Speaking to French about the way his wife had reacted to his giving an interview about his years as "a great prostitute man," he says with magnificent offhandedness:

Shortly after that she became ill again, and people say that this cancer business can come with great distress and grief....I think she had all the relapses and everything after that. All the remission ended....It could be said that I had killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.

He plainly believed that it would be useful if his biographer were able to tidy up that loose end.

I feel justified in reproducing so much of this painful material because it undoubtedly assists us in forming a picture of the many repressions and reticences that have allowed Naipaul to continue canalizing his experiences into works both of fiction and reportage. With the aid of this exhaustive and efficient biography, one can make some more-educated surmises about the connection between Naipaul's rigidly maintained exterior and the many layers of insecurity -- perhaps better say the many varieties of insecurity—that underlie it. It was shrewd and intelligent of French to take the opening sentence from A Bend in the River -- "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it" -- and describe it as "terrifying," then annex it for his title.

There were many times when the transformation of Vidyadhar Suraj-prasad into first the nicknamed Trinidadian youth "Vido" and then into V. S. Naipaul and eventually Sir Vidia could have been aborted, and one senses Naipaul's disdain for any sort of weakness, allied to the conviction that it is this very disdain that has enabled him to survive. The trope can be detected in that telling jeer to his wife about rising "above her station," and also as early as another quasi-autobiographical novel, A House for Mr. Biswas:

Contempt, quick, deep, inclusive, became part of his nature. It led to inadequacies, to self-awareness and a lasting loneliness. But it made him unassailable.

Naipaul might not have escaped his family: a struggling clan of Indians with more Brahmanism in their aspirations than in their actual background, transported by the British from India to Trinidad. He might, having managed a scholarship to Oxford, have succumbed to the isolation and prejudice that he felt there -- and that he was to register even more keenly when rooming in London at a time when black and brown faces were fairly rare. That he was able to transcend all this and become a figure in English society, as well as one of the acknowledged masters of its prose, is plainly felt by him to be best celebrated as a triumph of the will.

With the baggage of being dark-skinned in Britain, though, came the less obvious problem of having been lighter-skinned than most of his fellow Trinidadians. French demonstrates some expertise in handling this contradiction. Almost all Indians in Trinidad (in common with their kinfolk in the other Caribbean and African states where there is an Indian diaspora) were at some point made to feel (a) patronized by the English and (b) threatened by the demands of the black majority. In this crucible is formed the young Naipaul, who writes home from Oxford to Seepersad Naipaul, his beloved and writerly father and mentor, to say: "I want to come top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language." But the same context produces the Naipaul who very freely employs the word nigger: a vulgar term that has no place in any elevated or discriminating vocabulary.

Here I feel I must say a word or two in defense of Paul Theroux. It is now a decade since he brought out his book Sir Vidia's Shadow, in which (as he has since phrased it) he depicted his former friend as "a grouch, a skinflint, tantrum-prone, with race on the brain." At the time, many critics characterized this as an envious vendetta, and the pressure of libel lawyers was enough to attenuate many of Theroux's observations, which in retrospect appear understated. "I wanted to write about his cruelty to his wife, his crazed domination of his mistress that lasted almost 25 years, his screaming fits, his depressions." Well, now that has been done, and published by Naipaul's own publisher, and assisted by his own hand and voice.

To me, the most extraordinary thing is the chiaroscuro. To immerse oneself in The Enigma of Arrival, say, is to experience the deep, slow calm that comes over its narrator as he paces the ancient chalky downland of Salisbury Plain, takes the measure of the seasons and the wildlife, familiarizes himself with the habits of the local rustics, and makes leisured comparisons between the agricultural rhythms of England and those of his Caribbean homeland. Yet to read Theroux or French is to uncover a sordid rural slum that is essentially an emotional master-slave concentration camp built for two. It's as if Blandings Castle were to become the setting for Straw Dogs.

"He wanted to be an Englishman," reports Naipaul's Oxford tutor, Peter Bayley. Well, no shame in that, I hope. (Indeed, Bayley was rather impressed by the young Vidia's precocious grasp of authors as venerable as Milton and as recent as Orwell.) However, and as the friends of T. S. Eliot also used to notice, there can be -- perhaps especially with Anglophiles -- the problem of trying too hard. One wears a top hat on the wrong occasion, as Eliot was wont to do, or behaves with exaggerated grandeur in a fine tearoom, as Naipaul did in Oxford, or affects to know more (and discloses that one actually knows less) about matters such as Camelot and Trafalgar, as he does in The Enigma of Arrival. And sometimes this haughtiness and defensiveness take the form of extreme revulsion against the great unwashed, as when, in travel books like An Area of Darkness and novels like Guerrillas and journalistic reports like those from Argentina, a near-obsession with excrement and sodomy is disclosed. Oh, you know -- Brahman fastidiousness, his defenders used to murmur. I am not so sure that this alibi will work any longer.

