Casting a dark shadow: The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography Of V.S. Naipau

John Sutherland – The Financial Times Africa India Oxford

Copyright The Financial Times
An excerpt…
…Few writers have trudged a harder road to the Nobelist’s podium than Naipaul. Born the descendant of “indentured” (ie enslaved) workers in Trinidad, he won a scholarship to Oxford (driven by his journalist father – one of French’s many brilliant pen-portraits). He encountered racism every inch of the way. (“Where are you from?” asked the don examining his thesis – before failing it.) Naipaul was only middlingly successful at university, and later at the BBC. Careers were irrelevant. He wrote all the time – so intensely that, French records, he would wear out the nibs of his pens.
Eventually the quality of that writing shone through. His break came with what is still his most read work, A House for Mr Biswas. That literary achievement is the main fact in this biography. But what has outraged readers are the moral monstrosities which French here lays bare. Naipaul’s unashamed declaration that his wife Pat, who loyally supported him for three decades, did not attract him sexually, for instance – and was, as he coolly informed her, “the only woman I know who has no skill”. Or indeed his mistreatment of Margaret, his long-serving mistress. “Many of the gruesome sexual depictions in the novels,” French records, “were not the work of imagination, but drawn from his life with Margaret.” Pat died, lingeringly, of cancer, unloved and betrayed. “On the day after he cremated his wife,” French bleakly notes, “V.S. Naipaul invited a new woman into her house”. It was a prospective second wife – but not Margaret. She was abandoned.
If there were a Nobel Prize for rudeness, Naipaul would win it. Indian by genetic origin, he sees the subcontinent as a great, uncleaned lavatory (“Indians defecate everywhere”, he once said). Trinidadian by birthplace, he mentions the island only to insult it. Asked why he left, he replied “to join civilization”.
Not that civilised England escapes his lash. Observing on a wall the graffiti “Keep Britain White” he would, he observes, insert a comma after “Britain”…
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