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A Biographer in Search of V. S. Naipaul

February 2009
A Biographer in Search of V. S. Naipaul "Accidental Occidental," "Nowhere Man," "Brown Sahib." Whatever you may choose to call him, there is nobody quite like him in the world of letters. Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (or Sir Vidia) is considered one of the greatest English-language authors in the last 50 years. Some call him the best. But this master, as Patrick French shows in his highly readable and revealing biography (authorized, no less), is also something of a monster in his personal life. French had extraordinary access (secret diaries, interviews with Naipaul and many who associated with him, no conditions attached), but the book’s main achievement stems from the author’s ability to turn this vast, undigested material into a compelling narrative that—despite its length of 576 pages—never flags. In his praised Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division, French brought history to life; now he does the same for biography in The World Is What It Is (Knopf, 2008).

There are so many intimate details that some readers may feel queasy at times. One is awed by Naipaul’s accomplishments, no doubt, but also appalled by his behavior. His talent and the unwavering commitment to his calling, often against tremendous odds, are what make the deepest impression. As a struggling newcomer from Trinidad, Naipaul found racism and rejection in England, but then he managed to make friendships with crucial figures who, recognizing his gifts, helped him along the way. The most troubling part of the story was the way he treated his devoted first wife, Patricia Ann Hale, whose later years (when Naipaul was conducting a lengthy affair with an Anglo-Argentinian named Margaret Gooding) were filled with sorrow.

A bundle of contradictions, Naipaul has been accused by not a few people of being anti-Muslim, while others point out that his Islamic journeys have produced, especially in light of recent events, insightful and valuable nonfiction accounts. Furthermore, Naipaul, who traces his roots to eastern Uttar Pradesh, has ambivalent feelings about his Indian (and Caribbean) background, which led him to write three widely read books on India. Not surprisingly, they have provoked both raves and rage. Naipaul’s current wife, Nadira Khannum Alvi, is a Pakistani Muslim.

Naipaul is a recipient of almost every literary award worth winning, including the Nobel Prize, and a few of his books (such as A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River) have entered the English Lit canon. French’s shrewdly chosen title comes from the opening line of the latter novel. It reads: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” This fierce, uncompromising vision belongs to the narrator, Salim, but it may also tell us something about Naipaul.

“[Naipaul’s] ambition was linked to fear, as it often is in an author or creative artist: fear of failure, fear of not being able to write, fear of disappearance, fear of mental or physical breakdown, fear that people were trying to do him down, fear of being faced down, fear of losing face, fear of being found out,” writes French. “Repeatedly he had to recreate or mask himself, clearing away his past, in order to become the apparently stateless, hyper-perceptive global observer who could, as a book reviewer once put it, look into the mad eye of history and not blink. This took its psychological toll.”

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