Patrick French, The World Is What It Is, London, Picador, 2008, pp.555, ISBN 978-0-330-43350-1 HB, ISBN 978-0-330-45598-5 TPB
Review by Frank Birbalsingh
Guyana Journal, December 2008
Not even his detractors, of whom there are legion, will deny Vidiadhar Surajprashad Naipaul’s spectacular success as a writer. Naipaul won a scholarship to Oxford University and, after establishing himself as a writer in London in the 1950s, was often described, certainly by the 1980s, as the greatest living writer in the English language. Apart from lesser prizes and honors, in 1990 Naipaul received a knighthood in Britain where he lived since 1950, and the Trinity Cross, the highest honour awarded by Trinidad & Tobago where he was born in 1932. His Nobel Prize for literature then followed in 2001. But his first response to the Nobel: “a great tribute to both England, my home, and India, the home of my ancestors” illustrates the great man’s troubled love-hate for the Caribbean homeland that inspires both his best writing and its mixed reception by many readers.
Although much critical commentary already exists on his twenty-three books that include works of travel, fiction, history, politics, literary criticism and autobiography, no full length biography has so far appeared to flesh out Naipaul’s historical, social and family background and relate it to his extraordinary success. This is what Patrick French has now done in The World Is What It Is whose title, fittingly, is a quotation from the first sentence of Naipaul’s eighth novel A Bend in the River: “The World is what it is ; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to be nothing, have no place in it.” As a dispassionate comment on what we sometimes call the human condition, the sentence serves as a neat contrivance that very nearly sums up what Naipaul’s writing is all about.
Along with sumptuous photographs of family and friends, and most helpful footnotes and index, The World Is What It Is offers a rich, varied and chronologically-presented pageant of portraits, sketches and descriptions of the people and circumstances most closely associated with Naipaul’s life and work. His traditional enwrapment in the folds of his extended Hindu family is crucial, his father Seepersad (Pa), his mother Droapatie (Ma) and his older sister Kamala perhaps being the family members he had most to do with. But no one is left out: the biographer’s wide net ropes in brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws (mausas and mausis), as well as wives, literary agents, friends and acquaintances, whose multiple voices give the volume a distinguished impression of comprehensiveness and completeness.
Inevitably, Naipaul’s relationship with his English wife Patricia Hale takes center-stage, for the two met as students at Oxford in the early 1950s and, despite serious strains in their marriage, Pat stood steadfastly by his side, throughout his writing career, until her death from breast cancer in February, 1996. By all accounts, hers was a rare and stoic combination of duty and self-sacrifice if not love. Naipaul was often unable to write if Pat was not present; and she was the first to read his manuscripts and give an opinion he could trust. Perhaps her astonishing loyalty, despite her husband’s infidelity with prostitutes in their early marriage, and later on with a long term mistress, may be understood as the role of: “a great man’s wife” who is: “absolutely convinced of their husband’s genius and will do anything that the husband asks to promote that genius.” (p.364) Even more astonishing and somewhat bizarre, since neither Pat nor Vidia held religious convictions, is the account of Pat’s funeral when Nadira Alvi a Pakistani Muslim who became Naipaul’s second wife two months later scatters Pat’s ashes in woods in the English countryside, intoning a Muslim prayer, while a weeping Naipaul waits nearby.
As French writes in his Introduction, “The best a biographer can hope for is to illuminate aspects of a life and seek to give glimpses of the subject, and that way tell a story. (xviii) If it does nothing else, The World Is What It Is tells a gripping story of the turbulent struggle and sublime triumph of a great writer and the human expense they demanded, no less from Naipaul himself, as from Pat, family members, friends, and from Margaret Gooding, an Argentine of British descent. Margaret was Vidia’s mistress for over twenty years, and was summoned and dismissed as regularly, erratically and compulsively as Pat, until Naipaul finally paid her off like a common tradeswoman.
But what French does in The World Is What It Is is not merely tell a good story or capture the personality of an eccentric genius. Apart from interviewing many people, reading all of Naipaul’s books including criticism of them, studying correspondence and documents, in particular, Pat’s unpublished but invaluable diary, French fully describes each book and inserts sharp critical comments of his own that help to estimate Naipaul’s literary success and its achievement through the single-minded or ruthless ambition that led him to: “sacrifice anything or anybody that stood in the way of his central purpose, to be ‘the writer.’” (p.366) It is a magnificent effort by French.
Naipaul’s literary pre-eminence, meanwhile, comes through as solid and secure. French correctly claims that: “his [Naipaul’s] cumulative accomplishment outstripped his contemporaries.” (p.12) But Derek Walcott from St. Lucia also won the Nobel Prize for literature without ever courting recognition as an eccentric or tormented genius. Maybe that explains why Naipaul and Walcott are currently engaged in a literary war hurling insults at each other. Like Naipaul’s calculated slur on his homeland when he received the Nobel Prize, it has to do with the complexity of Caribbean history, its turbulent mixture of race, class and ethnicity, and Naipaul’s origin within a minority (Indian) ethnic group that forms merely twenty percent of the Anglophone Caribbean population. Naipaul had something to prove which Walcott did not. That is why Walcott would never be caught saying, what Naipaul does: “I am altering ways of looking and [altering] a set of values that have come down to us.” (p.296) Evidently, the burdens of genius are harder to bear for some than for others.
Frank Birbalsingh is Emertus Professor of English, York University, Toronto, Canada.