(The Nation, December 8, 2008)
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In 1998, a young English journalist named Patrick French arrived in India on assignment for The New Yorker. One day in Delhi, a well-connected friend offered to drive French to a press conference, and he found himself in a car with V.S. Naipaul and his wife. Naipaul "was wearing many layers of clothing and a tweed jacket, despite the heat," French recalls. "He held a trilby hat carefully in his lap. A roll-neck sweater merged with his beard, completing the impression that he was fully covered." Mrs. Naipaul inquired about the New Yorker article, and French replied that he was having some difficulty with the magazine's fact-checkers. "Don't let The New Yorker worry you," Naipaul sniffed. "The New Yorker knows nothing about writing. Nothing. Writing an article there is like posting a letter in a Venezuelan postbox; nobody will read it."
Three years later, French was invited to undertake a project as grueling as writing scores of New Yorker articles: an authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul. (French has not elaborated on the circumstances that led to the invitation.) At first, French hesitated; the scope and complexity of the project seemed daunting. Naipaul, after all, has written twenty-nine books, which include novels, linked stories, travel writing (three books on India among them), history, literary criticism, reportage and genre-defying masterpieces that delicately fuse autobiography and fiction.
Moreover, French would have to confront the least radiant and most cynical of contemporary writers. In "Conrad's Darkness," a superb essay he wrote in 1974, Naipaul defined his preoccupations: "the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of beliefs and the hideous simplicity of actions, the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made." Declarations of this sort, combined with Naipaul's abrasive views on India and the developing world, have made many critics in left-liberal circles clench their teeth. Derek Walcott, an old sparring partner, once dubbed him V.S. Nightfall. "Naipaul is saying what the whites want to say but dare not," C.L.R. James remarked. "They have put him up to it." Edward Said called him "a kind of belated Kipling [who] carries with him a kind of half-stated but finally unexamined reverence for the colonial order."
Certain literary soothsayers insist that left-of-center writers have a natural advantage in the nomination process for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2001 the Swedish Academy proved them wrong by selecting Naipaul. The citation praised him as "Conrad's heir" and "a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice," and celebrated him as a writer who is "singularly unaffected by literary fashion." Indeed, French reports that Naipaul was "initially unwilling to take the call from Stockholm, since he was cleaning his teeth." Like other great writers--Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Doris Lessing spring to mind--Naipaul has endeavored to be outrageous and provocative, if not scabrous. French noticed that "creating tension, insulting his friends, family or whole communities left him in excellent spirits." In 1989, when the Iranian government issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Naipaul laconically announced, "It's an extreme form of literary criticism."
For Naipaul and his handlers, French was a shrewd and honest choice: a writer not given to extremes. A regular contributor to British newspapers and Indian newsmagazines, and the author of several books (a biography of the British colonial explorer Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, a literary travelogue about Tibet, a history of the Indian independence movement), French is a graceful, confident and subtle writer. Still, before agreeing to the task, he presented Naipaul with two ironclad conditions: a series of candid face-to-face interviews and unrestricted access to his archive at the University of Tulsa, which contains more than 50,000 items, including the diaries of his first wife, Patricia Hale. Naipaul responded with silence; months passed. Eventually, French received a letter of acceptance, "written as if unwillingly in a fast, cramped hand, in violet ink." Over the years many readers have been drawn to the evocative title Naipaul selected for a novel he published in 1987, The Enigma of Arrival (a 1912 painting by Giorgio de Chirico inspired its title). The World Is What It Is, the product of years of toil, offers a vivid, and sometimes enthralling, portrait of a deeply enigmatic writer.
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. At the time the country had a population of 400,000, one-third of whom were Indians employed as clerks, agricultural workers, spirit vendors, merchants and small-time shopkeepers. Naipaul's family had joined those ranks in the late nineteenth century, when his mother's father migrated to the island as an indentured laborer. Naipaul spent his earliest years in the small country town of Chaguanas, in the house of his imposing and imperious grandmother, whose business acumen in real estate enabled her to rise. Built in "the North Indian style," the house, as Naipaul explained in 1983 in his "Prologue to an Autobiography," "had balustraded roof terraces, and the main terrace was decorated at either end with a statue of a rampant lion." It was crowded. Naipaul's mother had eight sisters, and each resided at Lion House with her husband and children, one family per room. Hindi was spoken, and vegetarian food was prepared communally in "a dingy, blackened kitchen." The men usually wore shirts made from flour sacks.
