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V. S. Naipaul, master and monster

A wonderful biography of Sir Vidia lays bare his self-protective decision to turn himself into a monster

A. N. Wilson - May 21, 2008

They met in Oxford – he an impoverished scholarship boy from Trinidad, she a girl from Birmingham. More than most writers of his generation, V. S. Naipaul's great subjects and his life experience were inextricably linked from the beginning. Doubly cut loose, first from Asia and then from the Caribbean (his forebears had come to work as agricultural labourers in the West Indies), Naipaul chronicled better than anyone the central twentieth-century phenomenon: global deracination. His grand theme is that we have all come adrift. With his gifts of observation, intuition, insight, and his mesmeric prose style, he was born to be one of the great writers of our time. Yet few could have predicted it. And this makes his wife Pat's belief in him all the more remarkable: that, in 1954, when he had published nothing, and seemed to have no prospects, she could write: "I have absolute faith in your ultimate ability to do something great. I am convinced that we are going to be a distinguished couple".

Pat's modest family opposed her marriage. "Stress that I am a student at Oxford", Naipaul told her, "not a Negro going to play the fool in London." Contemplating the marriage of Jane and Thomas Carlyle, Pat wrote in her diary in 1974, "Whatever the stress and suffering, it seems to me a perfect marriage, in the sense of two people becoming one and indispensable to one another, part of one another, almost exchanging personalities . . . . After her death, Carlyle reproached himself with her unhappiness".

The Sage of Cheyne Row did more than reproach himself. He authorized his disciple J. A. Froude to write a "warts and all" biography which lays bare all Carlyle's selfishness, all his failures in love. Something similar may have been at work when Naipaul authorized Patrick French to write his Life, allowing him access to all his wife Pat's diaries, now held in the archive of the University of Tulsa. Just as Froude's biography is really the last volume of the works of Carlyle himself, and easily worthy to place beside them, so French has written a book which is a completion of Naipaul's own. It is a prodigious achievement, a wonderful biography, a justification for the art of biography itself.

Yet reactions to it have been adverse – and principally, it seems, because critics have struggled to find in the great writer the material for a clichιd idea of an ideal husband. How could such a masterly writer turn out to be such a monster? No doubt it is upsetting when Naipaul admits to French a scene of terrible violence with his Argentinian mistress, Margaret Gooding, during which – having discovered that she had been unfaithful to him, "I was very violent with her for two days; I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt . . . . She didn't mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her". She stayed with him for a quarter of a century.

No doubt Naipaul wanted this told – the violence and the infidelity. He claims that he hastened his wife's death by telling a journalist that in younger days – when Pat had been supporting him in poverty by working as a teacher – he had been "a great prostitutes man". (Do we believe this bluff claim to be one of the lads? How was it paid for at this period of abject indigence? When he took up with Margaret Gooding in 1972, she complained about premature ejaculation; he seemed all but inexperienced. In Magic Seeds, 2004, he wrote, "The fact is all sexual intimacy is distasteful to me. I've always considered my low sexual energy as a kind of freedom".) And although he says that he has never read his wife's painful diaries, with their aching sense of frustration and rejection, he obviously wanted them to become public knowledge. "Doctored truth is not truth", Naipaul said; "I think the completeness of the record is what matters."

Naipaul, like Tolstoy and Evelyn Waugh, has made the self-protective decision to turn himself into a monster. Of course, the women suffered. And of course Naipaul has always gone in for saying and writing calculatedly offensive things. "Like monkeys pleading for evolution, each claiming to be whiter than the other, Indians and Negroes appeal to the unacknowledged white audience to see how much they despise each other" (The Middle Passage); "I am beginning to feel more and more that women are trivial-minded, incapable of analysing or even seeing their motives". Nor was this habit of frankness solely attributable to old-man grumpiness. As an undergraduate, condemned to lodge in what he considered a slum with some cousins during an Oxford vacation, he wrote, "I am years and ages away from these people . . . . I find their English coarse and acidulous".

