The World Is What It Is

Much has been justifiably made of two facts surrounding the stupendous biography The World Is What It Is: first, that its subject, V. S. Naipaul, participated fully in the project, opening up the archived cache of 50,000 pieces of paper -- letters, diaries, manuscripts, etc. -- in that most-un-Naipaulian place, the University of Tulsa, to Patrick French, then steadfastly submitting to hours of interviews to fill in the biographical blank spots; and second, that he did so (and read the final manuscript) without changing so much as a comma in French's 576-page work, despite all its unflinching, unflattering details about the Nobel laureate's affairs. French chalks up Naipaul's interest in having the full record of his life in print to a unique "act of narcissism and humility." That may be the case, but Naipaul himself, even where he emerges at his most loathsome, bullying, scurrilously intemperate, and frightfully badly behaved self (and there are bucket loads of examples of this, though the sad treatment of his first wife, Pat, who died in 1995, and the pathetic, masochistic, 25-year relationship with his Argentinean mistress, Margaret, are particularly fecund), is finally vindicated as a man and writer in full, for all his flaws.

Usually a picture this complete comes only posthumously, and largely through the sorts of collected letters that make for a more rarified reading experience than that afforded by The World Is What It Is. What is striking about French's book is that he has distilled the phenomenal finds of archival research to create a compellingly readable biography. But more than that, the book is a tribute to Naipaul's faith in literature itself -- faith, that is, that the story of his life as a writer (which is simultaneously the story of the fall of the British colonial empire and the story of the creation of a new postwar literature where none had existed before) is a crucial matter of public record. It's not just a tale of a flawed man with a virtually unmatched command of writerly style who armored his racial and emotional insecurities with a carapace of cocksure snobbery that would put the haughtiest English literary lord to shame; the biography also manages to redeem Naipaul's well-honed acts of self-fashioning under the greater umbrella of his openness and almost reckless honesty. About the only unfortunate thing to be said about The World Is What It Is would be that it doesn't furnish a model for "literary biography" as a genre, but the reason that it doesn't has less to do with its adequacy than with the fact that the book seems, like Naipaul's own novels and journalism, a sui generis outgrowth of the man himself. And when it comes to a biography, who could ask for anything more?

French draws a boundary between part one and part two of Naipaul's career, the first the story of the narrator par excellence of life in the British Caribbean, the second the post–House for Mr. Biswas globe-trotting man of letters. The division may be a tad too neat -- if Naipaul shunned his earlier identify (when he could be described in New Statesman as a "calypso novelist" whose writing was as "sharp as a mango") after around 1962, it never abandoned him -- but it is effective. Scuffling without finding work, hateful toward his native Trinidad and angry with England, reeling from the death of his journalist father, Seepersad, the early Naipaul is a bundle of real pains. In 1954, the mostly unemployed Naipaul writes to his BBC benefactor, Henry Swanzy, "The future is as black as ever. Nobody loves me, nobody wants me. In England I am not English; in India I am not Indian. I am chained to the 1000 sq. miles that is Trinidad, but I will evade that fate yet." (Later, at the height -- or nadir -- of his despair, he described himself to Pat as "Naipaul, poor wog, literally starving, and very cold.") As French puts it, his "predicament would become both his handicap and his opportunity."

French reminds us of the icy reception and dismal prospects awaiting those from the colonies, citing a survey from the early '50s in which only 26 percent of London landladies said they would accept "lightly coloured non-European" students as borders, while only 10 percent took in black people. He quotes an anecdote about Naipaul's despair by literary editor Karl Miller: "Asked on the telephone if he was coloured, by an English landlady to whom he was applying?for a room, he was said to have replied, 'Hopelessly.' ") At the end of 1954, Naipaul was contracted to present the BBC's Caribbean Voices program, which enabled him to learn certain "theatrical skills that never deserted him." ("They taught me I was never to let my voice drop at the end of a sentence," he tells French. "They taught you to have a picture in your head when you are speaking.") More important, perhaps, was the company the program afforded with other writers like Barbadian-born George Lamming and Sam Selvon, a rival of his father's from Trinidad and author of the unjustly forgotten Lonely Londoners. (Establishing a pattern, Naipaul would later effect a "deliberate blanking of the role of his colleagues" there, "who were crucial in forming his idea of what did and did not work on the page.") Then, in 1955, he submitted Miguel Street to Diana Athill, the great editor at André Deutsch who "moved in bohemian circles and ha a weakness for West Indian men" -- as well as a conjurer's gift for spotting talented writing. In this collection of linked stories set in the slums of Port of Spain, Trinidad, French writes, Naipaul's "chosen subject was the powerless; those who, although in the majority in the world, had appeared in European literature only as peripheral characters, or at best as Man Friday." Though it would not be his first book (Mystic Masseur, a comic novel about the slow transformation of huckster-healer Ganesh Ramsumair into aspiring statesmen G. Ramsay Muir, was earliest off the printing press), Miguel Street forged the relationship with Athill and Deutsch and established Naipaul's particularly observant approach to writing, whether in fiction or literary nonfiction: "I am the spectator, the fl?neur par excellence," he wrote to Pat at the time. "I am free of the emancipatory fire."

Swanzy and Athill are the rare pair of angels in the biography (New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, who is largely responsible for introducing Naipaul's writing to an American public and at one point personally picks up the writer's expenses when they are too great for the magazine, is a third). Others come off just as snobbishly insufferable as does Naipaul at his worst. The oleaginous Paul Theroux appears again like Marvin Hagler returning to refight Thomas Hearns, and the rematch is no letdown. A friend who meets Margaret -- the mistress whose story in The World Is What It Is helps comprise the larger biographical subtext of unfulfilled sexual unhappiness throughout Naipaul's life -- blithely dismisses her as pedestrian and coarse for using the phrase "have your cake and eat it too." Next to Naipaul himself, the figure most fascinatingly drawn is Pat, whom the writer seems to mistreat from the first days of their relationship as Oxford undergraduates, when he browbeats her into abandoning her first love, acting. (Writing in 1953 to introduce her to his father, Naipaul describes her as "a member of the university, not unintelligent, nor altogether unattractive.") Pat remained loyal to Naipaul throughout their marriage, even through such trying moments as when he boasted to The New Yorker in the 1990s of his great appetite for prostitutes. (He blames the shock of that confession for bringing about a relapse in the cancer that would end her life: "She suffered. It could be said that I had killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.") The biography ends with the scene of Sir Vidia's new wife, Nadira, scattering Pat's ashes for him in the English woods as he weeps by the side of their car.

For all the portraits the book brings to life, French in no way shorts a reading of Naipaul's books, from the early comic novels to the "big" mature works of postcolonial fiction such as Guerrillas and A Bend in the River and portentous journalistic titles like Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (nor is he sparing toward Naipaul's occasional duds -- remember A Turn in the South, his journey across the American Bible Belt form the late '80s?). Neither stinting on the writing nor letting the writer disappear into it, his commentary rests subtly on its surfaces. It's a rare biography of a long-deceased writer that can pull off such a synthesis and make one appreciate the singularity of the life and the achievement; that French has done it for an ornery living one is a remarkable feat.

April 16: ""Blue pottery vases and bowls for flowers are most attractive, and certain blue books...will repeat and emphasize color."

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