“The World Is What It Is” by Patrick French

A lot has been made of how frank this biography is. It’s certainly true that V.S. Naipaul gave his biographer Patrick French access to a huge amount of material, including things that other people would have tried to keep quiet about. For example the racism, the bigotry, the use of prostitutes, the affairs, the betrayals, the occasional violence, the perpetual cruelty. Yes, this is a very frank biography.

But what impressed me most about the book is how French succeeded in making Naipaul into a consistent, understandable character. It doesn’t mean that I like him or approve of the things he did, but it means that I understand how he came to be the way he was. French’s depiction of Naipaul’s life is so complete that I feel as if I know the man now.

Naipaul’s main motivation is established early on in the book. His family life is chaotic, with his whole extended family sharing one large house and constant bickering between the various uncles and aunts. He feels he has to get out of Trinidad, and to do so he devotes all his energy to winning a rare scholarship to study at Oxford. He wins it, moves to England and meets with racism, which intensifies his obsession with working, harder and harder, to show people he’s the best, he’s V.S. Naipaul the writer, not just the wog that they see.

The pattern continues throughout the rest of the book, as Naipaul puts his writing above everything else. He betrays his wife, his family, his friends, the people who help him — he will sacrifice anything to become a great writer. The result is tremendous success, but also extreme loneliness. It’s amazing how, throughout the whole book, there are almost no genuine friendships. Naipaul seems to have lots of connections and acquaintances, but no real friends. He works the literary circles of London, befriending aristocrats and using their spare country houses to get the isolation he needs to work on his books, but when he needs to confide in someone he has no options.

One of the most astonishing passages in the book was when Naipaul was having problems with his long-term mistress, Margaret, and the person he went to for support and advice was his wife Pat! She was the only person he could confide in, and the other astonishing thing was that she let him do it. She knew about Margaret for something like 20 years, and yet she let him run off to Argentina to be with her for a few months, and then come back to her when he needed her again. As with Naipaul himself, Pat’s life became a pattern. Early on, soon after they met at Oxford, Naipaul had a nervous breakdown and it was Pat who supported him and saved him. From that point on, Naipaul controlled her completely, not by force but by using his own frailty as an excuse. He stopped her from pursuing her dream of acting because of his own insecurities, and she let him do it. It’s a fascinating and quite disturbing relationship. Naipaul is both dominant and helpless, using his apparent helplessness to lock Pat into a manipulative relationship. At one point he leaves her, but then returns a few months later saying he needs her help, and yet again she lets him come back. She seems to be willing to do anything to support him and especially, as he has more and more success, his writing. In the diary extracts that French quotes, there’s often a sense that she knows her life is being ruined, but that she has come to share her husband’s view that his writing is so important that everything else must be sacrificed to support what she calls his “Genius”.

There are plenty of examples in this book of pronouncements from V.S. Naipaul that hardly seem worthy of the label “genius”. For instance, writing to his editor Diana Athill, “Lunacy and servility: they remain the ingredients of the Negro character. I wonder why this isn’t written about, why the Negro writers continue to be so sentimental about themselves.” Or talking about the effect of his affair with Margaret on his wife Pat: “I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable.”

The racism French tries to explain as provocation: Naipaul liking to take extreme positions to provoke a reaction. Some of this is plausible – for example in public appearances or at dinner parties he might want to take on this persona, deliberately aggravating people purely for effect. But there’s no reason to do that in private letters, so I think there’s something more going on. I think it’s bound up with the reason he left Trinidad, the hatred he had learned to feel for the island and, by extension, the majority black population. His family made it clear to him that he should associate with Indians only – one of his cousins recalls the grandmother saying “You can’t associate with niggers.” When Naipaul went to England later, he was anxious to distinguish himself from other Caribbean writers like Sam Selvon and George Lamming. And when Pat tried to help him get a job by appealing to someone in government who helped West Indian immigrants, he said he “would not involve himself with Mr Davies, a latter-day protector of immigrants, nor would he be classified alongside people who climbed off banana boats wearing zoot-suits and wanted jobs in factories. He was V.S. Naipaul, the writer.”

The emotional incapacity is astonishing, too. When Margaret gets pregnant, Naipaul just stops answering her letters. She writes to him in distress, asking for his support, and he does nothing. This happens a couple of times. Later, when Pat is dying of cancer, he is faced with the prospect of being with Margaret finally, and dumps her. He then proposes to Nadira, a woman he met in Pakistan. The day after Pat is cremated, Nadira moves into the house Pat and Naipaul had shared for decades. In his day-to-day life, it’s Pat who has to deal with anything unpleasant, while Naipaul just hides, abdicating responsibility.

It’s interesting, and a little depressing, that Naipaul did not make much money as a writer for a very long time. Even in the 1970s, when he was already a big name and had won the Booker Prize and was writing columns and appearing on TV, he was still only making £7,600 a year, and for many years Pat was supporting him with her teaching work. In the 1980s, partly due to a new agent, his average income jumped to £143,600, and then of course winning the Nobel Prize made him a very rich man. But for a long, long time, even when he was famous, he wasn’t making that much money.

I was surprised that the book ended slightly abruptly, just after Pat’s death in 1996. This also coincides with his marriage to Nadira, so made me wonder if the biography was, in this respect, not completely frank. Perhaps either Naipaul or Nadira refused access to this latest chapter. Or maybe there will be another volume covering his later years – the last word in the book is “Enough”, with a footnote saying “For the moment.”

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There are 2 comments

  1. I really appreciate this review as I hadn’t read much about this book but it has been on top of my wish list since it came out. I’ve read some parts of Naipaul’s A Way in the World and it amazed me when I read about him and Theroux, how reflective that novel was of their relationship. I don’t know, maybe it was just me reading into things, but it got me so interested in Naipaul. (I didn’t finish the novel because I lost it in the midst of a move.)

  2. Hi Claire,
    There’s quite a lot in this book about Theroux, from his first meeting with Naipaul at a university in Uganda through several decades of semi-friendship. Like all of Naipaul’s interactions with other human beings as described in this book, it had quite a strange dynamic, with quite a bit of manipulation and abuse and not much trace of genuine intimacy. Theroux’s changing attitudes to Naipaul over the decades are quite interesting, and French makes a lot of references to Theroux’s book Sir Vidia’s Shadow, which examines their relationship in more detail if you’re interested.

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