Any biography of this man was bound to contain accounts of bad behaviour, arrogance and self-pity. There is an absurd moment, when typing out A House for Mr Biswas, when he wound tape around his fingers – "So painful, the typing". There used, in those days, to be little rubber thimbles, purchasable for a few pence, to guard against this hazard of the typist's life, but he preferred to murmur, Job-like, "So painful, the typing". Many will gasp at his persistent verbal cruelties – "You have no skill", he snarls at the long-suffering Pat who is retyping his horrifying novel Guerrillas: "You don't behave like a writer's wife. You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above his station".

Naturally, as Naipaul grew older, the bad behaviour grew to crescendos. But there is often a lordliness about it which some, such as I, may find redeems it. Two examples, one minor and one major: the minor – when he was first introduced to Auberon Waugh and was asked, "May I call you Vidia?". His reply, worthy of Evelyn Waugh himself was: "No, as we've just met, I would rather you called me Mr Naipaul"; the second, which would win a prize for bad behaviour, but is also hugely comic, was his inability to inform Margaret, his mistress of long standing, that he had decided to remarry when Pat died of cancer. He sent his tall, mysterious literary agent, "Gillon Aitken to sort out the mess, taking the concept of agency to new lengths".

But there is a paradox about the biography, and about the life as a whole. By releasing all this into the public domain, Naipaul was plainly doing his best to write himself down as a total monster, and yet the playful, witty, often outrageous Vidia Naipaul does not in the end emerge from this book particularly badly; he is certainly not in the same league of monstrosity as, say, Nabokov or Tolstoy. As Pat Naipaul saw in her often anguished diaries, the writing life puts an extraordinary strain on anyone who is attempting to share it. There are two sorts of marriage for writers: the ones such as Pat Naipaul's or Vera Nabokov's, where the wife enters, almost sentence by sentence into the writer's composing life; and the other sort, where only by keeping her distance can the writer's partner survive. ("Keep your hearts together and your tents separate", was the well-turned motto of Mrs R. S. Thomas, Elsi Eldridge.) Pat Naipaul wanted, from the beginning, to be not only the wife, but also the secret sharer. This does not justify the cruelty which French describes, but it should place it in perspective.

Naipaul's impressive life follows a three-part strand. He began as a comic novelist, making use, in The Mystic Masseur (1957) and A House for Mr Biswas (1961), of his early experiences of Trinidad. At the time they were well received and they still have their admirers. Next came the journalism. Naipaul lived during a golden age of journalism and he was one of its best journalists. His travels across the face of the globe led him to record what was happening, at first in the postcolonial world of the former British Empire, and then, more controversially, when he began to notice what was happening in the world of Islam. Among the Believers: An Islamic journey, published in 1981, made him enemies. His first book about India, An Area of Darkness (1964), is a Swiftian cry of disappointment. When she was dying, and they sat together in their Wiltshire cottage, Pat Naipaul told her husband he had been "very hard on India". Naturally, the Indians thought so too, especially for pieces of Churchillian parody such as: "Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. They defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover . . . . The truth is that Indians do not see these squatters and might even, with complete sincerity, deny that they exist". Naipaul's role as a journalist was to write about what was obvious, but unsayable. His book about the West Indies, The Middle Passage (1962), caused similar expressions of outrage. In 1978, on the BBC, Gordon Woolford accused him of "savaging" Trinidad. "There wasn't any kind remark." Naipaul responded (ferociously) "Was it untrue? Anything false? Anything proved wrong in sixteen years? Or everything proved right?".

French rightly says that Evelyn Waugh, who praised The Middle Passage in the Jesuit periodical The Month, "was the first of a parade of reactionaries who would seek to appropriate Naipaul's writings, stripping them of their ambiguities to make a political point". This is a nicely nuanced observation, and it is true – especially among the reactionaries of India and of America. But one of Naipaul's closest affinities is not to Evelyn Waugh, whose travel literature and journalism was always a side issue to his main business of post-Firbankian fiction. Naipaul is much closer in spirit to his friend Auberon Waugh, Evelyn's son, whose saeva indignatio was mixed up with a terrible pity for the human condition. Naipaul expressed the view to me, when Auberon Waugh lay dying, that his friend was not dying of whatever the doctor said. It was the writing, Naipaul told me in an agonized, almost mystical tone, which had killed him. He had given out too much.

