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

Alfred A. Knopf $30.00

In The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul, Patrick French may have invented a genre, the whyhedunit.

It was Naipaul who sought French out, not the other way around. In addition to hours of interviews, Naipaul granted his biographer access to his complete archive, including his wife’s diary, which Naipaul himself had not read. Naipaul secured the right to review the completed manuscript, then signed off on it without requesting a single change.

But the portrait of the author that emerges in the book—as skinflint, batterer, self-accused quasi-uxoricide, and relier on the kindness of strangers who does not treat strangers in kind—is hard to square with the refined and forthright if touchy solitary we encounter in his work, let alone with the author as authorizer. Especially incongruous is the intimate portrayal of Naipaul’s cruel relationships with his wife, Patricia Hale Naipaul, and Anglo-Argentine mistress, Margaret Murray Gooding. A lifetime discreetly bullying one’s wife, lovers, friends, and associates on the way to a knighthood and a Nobel may well be matter for confession, but what makes a working writer who is moved to confess let his confessor do the talking? Naipaul’s work itself may provide the best clue to his biography’s animating mystery.

Born in 1932 to the children of Indian immigrants to Trinidad, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul won a scholarship to Oxford and resolved after graduation to stay in England and make a career as a British writer. He published four comic novels set in Trinidad, but found that reviewers, however impressed, regarded these works more as quaint curiosities than serious literature. Sales were meager; even A House for Mr. Biswas, now considered a masterpiece, attracted relatively little notice when it was released in 1961. But in the early ’60s he began traveling to newly decolonized territories, and from these travels produced memorably caustic books such as The Middle Passage and An Area of Darkness, which a growing audience found anything but quaint. His travelogues, lone historical monograph—if The Loss of El Dorado can be so consideredessays, and novels defy the conventions of their respective genres, then deviate in succeeding efforts from their own variations. Nineteen seventy-nine’s A Bend in the River, his other masterpiece, is astonishing not only in itself but also in its difference from Biswas.

From the 1980s onward, however, Naipaul’s development slows or, at any rate, shifts. The travel writing becomes more like oral history while the fiction becomes less fictional and more autobiographical. Ambitious formal innovation continues, but at the cost of an interest in story, which remains much the same from work to work. “Prologue to an Autobiography,” The Enigma of Arrival, A Way in the World, and Half a Life are all meditations, related at a meditative pace and with a meditative reluctance to dramatize, on journeys—one-way or round-trip, modern and premodern—between a colonial periphery and a metropolitan center. What drama arises in them is all in the past.

Experience figures prominently in the earlier books: neighbors from his childhood in Port of Spain are the models for the characters in Miguel Street, encounters on a two-month return visit in 1956 provide the basis for the send-up of Trinidadian electoral politics in The Suffrage of Elvira, and Biswas is as much an act of memory as of imagination. Yet Naipaul’s later work relies less on events in his personal life, though that life became no less exciting. In light of his apparent dearth of fictional material through the second half of his career, the rejection of experience as a source for his work may look like a missed opportunity. This is especially so since his themes grew more autobiographical just as he sought to omit the facts of his own autobiography.

The omissions, it turns out, are by design. They reflect a shift in artistic intention, an anti-individualist aesthetic that develops in the course of the first half of Naipaul’s career as he confronts the popular limitations imposed on his work by his status as an outsider in England.

The conventional novel of manners is, in his conception, a national form, and as such is out of bounds to him: “I feel I know so little about England,” he writes in 1958:

In order to write fiction it is necessary to know so much. We are not all brothers under the skin. It might have been possible for me, at the end of my first year here, to write about England. First impressions, reinforced by what one reads in the newspapers, are often enough to give an authenticity ‘of a crudely naturalistic sort.’ But now I feel I can never hope to know as much about people here as I do about Trinidad Indians, people I can place almost as soon as I see them.

In 1964 he observes:

the preoccupation of . . . [English] novelists reflects a society ruled by convention and manners in the fullest sense, an ordered society of the self-aware who read not so much for adventure as to compare, to find what they know or think they know. . . . There are new reports, new discoveries: they are rapidly absorbed. And with each discovery the society’s image of itself becomes more fixed and the society looks further inward. It has too many points of reference; it has been written about too often; it has read too much.

A decade later, his view of his predicament is little changed: “The great novelists wrote about highly organized societies; I had no such society; I couldn’t share the assumptions of the writers; I didn’t see my world reflected in theirs.” But the obstacle is no longer fatal—“A writer’s disadvantages, when the work is done, can appear as advantages”—for the nation-state itself is said to be on the wane and with it the individualism that underlies its representations:

The great societies that produced the great novels of the past have cracked. Writing has become more private and more privately glamorous. The novel as a form no longer carries conviction. Experimentation, not aimed at the real difficulties, has corrupted response; and there is a great confusion in the minds of readers and writers about the purpose of the novel. The novelist, like the painter, no longer recognizes his interpretive function; he seeks to go beyond it; and his audience diminishes.

