By Patrick FrenchKnopf
Here I feel I must say a word or two in defense of Paul Theroux. It is now a decade since he brought out his book Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which (as he has since phrased it) he depicted his former friend as “a grouch, a skinflint, tantrum-prone, with race on the brain.” At the time, many critics characterized this as an envious vendetta, and the pressure of libel lawyers was enough to attenuate many of Theroux’s observations, which in retrospect appear understated. “I wanted to write about his cruelty to his wife, his crazed domination of his mistress that lasted almost 25 years, his screaming fits, his depressions.” Well, now that has been done, and published by Naipaul’s own publisher, and assisted by his own hand and voice.
To me, the most extraordinary thing is the chiaroscuro. To immerse oneself in The Enigma of Arrival, say, is to experience the deep, slow calm that comes over its narrator as he paces the ancient chalky downland of Salisbury Plain, takes the measure of the seasons and the wildlife, familiarizes himself with the habits of the local rustics, and makes leisured comparisons between the agricultural rhythms of England and those of his Caribbean homeland. Yet to read Theroux or French is to uncover a sordid rural slum that is essentially an emotional master-slave concentration camp built for two. It’s as if Blandings Castle were to become the setting for Straw Dogs.
“He wanted to be an Englishman,” reports Naipaul’s Oxford tutor, Peter Bayley. Well, no shame in that, I hope. (Indeed, Bayley was rather impressed by the young Vidia’s precocious grasp of authors as venerable as Milton and as recent as Orwell.) However, and as the friends of T. S. Eliot also used to notice, there can be—perhaps especially with Anglophiles—the problem of trying too hard. One wears a top hat on the wrong occasion, as Eliot was wont to do, or behaves with exaggerated grandeur in a fine tearoom, as Naipaul did in Oxford, or affects to know more (and discloses that one actually knows less) about matters such as Camelot and Trafalgar, as he does in The Enigma of Arrival. And sometimes this haughtiness and defensiveness take the form of extreme revulsion against the great unwashed, as when, in travel books like An Area of Darkness and novels like Guerrillas and journalistic reports like those from Argentina, a near-obsession with excrement and sodomy is disclosed. Oh, you know—Brahman fastidiousness, his defenders used to murmur. I am not so sure that this alibi will work any longer.
The supreme need of the arriviste is to be able to disown and forget those who have helped him so far. But this isn’t always so easy. If Pat Hale had really turned into a frump or a shrew or a bore, or taken to attacking the cooking sherry when company called, Naipaul’s treatment of her might perhaps be more understandable. But French leaves me in no doubt that Naipaul hated her because he had depended upon her, and because she had sacrificed everything to help him both as a person and as a writer, and to be consecrated to his work and his success. He used her as an unpaid editor and amanuensis, and then spurned her because he resented her knowledge of his weaker moments. There will always be those—I am one of them—who are determined not to have authors and writers judged by their private or personal shortcomings. But there is a limit, and this is a biography as well as a critical study, and I think I know what French wants us to understand when he says, reporting a literary-financial spat toward the end of the book: “Never one to forgive a past favor, the man without loyalties threatened to break his links with the New York Review.”
In these pages some years ago, I mentioned another alarming example of Naipaul’s willingness to tread on the hands that had helped steady the ladder on which he rose. The brave Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid, who did so much to alert us to the dangers of the Taliban, and who guided Naipaul around Lahore and even introduced him to his second wife, was rewarded by being lampooned and sneered at as a failed guerrilla in the pages of Beyond Belief. Patrick French can add only a little more to this dismal tale, because he apparently agreed to end the story with the death of Pat and the very rapid promotion of the next wife into the matrimonial home. Thus, and by means of a rather abrupt terminus that may signal authorial relief, we are spared the full story of Naipaul’s later flirtation with the Hindu-chauvinist party the BJP, and his enthusiasm for the notorious pogrom at the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. Apparently, when Indians become arrogant overdogs and bullies, Naipaul likes them all the better. “Don’t feel that I want to reform the human race,” he once wrote from Oxford. “I am free of the emancipatory fire.” Well, whoever thought otherwise? What we find in these pages, however, is the transition from the conservative and the lover of tradition into something that is often wrongly confused with it: the reactionary and the triumphalist. Let me remind you how Naipaul could be at his best, even if it did involve evoking the rivalry between Africans and Indians. His novella In a Free State includes a moment when well-tailored African politicians and bureaucrats sit in a bar. “They hadn’t paid for the suits they wore; in some cases they had had the drapers deported.” That’s very nearly spot-on. Reviewing the book in 1970, Nadine Gordimer said that Naipaul was “past master of the difficult art of making you laugh and then feel shame at your laughter.” Such ironic lightness seems, and is, a long time ago.
Two small portraits in contrast could have been more fully and usefully rendered by French. In Naipaul’s earlier and slightly more generous days, when he benefited from the solidarity on offer from the BBC’s Caribbean service and its network of struggling writers, he used to concede a debt to his fellow Trinidadian C. L. R. James, who as well as being the world’s authority on the game of cricket was the author of The Black Jacobins, a seismic history of the Haitian revolution of 1791. Indeed, Naipaul’s first collection of local-color Port of Spain stories, Miguel Street, clearly owes something to James’s Minty Alley, a book published in 1936 that also influenced Naipaul’s journalist father. The character of Lebrun in A Way in the World, who is depicted in a half-admiring and half-fearful way as a prophet of black power, is also rooted in a portrait of James. One wishes that French had stepped aside for a second and said something about James’s place in regional and literary history.
It would also have been nice to have a little more justice done to Naipaul’s younger brother, Shiva. He was felled by a heart attack in 1985, at the age of 40, leaving all who had known him with an aching feeling that we had had the best still to come. In a rather sketchy account—which does include the useful term Naipauline—French vaguely praises Shiva’s book North of South but fails to give due recognition to one of the great tragicomic novels of our day, his Fireflies. I mention these comparisons because both of these authors, too, had to confront the colonial and post-colonial condition and were obliged to make their way in a foreign land and negotiate the difficulties of racism and social insecurity; and they managed to do so without saying or doing anything hateful. Their humanism and internationalism, far from being insipid, suggest that if Sir Vidia ever did want to excuse his own callousness—a prospect that seems extremely distant—he would not now be able to plead that his fault lay in his stars rather than in himself.