Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Patrick French's "The World Is What It Is": Book Review.

Patrick French's "The World Is What It Is": Book Review.

This authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul has provoked controversy for its prickly subject, who read the entire manuscript and altered nothing; it's also garnered praise for its author, who drew on the entire archive of what he notes may be the last major writer who's left an entirely paper trail, instead of disc drives. I've only read a bit of Naipaul: "Among the Believers" about his travels in the non-Arab Islamic realm, and "The Return of Eva Perón," essays on Michael X, Perón's Argentina, and Conrad. After finishing French's bold, compassionate, and fair-minded study of this formidable master of masks, I will seek out more. That's a recommendation for both the irascible author and his patient chronicler. This is not a flawless analysis, therefore not five-stars, but French's careful discussion often approaches perfection. I admired (and reviewed) French's "Tibet, Tibet," a brave book that took on an iconic figure and asked similarly tough questions honestly.

Often, reviews have commented on VSN's fearsome reputation more than French's nuanced interpretation. What's needed now: a flavor of French's prose. I will excerpt how he filters VSN. French introduces his aims as a biographer: "not to sit in judgement, but to expose the subject with ruthless clarity to the calm eye of the reader." (xv) The myth, as VSN himself mentions, rests in those who follow; the writer keeps only the control over his books.

His tiny birthplace, forty miles by forty, occupies an uneasy place for self- promoting, self- entitled VSN. Self- described as "a Trinidadian of Hindu descent," he's a British subject unable to find a homeland. Marginalized, he returns to the center of the disbanded empire to seek his rightful place. The colonial society that raised him, divided by castes and religions, ethnicities and politics, could not sustain his energy. To escape, he had to assume the master's mask. Yet, Oxford "was a traditional, English, clubbable, unreal way for a young man from the Caribbean to be living, and it left him feeling lonely and unfulfilled." (91-92)

French evokes well the snobbery of the Isis student magazine for which VSN worked; the insularity of the university clashed with his hopes of a literary career that he desperately pursued while nearly starving in post- WWII, discriminatory, and hardbitten society in London. He and his student- teacher wife, virgins when they met, lived on very little. They moved from friend to flat and back. They were not suited for each other, totally, but at his young age, VSN stayed with the first shy woman who befriended him. He told her, at their age of twenty, how he resisted reforming, rebelling, or resisting. Instead, he insisted to her on being accepted.

He enters Britain at its capital core, pioneering the post- colonial counter- diasporic critique. "Legally prevented" after graduation "from migrating inside the new Commonwealth," VSN in the early 1950s sought a career in a nation with few East or West Indians. This "double exile" as "a deracinated colonial" as the Empire contracted left VSN anxious, yet determined not to retreat. With little steady work, landlords hostile at best to his presence, and widespread prejudice, he complained to his wife, Pat: "That is what the whole policy of the Free World amounts to. Naipaul, poor wog, literally starving, and very cold." (135, 137) The self- pity mingles with a level- headed appraisal of the situation for this internal exile.

"I am the spectator, the flaneur par excellence. I am free of the emancipatory fire." (qtd. 101) French deftly measures Trinidad's racial divide between Indians and blacks, He traces how Eric Williams rose to unsettling populist power there. Later, West Indian intellectual C.L.R. James early on challenged VSN for exposing the depredations of their Caribbean homelands without relativism, without the imperial context of the white man's impact. VSN rebelled against any "betraying his essence" by averting one's eye.

VSN refused to back down; as one character puts it: "Hate oppression; fear the oppressor." The emancipated dark subaltern, VSN warned (in my phrase), could be as dangerous as the retreating British sergeant. He later mused how totalitarianism often disguised itself under an "illusion of serving virtue"; writers seeking truth cannot collude with this pretended core of virtue. (qtd. 469) This confident stance did not endear him to his Black Power peers, nor did it assuage the troubled consciences of many American, European, or Indian liberals.

It's sobering to find, well into his success, that VSN labored nearly destitute. He travelled to India, Africa, Trinidad, Europe frequently, but often relied on expense accounts, wealthier friends, or an absent friend of a friend's flat for accommodation. This led, however, to estrangement sexually and psychologically from loyal but bewildered Pat as his fame spread. The self- pity that he expressed to Pat early on deepened. Depression drove him to prostitutes. Shame grew; so did his capacity to transcribe follies of his fellows. He cultivated his imperious aura.

All along, as to his one-time protegee Paul Theroux, VSN rehearsed a familiar refrain. "Think of it like this: imagine the despair to which the barefoot colonial is reduced when, wanting to write, and reading the pattern books of Tolstoy, Balzac et al, he looks at his own world and discovers that it almost doesn't exist." (qtd. 269) True, but as French delicately counters, this "shrewd piece of self- presentation" repackages scholarship winning, Oxford- educated, critically lauded VSN as irredeemably "unprecedented, underprivileged, alienated." His pride and his determination segregated him from his Third World brethren, whether writers or workers. This pride kept VSN a difficult person to please despite plaudits brought by his fiction and commissions enabling his TV, radio, and print journalism.