The historical moment as he characterizes it calls for the recrudescence of the roman a thèse, or thesis novel, whose “interpretive function” is like that of the broad cultural diagnoses he ventures in his nonfiction. The performance of this function requires that the writer draw typical characters whose manners are symptoms of a general condition. For Naipaul, conventional realist works can so particularize only against a stable, orderly, “highly organized” social background that mass upheaval and migration in the age of empire and its dissolution have denied all but a few. The rest of us—slaves, indentured servants, refugees, settlers, and the descendants thereof—comprise “half-made societies that seem doomed to remain half-made.” Manners among people in such societies are seen, à la Fanon, to be mimicked. The writer’s job is to see through them to the historical and local dispossession they bespeak. The social psychology of colonialism turns assimilation, nativism, political or personal liberation, or other courses of escape into fantasies.

In his work Naipaul always saw the loss of collective memory as the lamentable emblem of colonialism. But the shift in his novels from a descriptive to a more interpretive if not didactic narrative mode brought with it a less sympathetic attitude toward the colonized. By the time Naipaul wrote A Bend in the River, simplicity had for him become backwardness. Adherence to tradition—a source in the early work of curiousity, amusement, and occasionally admiration—was now a tragic failure to live in History so-called:

Once the Arabs had ruled here; then the Europeans had come; now the Europeans were about to go away. But little had changed in the manners or minds of men. The fishermen’s boats on that beach were still painted with large eyes on the bows for good luck; and the fishermen could get very angry, even murderous, if some visitor tried to photograph them—tried to rob them of their souls. People lived as they had always done; there was no break between past and present. All that had happened in the past was washed away; there was always only the present. It was as though, as a result of some disturbance in the heavens, the early morning light was always receding into the darkness, and men lived in a perpetual dawn.

Naipaul entered a creative period in which this exemplifying tendency turns autobiographical. But where autobiography typically seeks to particularize its subject, Naipaul’s aims for the opposite effect. By representing himself as the product of a colonial background and its double subjection—to the mother country and to a lost ancestral past—he becomes an unlikely everyman, or Everyman-as-No Man, for a transnational age. (Writers on the imperial periphery, from St. Augustine to Wilson Harris, may be said to turn rhetorically comparable tricks.)

At the same time, the existence of such a written representation by an established metropolitan writer speaks to a mastery of the colonial predicament, or at least an ability to stand outside it, and so to another part of his legacy: the ambition he inherited from his father to be a writer. “To become a writer, that noble thing, I had thought it necessary to leave. Actually to write, it was necessary to go back. It was the beginning of self-knowledge,” Naipaul says in “Prologue to an Autobiography.” In his role as “the writer,” he escapes. But in his role as a character in the story whose identity never merges with that of “the writer,” escape is impossible. From the tension between the roles arises a story of journey and return meant to invoke migrations and resettlements immemorial. Naipaul discovered that his story is the story of the epoch.

No wonder then that, having come to his understanding of the novel’s purpose, Naipaul generally declined to draw on material from his own life. The rule-proving exceptions occured in instances in which individual behavior seemed to define social categories whose distinctions could be embodied in writing. Naipaul reveals in the biography that he based the scenes of sexual violation in Guerrillas and A Bend in the River on experiences with Margaret. But being drawn from life does not bring them to life. They come across as contrived, as scenes of theatricalized objectification in which the racial and cultural difference between the characters overwhelms their impulse to transcend that difference, which, we see, was a part of their attraction. Failing as an act of union, sex turns to strife. Taken autobiographically, the scenes reflect Naipaul’s appropriation of his colonial self-division to his artistic program.

“I was not interested and I remain completely indifferent to how people think of me, because I was serving this thing called literature,” he tells French. The essence of the literature he serves is its expression and interpretation of a postcolonial historical narrative, and private actions that do not support this are inconsequential. The narcissism that French attributes to Naipaul looks like an especially alienated variety, in which the reflected image is so free of the body it reflects that that body cannot recognize itself there. Naipaul’s rough treatment of those close to him bespeaks an inability to see himself as real. As Naipaul’s mother reports in an account of his father’s breakdown, he “looked in the mirror one day and couldn’t see himself. And he began to scream.”

