Saturday, August 16, 2008

V. S. Naipaul: White Man Manque

Just finished reading Patrick French's "The World is What it Is" - a very candid biography of V. S. Naipaul.

The most astonishing thing about this biography is that it's authorised. One can only assume that Naipaul hasn't read it as the portrait it paints is consistently unflattering. However, it does all the while acknowledge his greatness as a writer. Maybe that's all he cares about, believing Auden's dictum:

"Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views
And will pardon Paul Claudel .
Pardons him for writing well".

The first thing to note about Naipaul is that he really wanted to be a white man. And in time he took on all the hauteur of an Oxbridge grandee - no doubt picking up his cues from the likes of Anthony Powell and Lady Antonia Fraser - he courted them and their ilk shamelessly and assiduously. He was born in Trinidad of Indian origin but was never happy with either designation.

The book tends to dwell on his two abusive relationships - one with his doormat wife Pat and the other with an Argentinian hottie called Margaret who seems to have brought him to life sexually and stimulated the most fecund period of his career. He kept the two of them going for ages, enjoying the movement between security and adventure. When Pat eventually died, he dumped Margaret and married an Indian woman dedicated to his service. What a hero.

The book is a rollicking read and full of wonderful detail about the upper echelons of British literary life. The author describes the sexually voracious Lady Antonia Fraser rejecting Clive James advances as he "wasn't from the first eleven". Presumably Pinter was.

I have always loved Naipaul's non-fiction (especially "Amongst the Believers and his work on Eva Peron and Argentina) but never got his far too folksy and characterful novels. This biography made me want to try again.