Stranger Than Fiction – Spotlight on an Author

The World Is What It Is

As you read this post, keep in mind that author V. S. Naipaul asked Patrick French to write a biography about him, granted French access to all sorts of materials (including his wife’s diaries which he had not even read), talked to French very openly and bluntly about his relationships with women, and everyone else in his life, and promised not to demand any changes in the book that French would eventually write.  True to his word he cooperated fully, and did not ask for any changes in the text (which he read before it was published).

The thing that really amazes me about Naipaul is that he would ask someone to write a biography about his life.  You would think that he would want to keep his past out of the spotlight since it is extremely unflattering.  On the other hand, Naipaul and many other authors can write insightful books about make-believe characters and their failings while obviously having absolutely no awareness of their own.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad on August 17, 1932.  His grandparents emigrated from India to Trinidad, and became part of a large Indian community on the island.  His father became a journalist and is the protagonist in Naipaul’s novel A House for Mr Biswas.  Mr Biswas’ son Anand is based on Naipaul himself.

Naipaul won a scholarship to study at Oxford, but became depressed while in England, and almost returned home to Trinidad.  However, while at Oxford he met an English woman named Patricia Hale who helped him through his depression, so he remained at Oxford.  As their friendship became an affair, Patricia also became his partner – helping him through his bouts of depression, and assisting him with his writing.  Their families reacted very negatively when they learned of the affair.  Racial prejudice toward foreigners was at its height at that time in England – so much so that it was difficult for foreigners to find housing.

When they graduated in 1953, he had trouble finding a job, and had to accept help from a cousin who lived in London.  In 1954 he finally found a job as presenter of a BBC program called Caribbean Voices, and in 1955 he and Pat married.  From that time until her death from cancer, Pat would put aside everything that was important to her in order to make her husband’s life easier.  He was not grateful, however.  He criticized her constantly and told her that she was a dullard – too stupid to even take to parties.  He would admit later in a New Yorker interview that he often visited prostitutes during the early years of their marriage, and Pat would read about his admission soon thereafter in the papers.

Like many other authors Naipaul struggled for years, and was forced to accept numerous menial jobs in order to survive.  In 1960 he completed his masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas, and became a successful author.  He has gone on to write numerous books of both fiction and nonfiction, and to be acclaimed a great author.  In 1990 Naupaul was knighted and it 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

While on a trip to Buenos Aires Naipaul met a pretty Anglo-Argentinean woman named Margaret Murray.  She was married, had three children, and enjoyed having affairs.  They became friends, then lovers, and finally she became his slave in a deeply sadomasochistic relationship that lasted for over 20 years.  At times he beat her so badly that she could not go out in public.  When Naipaul told his wife about Murray he put it in terms that made him seem like the one who should be pitied.  After all, the affair was stressing him out and interfering with his writing.  His wife, who seems to have had no self-esteem whatsoever, accepted his relationship with Murray.

When Pat was diagnosed with terminal cancer Naipaul became impatient.  He wanted her to die quickly so he could get on with his life.  His mistress, Margaret Murray, expected to become his next wife, but he dismissed her after Pat’s death because she was no longer qualified to assume that role.  She had become too old.  Instead he moved Nadira Alvi, a Pakistani journalist, into his home, and married her two months later.

Naipaul’s relationships with other people have not been any better than those with his lovers.  He seems to have used people and then discarded them for no good reason.  He admitted to French that friendships have never been important to him.  And French was able to find many who would agree that Naipaul can be ruthless toward both his friends and his enemies.

In a review of The World Is What It Is, Patrick French’s 2009 biography of V. S. Naipaul, Michael Dirda with The Washington Post wrote, “He starts life as a twerp, then fairly quickly becomes a jerk and ends up an old sourpuss.  The best overall epithet for him is infantile – though one shouldn’t neglect the claims of such adjectives as whiney, narcissistic, insulting, needy, callous, impolite, cruel, vengeful, indecisive, miserly, exploitative, snobbish, sadistic, self-pitying and ungrateful.”  And those, I think, are his good points.

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