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Sir Vidia's Dance

Can life and art be separated?

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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The World Is What It Is

The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul

by Patrick French

Knopf, 576 pp., $30

During a brief remission in his wife's cancer, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist V.S. Naipaul casually explained to a journalist that he had always been "a great prostitute man," mongering among the whores from the early days of his marriage.

The publicity that followed from the remark "consumed" his wife, he later admitted to his biographer, Patrick French. "She had all the relapses and everything after that. She suffered. It could be said that I killed her. .  .  . I feel a little bit that way." Unfortunately, he didn't feel "that way" enough to think it inappropriate to move into his house, the day after he cremated his wife, his new mistress, a Pakistani journalist he'd just met (and would, in short order, marry).

Even before the whoring revelations, Naipaul's first wife, a middle-class woman named Patricia Hale whom he'd met while he was a student on scholarship to England, had known about a prior mistress--but only because Naipaul himself decided one day to tell her, explaining the violent acts he enjoyed with the woman, some of them memorialized in photographs he brought along to aid the explanation.

The woman's name was Margaret Gooding, and Naipaul met her in 1972 in Buenos Aires. French's new biography of Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, quotes extensively from her letters: unbearable scrawls that read like clinical case studies drawn from the pages of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. She begs, moans, despairs, and pleads for Naipaul's "cruel sexual desires." She calls him her "god," her "black master." Her multiple abortions of his children sicken her, but she offers them up to him as proof of her love and abasement.

And all this sex stuff is only the beginning. Throughout The World Is What It Is Naipaul shows himself arrogant beyond belief, and vile-tempered, and as self-obsessed as a man simpering while he looks at himself in the mirror. His letters and conversation are full of references to "niggers" and dismissals of Africans and dark-skinned Indians.

The man was capable of bouts of extraordinary cruelty: Unhappy with Margaret at one point, Naipaul explains, "I was very violent with her for two days. .  .  . Her face was bad. She couldn't appear really in public. My hand was swollen." But then, he was capable of ordinary, everyday cruelty, as well: "You are the only woman I know who has no skill," his wife's diaries reveal Naipaul once told her, just in passing. "You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station." He moved on to the mistress who would become his second wife because his inamorata Margaret had simply grown unworthy of his use: "middle-aged, almost an old lady."

Vile stuff. I didn't need to know all this about Naipaul. I didn't want to know all this about the man. But the weird thing is that Naipaul himself wants us to know all this. The subtitle makes that clear enough: "The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul." The novelist turned over his papers to French and sat for interview after interview, apparently hiding nothing--all in the course of authorizing this account of his life.

The book appeared in Britain last spring, around the time of the American publication of A Writer's People, Naipaul's own text, a kind of literary autobiography or account of his mind as formed by his reading. "Grandiloquence has always been the Achilles' heel of Naipaul's writing," the reviewer David Rieff once remarked, and grandiloquent the book certainly is--besides revealing that Naipaul's mind is nearly as unpleasant as his life.

"It is amazing to me," he writes, "how often I was baffled by famous novels of the time." In A Writer's People he dismisses Graham Greene as someone incapable of making "his subject clear," Philip Larkin as a "minor poet," and Derek Walcott as a failure "rescued by the American universities." No book escapes his scorn as unworthy of his reading, and no country--from the Trinidad in which he was born, to the India from which his parents came, to the England in which he settled--escapes his scorn as a land unworthy of his residence.