New Biography of V.S. Naipaul

Finished reading The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul by Patrick French.

Born in Trinidad, educated at Oxford, and condemned to wander the planet, short of cash, for most of his life, V.S. Naipaul turns out to have led a more interesting life than the average scribbler.  He ended up needing two wives, an English one for literary collaboration and an Anglo-Argentine one for sex.  Due to the English wife’s infertility and the Argentine wife’s lack of formal status, he never had children.

From an early age, Naipaul was convinced of his own superiority and the fact that other people were put on this planet in order to serve him.  He had contempt for 1960s- and 1970s-style left-wing political sentiments, especially as applied to Third World countries.  He was scathing in his criticism of postcolonial African and Latin American regimes and where others saw hope for a bright future he saw cruel kleptocratic dictatorships ruling over people who could aspire no higher than mediocrity.  Naipaul’s sympathies were with people in postcolonial nations, not with the rulers or the big ideas.  His sympathies with the common man made him one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century even though he often had very little sympathy for close friends and family.

Naipaul wasn’t much fonder of liberal sentiments in First World countries.  Commenting on the rise of violent crime in Britain, he said “several generations of free milk and orange juice have led to an army of thugs.”  He voted only once and it was for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.

After the Islamic revolution in Iran, Naipaul became concerned about Islamic fundamentalism, which he saw as a huge threat to the West and extremely destructive to everyone other than Arabs.  Naipaul spent 1980 traveling to non-Arab countries that had adopted Islam and writing Among the Believers.  Despite his fears that Islam would turn the entire world into a crummy place, he was not necessarily sympathetic to those who had run afoul of angry Muslims.  On page 434, French discusses Naipaul’s refusal to sign a petition supporting Salman Rushdie, sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini.  ”I found [his statements] usually left-wing and trivial and antiquated.”  The fatwa?  ”It’s an extreme form of literary criticism.”  Despite Naipaul’s view of Islam as a destructive force for humanity, he married a Pakistani Muslim in 1996, following the death of Pat Hale, his English wife.

This book would be a great gift from a parent to a child who is interested in becoming a writer.  When Junior discovers that winning the Nobel Prize in Literature at age 69 entails spending most of one’s decades depressed, impoverished, ignored, and bitter, he will likely knuckle under and agree to pursue radiology.

Perhaps the best evidence of Naipaul’s fair-mindedness is that he authorized this biography by Patrick French.  The book is unsparing in its treatment of the subject’s petulance, whoring, abuse of and ingratitude towards those who had helped him, and other character flaws that most of us would wish to conceal.

Next:  Must read A Bend in the River and A House for Mr. Biswas, which are considered Naipaul’s greatest novels.

2 Comments

  1. Kabauze

    February 23, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    1

    Sounds like French gives Theroux considerable backup…

  2. sophy

    February 25, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

    2

    I haven’t read the biography but I have read a fair amount of Naipaul. He’s an enigma which is partly why I read him. Hmm… and why did he authorize the biography?
    Anyone care to speculate.

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