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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.

Together, A Writer's People and The World Is What It Is make as disturbing a picture as we've had of an author since the biographies of that odd little neurotic Algernon Charles Swinburne (another escapee from the pages of Sacher-Masoch) came out after his death in 1909. And the question, of course, is why V.S. Naipaul wants us--needs us--to know all these ugly details of his sordid life and disagreeable mind.

Perhaps there's some master plan behind it all, some half-baked notion in which Naipaul imagines that future generations will see him as a heroic refuser of hypocrisy. He's always been a sadist and a smell-smock and a coxcomb, and he's always enjoyed it. So why should he act the man of prissy virtues after he's gained all the rewards that a successful highbrow writing life can possibly bring? He has the Nobel Prize, after all, together with a knighthood and more money than he can spend. His interests now lie only in making sure that readers a hundred years from now will find him interesting. And thus he places a bet that prurience will never go out of fashion and that all the tabloid titillation will keep his name alive.

Or perhaps it's all some badly chosen jujitsu, some over-thought idea that if he gets the news out in the open now, the revulsion will be out of the way all the sooner. There's a strange rule of literature, by which every literary reputation goes into decline in the first years after an author's death; the writers who assume a permanent place in the canon are the ones who manage to bounce back from death's decline.

Sure, the effect of all these revelations is to wreck Naipaul's reputation for the current generation, but then, he is 76 years old and needn't put up with the denunciations for very long. The stories of his loathsome behavior were bound to come out eventually--nobody of his stature escapes tell-all biographies--and if he can get the news out now, his reputation might begin its rebound in time to keep him in the canon of English literature.

In Britain, the typical explanation has been some combination of arrogance and insecurity. The truth is that Naipaul's books never sold particularly well. He grew fat, instead, on literary institutions: the prizes, the lectureships, the grants, the scholarships, the artist-in-residence programs. What all that bred in him was, in part, an overweening self-assurance--the cause both of his behavior and his belief that he was above the consequences of our knowing about that behavior.

And yet, all that highbrow esteem also left him with enormous uncertainty about his place in the world. His treatment of his wife is the most obvious example of his general despising of all who admired him. He wanted more, and the simple fact is that Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul just didn't feel he was famous enough. Better that average people know something bad about him than that they know nothing at all. If you're desperate enough, fame is grasped wherever one can find it.

The more I've thought about it, however, the more I've come to think that the truth includes all of these explanations--and something more. Both his anxious egotism and his hunger for future reputation may have led Naipaul to create, from the raw material of his life, one last literary construction. He's making a character out of it, and he's telling a final story.

Here's the arrogance: It's a grand literary joke on all his readers, for we gave Naipaul our admiration, and he turns out to have been someone we wouldn't have touched with a barge pole. And here's the insecurity: He authorized Patrick French's biography in a desperate concluding bid to make himself memorable by turning his life into something with the shape of a novel.

Unfortunately, this novelistic life injures the actual novels from which we get any desire to remember the man. Surely he sees that, after having all this forced down our throats, we can no longer read A Bend in the River or A House for Mr. Biswas in the way we used to? Surely he understands that his semi-autobiographical stories--The Enigma of Arrival, for instance, and Miguel Street--are now ruined for us? Surely he knows that it has become much harder to laugh at the jokes in such comic works as The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira?

Perhaps, in some abstract sense, a novel is an independent thing, with the person who wrote it utterly beside the point. But in the real world of reading, when we know certain facts about a writer, we read them into the story and find them buried there. Books are responsible for their authors; in a kind of child labor, they carry their fathers on their backs. And the works of V. S. Naipaul are now so weighted down they feel like blocks of lead.

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.