February 14, 2009

"The World is What It Is" - The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul by Patrick French

There were two reasons why I picked up V. S. Naipaul's biography "The World is What It Is" by Patrick French. One reason was because I had so thoroughly enjoyed Naipaul's novel "A House for Mr. Biswas" which I had read numerous times during my late teens, each time finding something more to like about it. The other reason was an interview of Patrick French, Naipaul's biographer, that carried some candid comments by French about how and why he decided to write Naipaul's biography, "The World Is What It Is", and that's when I decided I had to read this one, and now I'm glad that I did. Having said that, I need to make some clarifications on what that declaration may construe:

- that I liked how French presented Naipaul's life story
- that French's biography made me like and/or understand Naipaul better
- that the biography helped me understand and/or like Naipaul's writing better

The truth is that none of those three reasons account for why I liked the book, and it took me the longest time to figure out why this work appealed to me. It had more to do with how this book helped me understand how a biography can dissociate the writer from his writing and present a chronologically sound and clear picture of an individual's life yet be unable to explain how that life connected with the creative energy that flowed out of the individual's pen. In fact Naipaul admitted to this when he said "his only stated ambition was greatness as a writer, in pursuit of which nothing else was sacred." He was more than prepared to sacrifice his personal life to achieve success and recognition as a litterateur. Naipaul was astute to have gauged French's skills as a writer, and perhaps that was the reason he invited him to write his biography. French has clearly distinguished the man from the writer in this biography and leaves it to the reader to decide which of the two Naipaul's he wants to reckon with.

French gives us a vivid picture of Naipaul's childhood in colonial Trinidad where a young Vidia is "a displaced soul in a displaced community who by dint of talent and scholarship, finds the only imaginable way out: a scholarship to Oxford." However, the scholarship at Oxford turned out to be but a mirage as a disgruntled Vidia soon realized "the more insidious form of oppression is the spiritual one. I am an example of that...You will say that I am free... I have freedom of speech (in England anyway); freedom of worship. All these of course are quite useless to me without freedom of opportunity." What followed were numerous bouts of depression that Naipaul went through while at Oxford, and if it were not for Patricia Hale, who later he married, Naipaul may have left the shores of England within the first few years of getting there.

Patricia Hale augmented a new phase in Naipaul's life, in which Naipaul emerges as a domineering, manipulative, and insensitive man who could treat someone he claimed to love with a ruthlessness that shocks the reader. French appears to gloss over some of these years for reasons he best knows. It almost appears as if French could not make sense of the senselessness with which Naipaul treated Pat, and also the sheer absurdity of how an educated person like Pat silently absorbed all the mental and physical abuse that Naipaul doled out to her.

Again, it wasn't so much the documented story of Naipaul's life that held my interest as the gradual revelation of why this biography came to be, and why Naipaul had allowed Patrick French complete access to all his records in order for French to document his controversial life where he often came across as a selfish and egocentric individual who sacrificed close relationships to fulfill his one burning passion of becoming a world renowned writer. French admits that in writing Naipaul's biography, he gained great insight into what it means to write a biographical sketch of a person as enigmatic as Naipaul; "since writing about a writer for the first time, I have become more doubtful about the notion that an artistic creator should be expected to explain himself. Anyone who has written imaginatively will know that the process remains mysterious even to the author...The best writing can only be examined in its effect." Needless to say, Naipaul's writing had far reaching 'effect'; one that earned him the Nobel prize in Literature in 2001. His literary achievements have been remarkable, having covered a range of contemporary issues such as religious and political identity, global migration, extremism, individual rights and the rule of law, and many more. Here was a writer whose "art transcends the artist cos he talks a load of shit but still writes excellent books." Naipaul stirred many a controversies with words and actions that were often hurtful and highly inappropriate like when he said, "Africa had no future, Islam was a calamity, France was fraudulent, and interviewers were monkeys." It is a miracle that the writer Naipaul survived despite his other half.

Patrick French may not have been able to write this candid biography if Naipaul the artist had not completely disenfranchised Naipaul the mean mouthed Trinidadian of Indian origin who struggled with low self esteem and poverty for a major part of his life. Naipaul the artist clearly did not want to regionalize himself, and so he broke free of all bondage including that of lineage, ethnicity, diplomacy and even propriety which may account for his controversial love life or the lack thereof.

I have no idea who benefits more from this biography: Naipaul, for having gotten a chance to redeem himself, Patrick French, in getting to write his first writer biography, or the reader, being better equipped to deal with biographies in the future.

9 comments:

sivananth said...

Perhaps talking s*** and getting fatwas are liberties reserved for writers. I'm ashamed to say I've never read none of the Nobel laureates. would start with naipaul.

Id it is said...

Sivananth,
I would amend that a bit - "talking s***" is what everyone does at some point or the other, but most of us are fortunate that we don't see it in print with viewing rights for posterity.
Hey I haven't read this book of Galbraith you've reviewed and I'm sure He is no less a name to reckon with in Economics than a Nobel Laureate in Literature so to each his own; however, I would strongly recommend "A House for Mr. Biswas" by Naipaul simply because it's such an engrossing read.

SSQuo said...

I am currently reading 'House of Mr. Biswas', a tad bit too late in life! I am very intrigued by the new book and hope to read it soon.

Eshuneutics said...

Naipaul is a real prickly character. His spats with Walcott are terrible. A great summing up of what sounds like a strange biography.

Khakra said...

It may sound like heresy to say that Naipaul is the most intellectually sound person I've met. He's had a volte-face on a number of opinion, but the guy was man enough to admit it. Most curious as to how much French understood Naipaul.

Loved A House for Mr. Biswas, the smell of Trinidad earth is still very fresh today.

Id it is said...

khakra,
Naipaul always has something intellectually challenging to say, regardless of whether you concur with him or otherwise.

Why am I unable to access your site?

EYE said...

thanks for all the reviews that you post. it gives me insight into some books and movies of quality.i recently read the Reluctant Fundamentalist whose review i had read on your blog. It was just great.

naperville mom said...

Me loved House of Mr. Biswas too! Naipaul is something else... I wish I could describe the writing...It's unique, deep, breathless...not too close, but at least I tried:)

cubaho said...

Thanks for directing me to this review. I think 'Here was a writer whose "art transcends the artist cos he talks a load of shit but still writes excellent books."' was what I was thinking yet couldn't put into words. I would like to read this and other biographies of Naipaul but I think I need to read more of his books before reading the biographies as they may influence my judgement about him. I would rather judge Naipaul on my own before reading a biography written by someone else.