[4 February 2009]
Of all the things I’ve learned in 15 years of interviewing artists, one consistently reappears: you don’t always want to meet your favorites. There is a very good possibility that the artist you read on the page or listen to on the stereo is nothing like the person you imagine him or her to be. Obviously this is not always the case—we are diverse creatures, and our emotions vary from day to day. In reading this definitive biography of Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul, I’m certain that any wish I had to meet the man has been abandoned.
Thing is, however, that with writer Patrick French’s exceptional eye for detail while tracing this Nobel Prize-winning author’s history, Naipaul seems to be exactly who we would think he is, given the complex and contradictory characters we meet in his novels. Nothing has been easy or spared in The World Is What It Is, a painstakingly researched account, rich with insights, of Naipaul’s rise from his youth as a Caribbean native of Indian descent. Naipaul did everything possible to both embrace and ultimately reject his or any heritage to the man who forged his own path, breaking the bonds of nationalism to now be considered among the first global-minded novelists of our age.
During the years before anyone (European) cared about island writers, and even while riding Europe’s overseas trends in the ‘60s, Naipaul had no problem denouncing and demolishing anyone—in his art and, as French reveals, in his life. In fact, one could say it was something of a hobby.
Within that social exercise lies a writer who is completely emotionally unstable and immature, and at the same time so poignantly detailed in his assumptions and perception that it dizzies the mind to contemplate it all. Credit is equally due to French, who seems to have been as engaged by this project as Naipaul is by the characters his mind concocts.
We cannot say that French was a fan, per se, when assigned the task of condensing the author’s life into one volume; in fact, during their first meeting, when French was interviewing Naipaul for the New Yorker, the journalist was immediately sized up regarding the public’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana.
They became acquaintances if not friends, though when accepting the publisher’s proposal, French writes, “the aim of the biographer should not be to sit in judgment, but to expose the subject with ruthless clarity to the calm eye of the reader.” This he accomplished magnificently, and we must credit Naipaul as well—when given the manuscript of this extensive work, he did not ask for a single change.
If we can assign any word to French’s investigative work, we can say he did his job too magnificently. In one case of what will probably be among the last generation of people documented by letters, French must have read thousands (if not tens of thousands) of correspondences between Naipaul and his family, friends, critics and so on. Fortunately Naipaul is something of a packrat, saving every piece of paper that came to him (although a sizable piece of his collection was destroyed years ago, presumably crushing the man).
If this biography suffers from anything, it is too much information—the at-times tedious observations about the author’s life adds a sizable density to the reading. This was not a book that I craved to read when I was away from it, though when I was with it, I was engaged, outraged, enthralled, nonplussed.
Most of all I was shocked by how such a revered and respected writer could be such a little brat; how he could have a wife who literally gave her life for him, he constantly rejecting and abusing (not physically, though that happened with his mistress) her, remarrying mere months after her death, which he seems to have shown little remorse for, except regarding how it would create unbalance in his own life. He virtually did the same to his family and friends, ignoring them except when they were convenient; how unlike French, who attempted to remain unbiased as a writer, he entered foreign countries on assignment, sought out individuals who thought exactly the way he did about said country, and gave credit to only their opinions, so that the idea of objectivity never entered the equation.
And yet, to many citizens of those countries, Naipaul’s voice became a beacon of light, for his was not usually of the opinion of the elite. Thus, his observations were heralded as unique and necessary; he became a voice for the voiceless, a soul where nations were said to have none. Such is the multi-dimensionalism of the individual, proving once again we can never label anyone with one simple adjective and claim that it comprises the totality of the man.
Naipaul is just that: a human onto himself. Learning from his father’s attempts of writing—something he loved and apparently was good at, though he never threw the full weight of himself into the vocation—Naipaul constructed his “seven rules” about literature and rarely strayed. As confused as the man may have been (and still probably is) emotionally, he was equally frustrated and driven intellectually.
The difference is, the latter he chose to strengthen, to learn from, to grow with. And that is where we, as readers, cannot necessarily judge the man behind the words, even when the words make the man. Again, the characters in his novels were if not all, then mostly based on the characters in his life, and his ability to display a panorama of possibility is nearly unmatched. Sure, he quested to be the “greatest writer in the world,” and yet such nonsense is immediately refuted by the fact that reading is such a subjective experience, and no such thing as “greatest” exists in this or any discipline.
Plus, a healthy dose of egoism is necessary to the writer—our umbilical cord to language demands confidence and assuredness. Even when he didn’t have it, he faked it, leading to classics like A Bend in the River and A House for Mr. Biswas.
Back to the original question: who are we to judge? I will still read Naipaul’s works. (The Mimic Men sits at the top of my queue, inspired by French’s observations.) I will still become angered and frustrated contemplating the characters inside those pages, wondering who Naipaul thinks he is, judging people in such a manner. Then I will realize that I, too, am being judgmental, and part of the reason we read and write is to investigate one another on such a personal while universal scale—and, if done properly, learn more about ourselves. If one thing is certain, Naipaul is of that rare stock of authors who has moved beyond the concepts of right and wrong, devoting himself to understanding the human condition as it is, even if he injects the ideals of someone who thinks the world is what he thinks it should be.
At the end, as the title suggests, the world is what it is, and the most cherished and controversial writers are those who document it as it happens without demanding reality bend this way or that. It is a continual cycle that over time exhausts all possibilities, and during the one we currently live in, reading about a life such as Naipaul’s is time well spent.