Whatever the truth of this, Naipaul has always been retentive, costive, in his reluctance to waste any experience. His story is an extraordinary one, and he has rehearsed it repeatedly, both in the novels, and in the later work. The Enigma of Arrival (1987) begins with echoes of his friend Anthony Powell's novel-sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, in a sodden English water-meadow. "If I say it was winter when I arrived at that house in the river valley, it was because I remembered the mist." (Compare this with Powell's, "As winter advanced in that river valley, mist used to rise in late afternoon and spread over the flooded grass".) Like Powell, Naipaul uses the title of a painting for his book – in Powell's case from the Poussin in the Wallace Collection, in Naipaul's, from the work of Giorgio de Chirico. Powell himself actually turns up in The Enigma. Glimpsing the gardener of the big house, "Tony" – "a middle-aged English writer, a friend of many years" – asks, "Is that your landlord?". And on being told that it is Mr Pitton, and not the landlord (who was Stephen Tennant), said, "It proves something I've long held. People get to look like their employees".

In his old age, perhaps in imitation of Auberon Waugh, Naipaul has chosen to vilify his early champion Powell, claiming that it was because he had finally got round to reading A Dance to the Music of Time and thought little of it. Another reason could have been that he was irritated by the figure in Powell's sequence who is obviously based on Naipaul himself. Gibson Delavacquerie has achieved literary fame, "fame, that is, over and above what he himself always called his 'colonial' affiliations". In Powell's version, Delavacquerie is a Caribbean not of Indian, but of French origins, but when introduced – "small, very dark" – he seems to bear an unmistakable resemblance to Naipaul, especially when he "talked in a quick, harsh, oddly attractive voice". He is an outsider – "I didn't know London at all well. I wanted to explore all its possibilities – and of course meet writers". There is an almost identical paragraph in The Enigma of Arrival, where Naipaul describes being lonely and adrift in 1950s London, in which he becomes aware that, in a boarding house, "I had found myself at the beginning of a great movement of peoples after the war, a great shaking up of the world, a great shaking up of old cultures and old ideas".

The Enigma of Arrival is a masterpiece. Almost nothing happens in it. "The writer" sits in his Wiltshire cottage. He is alone. The women – the wife at his side, the Argentinian mistress whose story Patrick French relates, and to whom he dedicates this biography – are absent. One suspects this is less because Naipaul was being discreet than that, brutally, they had nothing to do with the story, Naipaul's story, the central story. Such women, who feel so important to a writer, are as important to him as his pencils and pens, but as easily forgotten and discarded. The Enigma of Arrival is a haunting, beautiful book – in which the exile, in common with the mysterious inhabitants of the land he has come to inhabit – is being cut loose from his roots. In A Dance to the Music of Time, the 1960s hippie characters perform strange rites around the Avebury stones. Naipaul, in Wiltshire, meditates on history. He remembers his world travels. His sister's death in Trinidad, his loss of family ties, makes him acutely aware of "our sacred world . . . the sacred places of our childhood". And "every generation now was to take us further from those sanctities". These "sanctities" are in the process of being lost, for all of us. Not to see this is humbug, which is why Naipaul becomes so abrasive when, in place of the true sanctities, we are fed platitudes. I wonder if, as he drew to a close, and finished his melancholy but admirable task, Patrick French read J. A. Froude's words about his no less difficult task of writing the Life of Carlyle: "His faults which in his late remorse he exaggerated . . . were the effects of temperament . . . and of absorption in his work . . . . Such faults were but as the vapours which hang about a mountain, inseparable from the nature of the man. They have to be told, because without them his character cannot be understood . . . . But they do not blemish the essential greatness of his character".

Patrick French
The authorised biography of V. S. Naipaul
576pp. Picador. £20.
978 0 330 43350 1


A. N. Wilson's recent books include a novel, Winnie and Wolf, published last year, and a biography of John Betjeman, 2006.



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