In the parts of his life that he elided in his work, Naipaul may have seen the unused material for the kind of novel that he had ruled out writing almost, one suspects, from a lack of obstacles. It may have seemed to him that there was nothing to invent and nothing to discover, that the story was too available, that he was too close to it. Or maybe, not having read Pat’s diary, he simply did not see its potential.

In any case French did see it. And in the last third of the book, having dealt with most of the facts, he exploits this material as an adept novelist might. Whatever this shift may cost in scholarly authority is worth the bargain. The narration becomes more imaginative, the pace quickens, episodes take a dramatic shape and cast.

The dramatic shape taken is scalene triangular, with Naipaul, Pat, and Margaret at the unequal sides. And the dramatic cast is fateful: before the triangle moves to the center of the story, Naipaul drops nearly everyone in his acquaintance who does not die first. In Naipaul’s romantic dilemma, the book takes on the lineaments of a novel of adultery. And though the adulterer is the man, our interest in him is eclipsed by that in his women. They have the advantage: with Pat deceased and Margaret unwilling to talk, French got to imagine them.

Summarizing Margaret’s letters, he avails himself of a classic realist novelistic technique:

Margaret flirted and flattered him, believing his tenuous, half-hearted promises. The one thing that pleased her greatly was the fact that he had told her they were now going to live together. She got delirious just thinking about it. She wanted him, but he should learn to be more trusting of her. Why, he had asked over the telephone whether she was up to her old tricks again, to which her answer was a resounding no and a declaration that she hated him. Trying to start a college of one, he sent her books: Marlowe’s translations of Ovid, Restoration comedies, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. She thanked him, and said she had never loved another man in the way she loved him, and never would again. A few days later, sending a photo of herself looking sexy lying on a lawn, she told him she could hardly wait for April, when they would begin living together. . . . Margaret was still angry over his silence on the termination [of one of her pregnancies by him] and the question of who would pay for her ticket to England. Still, she hoped that some day she might become what she termed his beloved wife and super whore.

This is early in the romance. The passage gives us Margaret’s excitement, her irrepressibility and gameness; and also, through his silence and his package of Penguin classics, the effect of Naipaul’s disregard, the loneliness it must have created in her, the fear—behind the provocations and blandishments—that she was talking only to herself. The passage gives us these emotions, but only to trivialize them in literary clichés of the fallen woman:

What was Margaret going to do? Everything in her life was directed at eventually living with him. She did not specify whether this meant in England, in Argentina or elsewhere. Now she felt as if she had been thrown off a cliff and was floating in space. Her friends had warned her, warned her and warned her.

Of course, her letters may just sound like this. She may have been acting a familiar part, making a character of herself. But if she was, French might have let us know that it was a role and distanced himself from her. Instead, he asks us to swallow his characterization whole:

[She] was Vidia’s ideal woman, a woman of a kind who had existed previously only in his fantasy life: he could string her along and mistreat her, with her abject consent. . . . When a man is violent towards a woman, particularly out of sexual jealousy, she either leaves him or becomes possessed by him; Margaret did the latter. She would love Vidia and hate Vidia, abase herself and worship him, degrade herself and degrade him.

Margaret meets with the fate of the globetrotter’s mistress: deep sex on every inhabited continent, deep despair at the mister’s oft-expressed but ne’er-fulfilled determination to leave his wife, and the deep freeze, when, upon the wife’s death, the mister impulsively goes for fresher blood.

The “abject consent” that French ascribes to Margaret condemns her. Margaret herself disputes this in a letter to the The New York Review of Books: “Vidia says I didn’t mind the abuse. I certainly did mind.” But in French’s narrative, she got what she signed on for, in contrast to Pat, who did not at all get what she signed on for but would not or could not give up. And though she was not strong enough to leave her husband, she did manage in her diary—or in the use French puts it to—to create an identity for herself beyond that of a great man’s wife. She strained to idealize the institution of marriage against the facts of her experience. “She was,” according to French, “fascinated by [the essayist Thomas Carlyle’s wife] Jane Carlyle . . . seeing her as the epitome of the clever woman who sacrificed all for her awkward husband’s greatness.” French then quotes from an entry in Pat’s diary written in 1975, while her husband was in Zaire with Margaret:

It was [Jane Carlyle’s] nature to suffer . . . She voluntarily yielded her emotions and her talents to their relationship, to an ideal of married love . . . 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 . . . She was brilliant. I think [she was] his equal but her genius went into their life together. To try to make that genius fit the strait jacket of latter-day Women’s Lib is to misunderstand her nature.

Here, French suggests,

Jane became a version of Pat, or Patricia Naipaul as she might have been: the respected and loyal wife of a great man who thrives in a marriage of equals, the exact arrangement she had dreamed of during their courtship in 1953 when she wrote to Naipaul, ‘The union of two real people is nobler than one-sided ambition.’

