Brahmin Isolato

Book cover
The World Is What It Isby By Patrick FrenchKnopf. 576p $30

They were nearly all Islanders on the Pequod,” Herman Melville famously wrote, “Isolatoes too, I call such, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own.” But whereas Melville’s multicultural whalers were “federated along one keel,” the sensationally gifted Trinidadian Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (b. 1932), who has criss-crossed the oceans as much as all of the Pequod’s crew put together, never seems to have bonded with anyone in any enterprise—neither nation, ethnicity, religion (or irreligion) nor party affiliation, not family, love or art. At once inimitable, indispensable and insufferable, the man stands alone, loyal only to himself and to the English language, one of whose grand masters he has been for half a century.

All this emerges in riveting, cringe-inducing detail from Patrick French’s powerful biography, which was indeed authorized: Naipaul gave French access to all his personal papers, including his first wife Pat’s massive diaries, which are all the more damning because she herself was so self-effacing; and he exercised no editorial control whatsoever over the final product. Even Paul Theroux, Naipaul’s long-time acquaintance (he claims to have no friends), has said, “I didn’t know half the horrors.”


Born into a shabby-genteel Indian extended family near a little town called Chaguanas, Naipaul was steered early on to study and writing (his father Seepersad was a journalist and aspiring novelist). At 17 he won a scholarship to Oxford, and from then on made England his base. He knew more Latin, French and Spanish than he did Hindi; and the family’s ties to Hinduism, despite their Brahmin caste, were faint. At Oxford the shy but arrogant Vido met the shy but insecure Patricia Hale; and despite family resistance, entrenched on her side, mild on his, they married in 1955. They were both 22, and it was a disastrous decision.

For the next 41 years, until she died of breast cancer, Pat was Naipaul’s helper, adviser, nurse and slave. Much to her distress, she was unable to have children; so she devoted all her considerable intelligence, energy and literary tact to her husband, who published The Mystic Masseur in 1957 and within four years wrote his first masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas. They were poor, so she worked as a teacher while taking care of him in every way conceivable: cooking, cleaning, answering mail, assuring his peace and quiet, in exchange for treatment that would range over the years from blandly frigid to downright cruel.

They were sexually incompatible; but whereas Pat suffered in silence and blamed herself, Naipaul sought relief, first in prostitutes, and then, from 1972 onwards, in a 24-year affair with a lively Anglo-Argentinian woman named Margaret Gooding (without quite dedicating it to her, French inscribes his book “MG”). Naipaul concealed the prostitutes from Pat, who was crushed to learn about them from The New Yorker when she was on her deathbed; but there was no hiding the ménage with Margaret, with whom he lived and traveled openly. “I was liberated,” Naipaul wrote, “She was destroyed. It was inevitable.”

Margaret satisfied his long-deprived libido, and she adored him; but he gave her more misery than satisfaction. Unlike the barren Pat, she already had three children—she eventually left them and her husband for him. But though Naipaul toyed with the idea of having children, in the end the only lasting result of their frenetic, often violent love-making was three abortions. Naipaul felt free to employ Margaret as his girl Friday and gofer, only to dismiss her and return to Pat at their country home in Wiltshire when it suited him. Pat would take him back without a reproachful word. Alternately, he might send Pat off to London so he could install Margaret in the house. With time Margaret’s charms faded, Pat’s cancer returned; and Naipaul was swept away by a regal, stylish 42-year-old divorced Pakistani journalist, Nadira Khannum Alvi, whom he married shortly after Pat’s cremation in April 1996.

Amid the marital turmoil and misery of those 40 years, Naipaul published a stunning series of novels, most notably In a Free State (1971) and A Bend in the River (1979), along with brilliant reportages about India, the Muslim world, Africa, Argentina and of course the West Indies. He garnered a bushel of accolades, including knighthood and the Nobel Prize (2001).

Naipaul also made a host of enemies, among both the usual p.c. suspects like Edward Said (a certain H. B. Synge labeled Vidia “a despicable lackey of neo-colonialism and imperialism”) and fellow West Indians like Derek Walcott and C. L. R. James. And no wonder: Naipaul is as rude, unsparing and combative in his accounts of the postcolonial world as he is in his personal life. A phenomenally quick and accurate observer, with a Truman Capote-like ability to recall conversations more or less verbatim, Naipaul has often treated the cultures and characters of the third world as at best foolish and as worst monstrous. As a dark-skinned person who faced the undisguised racism of post-war Britain, he has real sympathy for the underdog. He considers slavery the supreme human evil, and he grieves particularly for the genocide of Amerindians like the Caribs, who gave their name to a vast region but have more or less disappeared.

Yet, as seen in his 2002 anthology, The Writer and the World, none of that has deterred him from sticking to the formula voiced by his alter-persona, Ralph Singh, in The Mimic Men (1967): “Hate oppression, fear the oppressed.” If nothing else, Naipaul has proved consistently prescient. A glance at today’s headlines, with the ongoing nightmares in Darfur, Congo, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq (no one forces the Sunnis and Shias to slaughter one another), the terrorist attacks in London, Madrid, Bali, Mumbai and so on appears to validate his harsh vision.

Often compared to Joseph Conrad for his brooding irony, Naipaul might be more logically linked with Jonathan Swift for his bitter pessimism, his misanthropic outrageousness and his deceptively clear and simple style, with “proper words in proper places,” as Jonathan Swift (another angry, though more sociable, islander) liked to say. No gaudy magic realism, no dodgy postmodernism, no tender lyricism. As his opening sentence in A Bend in the River puts it, “The world is what it is.”

Patrick French, it must be said, has done a heroic job, combining exhaustive, meticulous research with unflinching judgment, describing Naipaul at one point, for example, as Pat’s “increasingly cranky and infantilized husband.” Possibly because he has to trudge through so many miles of publication minutiae, reviewers’ responses and literary gossip, he every now and then indulges in showy double and triple-axels, speaking of Naipaul as “an accidental occidental Indian,” who habitually became enraged “when guests were eminent and imminent,” and who had “a fateful, hateful, fatal sense that he did not want her [Margaret] in his life any more.” Why not? French deserves a little time in the spotlight.

Still, he probably exaggerates when he suggests that his book might be “the last literary biography to be written from a complete paper archive.” There must be a few distinguished writers out there too old or unregenerate to have given in to e-mail and text-messaging. On the other hand, who could, or would want to, match Naipaul’s mental toughness (or disdain for the public) in releasing so much scandalous material during his lifetime? Naipaul’s biography establishes that he is, apart from previously mentioned vices, a waspish backstabber, a mean-spirited miser, and—surprise!—a complete egotist. Hilaire Belloc jokingly imagined people saying of him after his death, “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

V. S. Naipaul can rest assured that readers all around the world are saying words to that effect right now.

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