Lion House simmered with intrigue and tension, and occasionally boiled over into violence, a situation rendered with exquisite sadness and comedy in Naipaul's breakthrough novel, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). "The family was a totalitarian organization," Naipaul wrote in the "Prologue." Decisions "were taken by a closed circle at the top--my grandmother and her two eldest sons-in-law." (The remaining sons-in-law toiled in virtual serfdom, forced to work on the family property but denied their own spending money; they drowned in bitterness.) It was an arrangement that Naipaul's father, Seepersad--who, in his son's words, "dangled all his life in a half-dependence and half-esteem" between two groups of powerful relatives--found suffocating. "What happens in that kind of awful set-up," Naipaul informed French, "is that lots of quarrels break out between people, and those quarrels were my training for life, my training in life and society--propaganda, alliances, betrayals--all these things. So, in a way, nothing that happened later ever really shocked me."
The young Naipaul--French refers to him as Vidia--was a gloomy and morose child. He refused to participate in religious thread ceremonies organized by his grandmother; he complained about the food; and he groused about the fumes from the kerosene stove, which aggravated his asthma. He excelled at Queen's Royal College (the same school C.L.R. James attended), and he was one of four students from Trinidad to win a full scholarship to study in England; he chose Oxford University. According to French, Naipaul was admitted by Peter Bayley, a Fellow of English at University College, who many years later recalled, "because I loved India and had many Indian friends, because of being there for nearly four years in the war, I just didn't hesitate, just took him."
Naipaul went to Oxford in 1950. He worked hard, in his literature classes especially: "I want to come top of my group," he wrote to his parents. "I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language." It was Seepersad who, in a powerful and lasting way, instilled the literary vocation in his son. Seepersad read Dickens, O. Henry, Somerset Maugham, J.R. Ackerley and R.K. Narayan, and he wrote fiction himself, in bed with a pencil. Since 1929 Seepersad had been a reporter for the Trinidad Guardian, a stodgy paper then being revitalized by an energetic editor from London, who brought a Fleet Street sensibility and "a tourist's eye" to Trinidad's local excitements--"French fugitives from Devil's Island, voodoo in negro backyards, Indian obeah, Venezuelan vampire bats," in V.S. Naipaul's words.
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."
When Naipaul was growing up in Trinidad, India was a resting place of sorts for his imagination, "a country out in the void beyond the dot of Trinidad," an "area of darkness." Yet the physical remnants of India were scattered around him: tattered string beds "never repaired because there was no one with this caste skill in Trinidad"; plaited straw mats; brass vessels; books emblazoned with thick, oily ink; brass bells, gongs and camphor burners; a stick of sandalwood; pictures of Hindu deities. In his teenage imagination, fragments from the void coalesced into something rather sinister. In 1949, in a letter to his older sister Kamla, who was studying in India, Naipaul informed her, "I am planning to write a book about these damned people and the wretched country of theirs, exposing their detestable traits. Grill them on everything." In his late 20s, as he grappled with the West Indies in a systematic way, his rancor toward India melded into curiosity, and in 1962 he and Pat embarked on a yearlong journey through the subcontinent, which took them to Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Benares, Nagpur and Kashmir. An account of that trip, An Area of Darkness, was published in 1964, and French calls it "the most influential study of India published since independence." Like most of Naipaul's nonfiction, his first book about India was, to a considerable extent, a sly provocation: he wanted to dazzle and enlighten his readers but also to shock them with sentences of this sort: "I had seen Indian villages: the narrow, broken lanes with green slime in the gutters, the choked back-to-back mud houses, the jumble of filth and food and animals and people, the baby in the dust, swollen-bellied, black with flies, but wearing its good-luck amulet."
French's account of the making of An Area of Darkness is the most stirring chapter in The World Is What It Is. His own journalistic experience in India furnished him with the knowledge, sympathy and contacts to trace Naipaul's footsteps. With brio and wit, he dissects the reportorial methods that Naipaul would employ in nearly all of his subsequent travel books. Prominent friends and acquaintances in Britain and the United States would connect Naipaul with notables on the ground (diplomats, newspaper editors, intellectuals, theater directors, poets, government officials, sophisticated expatriates), some of whom would then be pressed into service as hosts, interlocutors, fixers and guides. A few of his Indian hosts came to despise Naipaul ("he was snobbish...a thoroughly nasty human being," recalled one); others were deeply impressed ("he asked a lot of questions, he was a wonderful listener"). At the end of each working day, Naipaul, with unyielding discipline, would return to his hotel room or guesthouse and write up his notes.