Her husband would not entertain equality. Naipaul’s conception of himself was too fragile and narcissistic for his personality to be merged with another. He depended on the idea of his own singularity: without it, he might crack.

That echo you hear in French’s comment on Pat’s diary entry is her husband’s. The direct movement of the narrative from the presentation of Pat’s notions to that of conflicting ones in Naipaul, discrediting both, is Naipaulian. So is the characterization of Naipaul himself, in the certainty of the assessment, where an individual is defined by his self-perception, and in the syntax and diction, the hammering home of a colon in a blunt phrase ending with a transitive verb, “cracked,” used intransitively. Having had to live in Naipaul’s world as much as he did, playing and replaying the interviews and studying his work, French could not avoid picking up something of the master’s contagious style. Yet he adopts it selectively, judging Naipaul in and on his own harsh terms while sparing Pat such treatment.

Her diary, which she kept from 1970 until 1995, runs to “hundreds of thousands of words.” Among these there is likely ample material for a withering Naipaulian portrait of the diarist, had French been interested in creating one. He tells us that although Naipaul would return from his travels with Margaret and tell Pat all about them, she could not bring herself in the diary to write Margaret’s name; Margaret is always “she” or “her.” The refusal to confront hard circumstances is in fact the character flaw par excellence in Naipaul’s subjects. He has condemned whole societies for it, and, under his stylistic influence, French might have been tempted to blame Pat for her weakness. Instead, he makes it a cause for compassion, showing that it was external to her nature, whose manifestations he traces back to her childhood in the English midlands.

French seems too independent of Naipaul simply to have been taking a cue from him in preferring Pat to Margaret. Since his principal source for each is her own writing, this preference can be understood as being for one writer to another, for the one who it may be said was writing for insight to the other who was performing. Margaret wrote for an aloof lover. Pat wrote for herself. It is no surprise then that French is able to portray Pat more credibly.

In using the diary to redress Naipaul’s exclusion of Pat from her husband’s work and in demonstrating her essential role in it, French gives us her biography too. We see that at Oxford—where she and Naipaul met—and for at least their first decade together, she was the stronger, working as a teacher to support them, helping him through the early rejections and a bout of depression, grounding him in an English society notoriously unwelcoming to outsiders, and breaking with her family to do so.

Sex was a problem, though. They were virgins when they met and never hit it off. During the afternoon, while Pat was at school, Naipaul frequented prostitutes. What pleasure she had of him must have come from his work. Their sex life was not only dull but also reproductively barren, compounding her sense of inadequacy.

In the ’60s, having left her job to accompany her husband on his long journeys to the Caribbean, India, and Africa, she lost home and work and had only him. He had only his writing. As his stenographer, amanuensis, and editor, she was indispensable to it; but his sexual dissatisfaction led in the early ’70s to Margaret replacing her as his hotel bedroom companion. Recalling his confession of the affair to Pat, Naipaul tells French, “I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable.”

The better part of Pat’s life was over. Lonely, properly private, and bereft of the children she could not have, she was left behind to manage her husband’s other worldly affairs. She grew addicted to sedatives, retreated to a pied-à-terre in London when Naipaul brought Margaret back to England with him (Pat contemplates “the awfulness of them handling my things, my kitchen things”), and tried unsuccessfully to establish herself as a freelance journalist. In 1989 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which went into remission but returned soon after Naipaul revealed in a 1994 interview that he had started going to prostitutes early in the marriage. The revelation destroyed the idea that she had ever made him happy, and the insult in Naipaul’s telling was lethal: “It could be said that I had killed her,” he told French. “It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.” After a mostly solitary decline—Naipaul was in Asia working on Beyond Belief—she died in early 1996.

The account of Pat’s death, the most affecting part of the biography, is also the most impressive. Would it be an exaggeration to say that it achieves a transfiguration of its subject? Maybe, and maybe not. For all its irony, Pat’s idealization of Jane Carlyle’s self-sacrifice as an image of her own also seems prophetic: “After her death Carlyle reproached himself with her unhappiness,” Pat says of Jane. As hard as it is to believe that V.S. Naipaul reproaches himself for anything, it is harder still to account for his involvement in this book’s creation without understanding this involvement as an act of conscience. Having substituted Margaret for Pat as his lover, he substitutes Patrick for Pat as his collaborator, as if to redeem a betrayal by an homage. Whatever we make of the attempt, the fact of it indicates that the young man who, leaving Trinidad behind for Oxford at the end of Miguel Street, “walked briskly towards the aeroplane, looking only at his shadow before him” is gone. But the old one, looking at the shadow behind, is not done.