Choosing something over nothing

The World is what it is: The authorised

biography of VS Naipaul

“THE WORLD is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” The title of Patrick French’s authorized biography borrows from this emblematic opening sentence of V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, a novel about a complex character observing the vertiginous changes in a discordant society that he is both a member of and yet, does not belong to. It is a character sketch which could be applied to many of his protagonists – Willi Chandran in Half a Life, Ralph Singh in The Mimic Men – and, as seen in French’s meticulous novel, to Naipaul himself most of all.

Of course, the outline of the biography is well known – the Dickensian childhood in Trinidad, the university scholarship (which he did not win at first), the degree at Oxford; the novels; the travels; the denouncements of the West Indies, Africa and India; the Nobel Prize. What French’s novel does is put flesh on this skeletal story, giving a corpuscular reality to a man that, for many, has been a terrible and great idea rather than a carnal actuality.

As a novel, it is meticulously well researched and a deeply engrossing read. Throughout the book one is struck by the intimacy of the revelations – the sexual abuse as a boy, the debasement of his first wife, the casual racism, the sexual savagery with his Argentinean mistress. With each revelation an aspect of Naipaul’s character becomes clearer, his novels more lucid. As French outlines Naipaul’s struggles and triumphs, connections are made across the two men’s work and patterns emerge. The end result is a gift of understanding and indulgence; past controversies are, to an extent, defanged. The brutal yet clinical rape in Guerrillas, as example, responds to his own sexual experiences at this time with Margaret, his mistress, and reflects the idea of control and submission that underscores sexual obsession and the power that the dominated have over their would be masters. It could be seen as an analogy for in colonisation or a simple rewriting of a personal experience – French makes no attempt to tell the reader how to interpret his work.

Its sensuality was something Naipaul could never have learnt from his first wife, Patricia Hale, whose belief in and support of the man she called “the Genius” was imperative to his development and success. She is the book’s tragic figure; at the start of the story she is stronger than Naipaul and his equal, a confident teacher and graduate who has also won an Oxford scholarship and is seeking to drag herself out of the commonness of her childhood. She supports him through his breakdown and struggling years as a writer.

As Naipaul’s acclaim and literary mastery grow, she degenerates. Revelations of physical and verbal abuse provoke pity and then anger. Her failure to assert or protect herself eventually grows distasteful with the final disclosure that she succumbs to cancer after realising her husband has grown angry at her protracted death. French writes about her sympathetically, outlining her increasing frailty as she tries to please her often demanding and cankerous husband. Added to this is Naipaul’s public admission of his affair which was to last 25 years and ended only when Pat died and he married another woman six days later.

Although French writes less sympathetically about Margaret – it’s obvious with whom his sympathies lie – it is difficult to not feel sorry for the woman who was at first pursued by Naipaul, only to be dumped by him without explanation a quarter of a century later. Both women are essential pieces of the Naipaul puzzle – both mirrors that reflect images of himself that are necessary for his self belief and development both as a man and as a writer.

It would be easy to see the novel as a Rosetta stone, capable of revealing the mysteries of Naipaul’s somewhat ambiguous writing. As Naipaul himself said, “The biography of a writer – or even the autobiography – will always have this incompleteness.” French’s undertaking is not to provide an academic text to accompany the laureate’s work, but rather, to tell his story as a literary work in itself and he does so remarkably well; Naipaul could not have been an easy subject. Even with the limited, controlled information about himself that he has previously allowed to be public, Naipaul came across as irascible, unfathomable and condescending.

It is this that makes French’s work even more remarkable and acts as further testimony to the sort of writer Naipaul is – once he promised to facilitate the writing of the book, he kept that promise, never cancelling an appointment, never deactivating incendiary facts to make himself look good. When the manuscript was sent to him, he sent it back with no amendments.

The best appreciation of the power of this biography comes when seen in terms of the journey it reports and not necessarily the means that have facilitated it. Those looking to vilify Naipaul will find much supporting evidence.

Those seeking to understand him will have to dig further but will not be left unsatisfied either. Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask speaks about the disjointedness that is the result of colonisation. “The world is what it is” chronicles it. The son of a father who was marginalised by his in-laws, who in turn were members of a race that felt displaced, that made up one third of a society that was on the periphery of a colonial empire, Naipaul had few and very limited options about who and what he was or could be.

Unsatisfied with the images that were on offer – an Indian from the Caribbean, a returned island scholar – he created his own. He tried on and adjusted affectations that helped create a distance between him and the fate he had escaped, even if they were a contradiction to his reality. His famous explanation that a bindi on an Indian woman’s forehead meant that she had no brain was inconsistent with the strength of his mother and intelligence of his sisters. His rejections of family, friends, country – perhaps even himself – were acts of survival, sacrifices to the one thing he holds sacred: the writing. The man seen now – seemingly self satisfied and self reliant – is the result of an early realisation that the world is indeed what it is and his active decision to create his place in it.

The world is what it is is available in hard copy from Picador books.


"Choosing something over nothing"

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