India was a jolting experience for him. One of his guides, Dr. J.P. Singh, recalled that "Naipaul was short with the hotel chaps.... He used to say they are very, very lazy chaps...I thought he was having all this anger and contempt primarily because he wanted the country to develop." Pat, who urged him to modulate and soften his views on India, got an earful as well: "Imagine waiters in the filthiest clothes and with the filthiest hands," Naipaul told her, "serving tea in cups which they arrange in their usual finger-dunking way." Some of his hosts shrewdly perceived that Naipaul felt neglected in India. The esteemed Khushwant Singh told French that he found Naipaul "reserved, pleasant and I think a little disappointed that he hadn't been given the kind of reception he expected as a son of the country who had done well."
When Naipaul finally left India and returned to London, he wasted no time in writing to his Indian friends. He was customarily blunt:
The lavatories at Palam [airport] were literally covered with shit and the aerodrome officer could only speak of the shortage of staff (i.e. sweepers).... So goodbye to shit and sweepers; goodbye to people who tolerate everything; goodbye to all the refusal to act; goodbye to the absence of dignity; goodbye to the poverty; goodbye to caste and that curious pettiness which permeates that vast country.... Probably I am mad. But it seems to me that everything conspires to keep India down.
As a biographer, French is alive to the nuances, quirks and contradictions in Naipaul's character, and he has an acute sense of his subject's displacement and rootlessness. When Naipaul was traveling in Martinique, he expressed nostalgia "for the good humour, tolerance, amorality and general social chaos of Trinidad." Did he really miss Trinidad, or was his nostalgia a convenient fiction that quelled his sense of being adrift? The land of his ancestors, too, began to exert a pull on him. A few months after returning to London, Naipaul acknowledged to a friend, "I suppose I miss India more than I imagined."
With The Middle Passage and An Area of Darkness, Naipaul produced rough-edged journalistic reckonings with his past: he traveled, he saw, he wrote. His distinctive personality marked every page of these two books. In 1966 he commenced the research for a very different kind of book: a full-scale history of Trinidad from 1592 to 1813, based almost entirely on documents in the British Museum and the London Library. Early detractors who viewed Naipaul as a Waugh-like Tory might have been taken aback by The Loss of El Dorado, a stupendous indictment of Spanish and British imperialism. Published in 1969, the book is Naipaul's most abundant canvas, a Diego Rivera mural in words teeming with adventurers, cannibals, pirates, outlaws, slaves, hangmen, tavern owners, mercenaries and Jacobins. The Loss of El Dorado is history written with remarkable skill and poise, and the second half of the book, "The Torture of Luisa Calderon," contains Naipaul's most hypnotic language. Parts of El Dorado call to mind Bernal Díaz's eyewitness account of Cortés's triumph in Mexico, The Conquest of New Spain. With its sinewy prose, its innovative use of primary sources and its serene contempt for the machinery of empire, it also resembles Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore, and the account of Luisa Calderon's arrest recalls Gabriel García Márquez's novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Naipaul's editors were impressed: Robert Gottlieb at Knopf felt that it was "a very important as well as very beautiful book, and...it will endure." Indeed, it was one of the six books mentioned in Naipaul's Nobel citation. It sold just 3,000 copies in the United States.
Years ago, in a sparkling reminiscence of Naipaul in Granta, Diana Athill, his editor in London, noted that his books tended to sell poorly. Even so, it is surprising to learn precisely how destitute Naipaul was in the 1960s, a time when Anthony Powell declared him Britain's "most talented and promising younger writer." French reports that between 1960 and 1969, Naipaul's gross income after expenses averaged £1,963 a year. "It was a bad time," Naipaul recalled. "Tears lay just below the surface." For several years, in an echo of A House for Mr. Biswas, the Naipauls had no home of their own and bounced from place to place. Naipaul's fortunes began to improve in 1970, when, through the benevolence of friends, he and Pat found a cottage in rural Wiltshire. The rent was £3 a week; they stayed for a decade.
It was a highly productive period for Naipaul. On assignment for Robert Silvers of The New York Review of Books, he reported from Trinidad, Argentina and Zaire, and the essays Silvers published--coruscating, relentless and brilliant--would be collected in The Return of Eva Perón, with The Killings in Trinidad. During Indira Gandhi's Emergency of 1975, Naipaul produced India: A Wounded Civilization, an X-ray of Hinduism and the Indian psyche written in his usual pitiless style. When he wasn't working on nonfiction, he wrote the fiction that would cement his reputation: In a Free State (which won the Booker Prize in 1971), Guerrillas and A Bend in the River. (The opening lines of A Bend in the River gave French the title for his book: "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.") These three books are dark, brooding, deeply unsentimental depictions of postcolonial Africa and the Caribbean. A Bend in the River unfolds in a chaotic landscape modeled on Mobutu's Zaire, and like Guerrillas it contains scenes of sexual violence that remain shocking today.
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.