By Patrick FrenchKnopf
While recently rereading The Enigma of Arrival, considered by many to be Sir Vidia Naipaul’s masterpiece, I was struck all over again by the breathtakingly observant operations of his eye and brain. In a novel that is so plainly autobiographical as to be scarcely classified as fiction, he describes the atmosphere and context of his home on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, and the many obvious contrasts—as well as surprising comparisons—it affords to his native Trinidad. One comes to know the lives and characters of all the workers and servants on the landed estate of which the author’s cottage is a peripheral part, and when he introduces other real-life characters, such as the novelist Anthony Powell and the reclusive ’20s survivor Stephen Tennant, Naipaul’s landlord, there is no attempt at disguise; many are given their real first names. So great was my absorption in Sir Vidia’s descriptions of the grain and contour of southern England, and the habits and vernacular of its people, that an immensely salient detail escaped me until I was almost closing the book. The narrator’s domestic arrangements are often touched upon, as are his everyday encounters with other human beings. But he is evidently a bachelor, or at any rate a person living on his own—whereas for the entire period of Naipaul’s residence in Wiltshire, as for many decades of his life, he was married to the late Patricia Hale.
It isn’t very profitable to inquire whether she might have felt hurt by this kind of literary neglect, indeed airbrushing. The reception of Patrick French’s astonishing (and astonishingly authorized) biography has already focused very considerably on the ways in which Naipaul maltreated his wife, not only through his extensive resort to the services of prostitutes and his long-running affair with another woman, but through what might be called a sustained assault on her self-respect:
Vidia’s unconscious hope may have been that if he were sufficiently horrible to Pat, she might disappear. Alone in her room at the cottage, she dutifully recorded his insults … “He has not enjoyed making love to me since 1967 [the entry is for 1973]”; “You know you are the only woman I know who has no skill. Vanessa paints, Tristram’s wife paints, Antonia, Marigold Johnson” … Even when she was alone, Pat felt she had failed her husband. After going up to London to watch a play with Antonia, Francis and Julian Jebb, she concluded that while she was there she had “lived up to Vidia’s dictum: ‘You don’t behave like a writer’s wife. You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station.’”
And Naipaul himself loftily handed this diary to Patrick French. In 1982, he had been asked for a piece of autobiography, by Richard Locke at the revived Vanity Fair. His running the idea past his wife produced the following diary entry on her part:
Last night I spoke of him letting me know the morning, nay the afternoon after our marriage, that he didn’t really want to be married to me. Yes, he said, he wanted to ask my permission to write about that … Would anyone, I asked, enjoy reading about that? I put in my usual plea: fiction & comedy … I am very low. But then perhaps it is my own fault.
One feels quite pierced with pity at reading those last eight words, indicative of perhaps some sort of masochism or self-abnegation. If so, it is perfectly matched by the interstellar coldness of her husband’s attitude. Speaking to French about the way his wife had reacted to his giving an interview about his years as “a great prostitute man,” he says with magnificent offhandedness:
Shortly after that she became ill again, and people say that this cancer business can come with great distress and grief … I think she had all the relapses and everything after that. All the remission ended … It could be said that I had killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.
He plainly believed that it would be useful if his biographer were able to tidy up that loose end.
I feel justified in reproducing so much of this painful material because it undoubtedly assists us in forming a picture of the many repressions and reticences that have allowed Naipaul to continue canalizing his experiences into works both of fiction and reportage. With the aid of this exhaustive and efficient biography, one can make some more-educated surmises about the connection between Naipaul’s rigidly maintained exterior and the many layers of insecurity—perhaps better say the many varieties of insecurity—that underlie it. It was shrewd and intelligent of French to take the opening sentence from A Bend in the River—“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it”—and describe it as “terrifying,” then annex it for his title.
There were many times when the transformation of Vidyadhar Suraj-prasad into first the nicknamed Trinidadian youth “Vido” and then into V. S. Naipaul and eventually Sir Vidia could have been aborted, and one senses Naipaul’s disdain for any sort of weakness, allied to the conviction that it is this very disdain that has enabled him to survive. The trope can be detected in that telling jeer to his wife about rising “above her station,” and also as early as another quasi-autobiographical novel, A House for Mr. Biswas:
Contempt, quick, deep, inclusive, became part of his nature. It led to inadequacies, to self-awareness and a lasting loneliness. But it made him unassailable.
Naipaul might not have escaped his family: a struggling clan of Indians with more Brahmanism in their aspirations than in their actual background, transported by the British from India to Trinidad. He might, having managed a scholarship to Oxford, have succumbed to the isolation and prejudice that he felt there—and that he was to register even more keenly when rooming in London at a time when black and brown faces were fairly rare. That he was able to transcend all this and become a figure in English society, as well as one of the acknowledged masters of its prose, is plainly felt by him to be best celebrated as a triumph of the will.
With the baggage of being dark-skinned in Britain, though, came the less obvious problem of having been lighter-skinned than most of his fellow Trinidadians. French demonstrates some expertise in handling this contradiction. Almost all Indians in Trinidad (in common with their kinfolk in the other Caribbean and African states where there is an Indian diaspora) were at some point made to feel (a) patronized by the English and (b) threatened by the demands of the black majority. In this crucible is formed the young Naipaul, who writes home from Oxford to Seepersad Naipaul, his beloved and writerly father and mentor, to say: “I want to come top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.” But the same context produces the Naipaul who very freely employs the word nigger: a vulgar term that has no place in any elevated or discriminating vocabulary.