"Ambitious, protean, made of smart material, deracinated by the accelerated politics of the end of empire, Vidia made a conscious choice to refashion himself." (209) India attracted him; the West Indies perplexed him. Out of this inability to fit in, overqualified and often overwhelmed by his intelligence and his Oxford education, where he lamented the absence of aristocrats vs. the state- scholarship students like himself and Pat, VSN's drive to succeed at the master's game made him a frank, yet brusque, critic of nearly everyone around him, no matter where he found himself writing, probing, and goading. This quality, as French tells us right away, comes from a Trinidadian "picong" attitude: "where the boundary between good and bad taste is deliberately blurred, and the listener sent reeling." (xi) Many fell for Sir Vidua's conversational bait over six decades. "As an accidental, occidental Indian from 'the most amusing island that ever dotted a sea,' Vidia felt included and excluded," and not only in India. (223)

He did his own including and excluding. "Vidia had a view of the world that he would do anything to maintain, just as he would sacrifice anything or anybody that stood in the way of his central purpose, to be 'the writer.'" (359) French judges that VSN could not countenance Pat as his equal. She, congenitally doomed it seems to play the "great man's wife," was cast aside by VSN as he pursued, on and off interspersed with Pat for many years, the Anglo-Argentinian Margaret Gooding. One of VSN's friends reported that his apparently captivating mistress appeared to have but fifty words in her spoken vocabulary; she does not come across, at least in English, as striking anyone of French's informants as scintillating or smart.

Documenting Naipaul's infidelity and his power over wife and lover, French through extraordinary tact paraphrases VSN's correspondence with both women. Reviewers have been aroused by the hints that French only alludes to (Margaret's literal "phallic worship" seems about it, that and his physical brutality towards her as emotionally against Pat) of sexually charged tension exploited by VSN. He's a ladies' man, despite his boorishness.

Pat reverenced her husband. I found his biographer's considerable discretion equally intriguing. As with the intelligent, isolated Pat's lonely diary and notes to her husband, these indirectly phrased letters to Margaret (who left her husband and her three children behind to be the on- off trophy VSN paraded globally) support VSN's own egotism. He moved between the two paramours; other times he lived alone. As he reduces it, he ruined Pat: "I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable." (qtd. 313)

His income under a new publisher (and endless lectures, conference invitations, and commissions for articles?) increased sevenfold after "A Bend in the River." By the '80s, he represented the frustrations of "corrected leftists," those who turned to VSN to argue why the Third World remained mired in post- colonial corruption. His judgments in "Among the Believers" appear prescient after 9/11, but when they appeared, he was derided as an Orientalist or apologist. Derek Wolcott, Edward Said, and activists who opposed his disillusion found themselves his targets. They fought back. VSN accepted Hanif Kureishi; he did not support Rushdie against the fatwa, "an extreme form of literary criticism." (qtd. 434) The title of this biography comes from the first sentence of "Bend." "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." (qtd. 386) VSN determined to be "the" writer of the harsh, globalizing, mediated, diasporic decade.

By the end of it, he earned a knighthood. He took the tube to the ceremony. VSN did not mellow, but he did express an admiration of what modernity allowed people such as himself: the pursuit of happiness that traditional mores and creeds did not allow many adherents. His own pursuits, typically, dominated his mature years. Pat died of cancer; French describes movingly their final weeks together. The day after her cremation, Nadira (a younger Pakistani Muslim journalist he had met while working on "Beyond Belief," a sequel to his earlier visits among the non-Arab Islamic world) moved in to VSN's house. Margaret learned of her ex-lover's marriage, two months later, in the newspaper; Pat had found out about-- in similarly roundabout fashion-- her husband's dalliances with prostitutes decades earlier only in a 1994 interview with The New Yorker.

After Pat's death, VSN found few with whom to mourn, perhaps understandably. His lifelong expectation of fealty, his shunning of friends, and his use or abuse of human sources may have helped him with his considerable gifts of extracting the essentials for his own journalism and travel narratives, but they did not win him many confidantes. French enlivens the discussion near the end, with a deeper look into how VSN composed his second Indian study, "A Million Mutinies," and a later Caribbean collection, "A Way of the World." These begin to prove why VSN attained his renown for careful explication; apparently he could usually put down verbatim, without notes on the scene, what he had heard each day from his discussions and observations.

A minor shortcoming of an otherwise impressive account: French tends to skimp on delving into the works themselves, especially earlier ones. He often cites critical blurbs, and summarizes a book's contents, but he tends to quote sparingly. This does quicken the pace. However, if lacking knowledge of the novels and essays first- hand, a reader may wonder why there's briefer coverage of most primary texts. On the other hand, this is not a "critical biography," so this emphasis, given French's need to interpret massive amounts of material (he acknowledges half a million words from interviews transcribed), may be understandable.

French concludes with VSN's marriage to Nadira. He bows out gracefully with a final word, "Enough." But then, typically, he adds his last footnote: "For the moment." It's perhaps a telling sign that French adapts, often, a detachment towards Pat, Margaret, and VSN that reflects his subject's own distance from the contradictions his selfishness creates. This may heighten the verisimilitude for some readers; it may irritate others. So persists his admirable, if also unsettling, diligence in an engrossing perspective on a life that surprised me in its awkwardness, secrecy, bluster, and, despite or because of it all, a wry-- if ultimately too bitter-- honesty. The cover photo by "jumped-up" (VSN's put-down) Lord Snowden shows a playful figure, pulling himself up by the untied shoelace. His shoe, for this frugal man, reveals on its sole a worn-away hole.

(Posted yesterday to Amazon US. Cross-posted to my daily-ish blog, "Blogtrotter.")

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