In Search of Sir Vidia

Posted on | August 15, 2010 | Comments Off

Lately I’ve been on a Naipaul kick, which is strange because I don’t particularly like his writing.  It was an odd case of reading the novels to understand the biography, rather than the other way around.  I’d been curious about Patrick French’s The World Is What It Is, the Naipaul bio of a couple years ago that earned almost unchallenged critical rapture for its insight and candor (aided, in no small part, by Naipaul himself).  The biography is much more revealing of Naipaul’s essential strangeness than his novels are.  French quotes a Martin Amis review of Finding the Centre that gets at the remoteness of Naipaul’s novels from their author: “One sees, in the diffidence and difficulty of this essay, how little of the self is present in Naipaul’s work.  In the novels, a past is used, but a self is not used.”  Whatever one thinks of Amis, it’s a remarkably acute observation.  It explains the coldness I found so unsettling in my recent readings in Naipaul.  But how much do you let biography inform how you read a novel, especially when the novelist does his best to erase any traces of his own inner life? where is the best place to play craps online

I was liking, though not loving, A Bend in the River until about three-quarters in, when Salim, the narrator, delivers a vicious beating to his mistress.  It comes out of nowhere, Salim too distanced from his own depths for us to have seen his violence simmering:  “This time she was given no chance to reply.  She was hit so hard and so often about the face, even through raised, protecting arms, that she staggered back and allowed herself to fall on the floor.”  The controlled use of the passive voice says everything.  The rape scene in Guerillas isn’t as surprising, but that doesn’t dull its shock value.  Guerillas is a weaker novel than A Bend in the River, a carefully orchestrated meeting of types on a nameless island so contrived as to feel almost allegorical.  That the characters don’t feel whole somehow makes the ways in which they harm each other starker, and that much more needless.  I’m not generally squeamish about violence, but what’s troubling about the sexual brutality in Naipaul’s fiction is that it doesn’t feel internal to the text in a way we’ve come to expect.  It’s not like reading Philip Roth where, for all the narcissism and occasional misogyny, there’s at least a visible anxiety about it on the page.  Naipaul’s violence is entirely sui generis.

Reading French’s The World Is What It Is fills in the personality at work behind the scenes in these novels.  He reveals how Naipaul’s travels in Zaire would shape the political backdrop of A Bend in the River, and the extent to which the views and experiences of its character Indar stand in for Naipaul’s.  “In a crucial passage,” French notes, “speaking to his friend Salim, Indar outlines his—or Vidia’s—philosophy.  As he comes from a community of deracinated Indians, overlooked by history, he has a rare opportunity to make his own way in the world.”  He goes on to quote Indar:

I’m a lucky man.  I carry the world within me.  You see, Salim, in this world beggars are the only people who can be choosers.  Everyone else has his side chosen for him.  I can choose.  The world is a rich place.  It all depends on what you choose in it… We’ve been clinging to the idea of defeat and forgetting that we are men like everybody else.  We’ve been choosing the wrong side.  I’m tired of being on the losing side.  I don’t want to pass.  I know exactly who I am and where I stand in the world.  But now I want to win and win and win.

This is perhaps the closest Naipaul comes to articulating the position that has given him such a combustible reputation.  It’s also the attitude that leads him to treat anyone who stands in his way as expendable.  The greatest revelation of French’s biography is that of his scandalously poor treatment of his wife, Patricia Hale (“It could be said that I killed her”), and his decades-long affair with his Anglo-Argentine mistress.  Naipaul’s triangular romantic and sexual life forms the structural keystone of his biography.  In his sado-masochistic relationship with Margaret Gooding, he discovered his predilection for the kind of sexual violence that appears in his later novels.  “I am having carnal pleasure for the first time,” he wrote to his editor.

French’s greatest feat is that he resists easy moralizing, letting Naipaul’s words and actions build their own case for and against him.  Would that I had such restraint.  Learning of these real-life correlatives to the cruelty in Naipaul’s fiction did little to ease my discomfort with—in Amis’s formulation—the absence of self of in his work.  If anything, it heightens it.  The difficult question in all of this is, is this fair?  Usually I would try to avoid importing biographical details too much into the work, but there’s an abdicative quality to Naipaul’s novels that makes it harder to draw moral boundaries between the man and his fictions; in both, there’s a refusal to take responsibility for the damage wrought, whether by him or by his characters.  Even French’s title, taken from the opening line of A Bend in the River, throws up its hands.

The World Is What It Is gives us a thousand possible explanations for Naipaul’s prickly character: his Brahminical inheritance, his status anxiety as a triply displaced colonial, his youthful shame in matters of sex, his overbearing family, and most significantly, his outsider’s defensiveness.  All are convincing, but in the end, as Occam would have it, the simplest explanation holds the most weight: Vidia Naipaul is an unpleasant person.  Even in his childhood, before so many of these influences come to bear, he comes across as deeply callous.  In his assurance of his own greatness, Naipaul displays an unfailing willingness to treat people as a means to his own personal ends.  However one judges him, it’s what makes his biography so fascinating.  In giving French access to his full life, Naipaul stands to account for the first time in his career.  As French sagely observes, “His attempts to separate himself from the consequences of his own behaviour, and to present himself not as a person but as solely ‘the writer,’ a figure who could in theory be studied objectively, was what made this biography possible.”

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