The supreme need of the arriviste is to be able to disown and forget those who have helped him so far. But this isn't always so easy. If Pat Hale had really turned into a frump or a shrew or a bore, or taken to attacking the cooking sherry when company called, Naipaul's treatment of her might perhaps be more understandable. But French leaves me in no doubt that Naipaul hated her because he had depended upon her, and because she had sacrificed everything to help him both as a person and as a writer, and to be consecrated to his work and his success. He used her as an unpaid editor and amanuensis, and then spurned her because he resented her knowledge of his weaker moments. There will always be those -- I am one of them -- who are determined not to have authors and writers judged by their private or personal shortcomings. But there is a limit, and this is a biography as well as a critical study, and I think I know what French wants us to understand when he says, reporting a literary-financial spat toward the end of the book: "Never one to forgive a past favor, the man without loyalties threatened to break his links with the New York Review."

In these pages some years ago, I mentioned another alarming example of Naipaul's willingness to tread on the hands that had helped steady the ladder on which he rose. The brave Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid, who did so much to alert us to the dangers of the Taliban, and who guided Naipaul around Lahore and even introduced him to his second wife, was rewarded by being lampooned and sneered at as a failed guerrilla in the pages of Beyond Belief. Patrick French can add only a little more to this dismal tale, because he apparently agreed to end the story with the death of Pat and the very rapid promotion of the next wife into the matrimonial home. Thus, and by means of a rather abrupt terminus that may signal authorial relief, we are spared the full story of Naipaul's later flirtation with the Hindu-chauvinist party the BJP, and his enthusiasm for the notorious pogrom at the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. Apparently, when Indians become arrogant overdogs and bullies, Naipaul likes them all the better. "Don't feel that I want to reform the human race," he once wrote from Oxford. "I am free of the emancipatory fire." Well, whoever thought otherwise? What we find in these pages, however, is the transition from the conservative and the lover of tradition into something that is often wrongly confused with it: the reactionary and the triumphalist. Let me remind you how Naipaul could be at his best, even if it did involve evoking the rivalry between Africans and Indians. His novella In a Free State includes a moment when well-tailored African politicians and bureaucrats sit in a bar. "They hadn't paid for the suits they wore; in some cases they had had the drapers deported." That's very nearly spot-on. Reviewing the book in 1970, Nadine Gordimer said that Naipaul was "past master of the difficult art of making you laugh and then feel shame at your laughter." Such ironic lightness seems, and is, a long time ago.

Two small portraits in contrast could have been more fully and usefully rendered by French. In Naipaul's earlier and slightly more generous days, when he benefited from the solidarity on offer from the BBC's Caribbean service and its network of struggling writers, he used to concede a debt to his fellow Trinidadian C. L. R. James, who as well as being the world's authority on the game of cricket was the author of The Black Jacobins, a seismic history of the Haitian revolution of 1791. Indeed, Naipaul's first collection of local-color Port of Spain stories, Miguel Street, clearly owes something to James's Minty Alley, a book published in 1936 that also influenced Naipaul’s journalist father. The character of Lebrun in A Way in the World, who is depicted in a half-admiring and half-fearful way as a prophet of black power, is also rooted in a portrait of James. One wishes that French had stepped aside for a second and said something about James's place in regional and literary history.

It would also have been nice to have a little more justice done to Naipaul's younger brother, Shiva. He was felled by a heart attack in 1985, at the age of 40, leaving all who had known him with an aching feeling that we had had the best still to come. In a rather sketchy account -- which does include the useful term Naipauline -- French vaguely praises Shiva's book North of South but fails to give due recognition to one of the great tragicomic novels of our day, his Fireflies. I mention these comparisons because both of these authors, too, had to confront the colonial and post-colonial condition and were obliged to make their way in a foreign land and negotiate the difficulties of racism and social insecurity; and they managed to do so without saying or doing anything hateful. Their humanism and internationalism, far from being insipid, suggest that if Sir Vidia ever did want to excuse his own callousness -- a prospect that seems extremely distant -- he would not now be able to plead that his fault lay in his stars rather than in himself.

Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The World Is What It Is: The... Used Hardcover $4.50



2 Responses to "Cruel and Unusual"

  1.  
    s h a r o n November 11th, 2008 at 9:13 am

    After reading this, may I be forgiven for saying, "Mr Hitchens, thou protesteth too much."

  2.  
    dot dot dot November 11th, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    Yeah, wait a second. Is Christopher Hitchens, of all people, calling out someone else for being mean-spirited, petty, or cruel in their writing? This, from the man who wrote the hard hitting expose of Mother Teresa?

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