In 1994, the writer V.S. Naipaul, then 62, told an interviewer that as a young man in London he had been “very, very poor” and, in matters of sex, “very unfulfilled.” It was not that he wasn’t passionate—he was—but that he was untutored in the arts of seduction. “So I became a great prostitute man,” Naipaul explained, “which, as you know, is highly unsatisfactory. It’s the most unsatisfying form of sex.”
The interview, or, more accurately, the two lines I have quoted above, became front-page news in Britain. And so it was from the morning newspaper that Pat Naipaul, whom the writer had married back in 1955, learned about her husband’s visits to prostitutes during the decades following their marriage.
We learn from the recently published The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul that the writer urged his wife to not look at the papers. “I told her, please don’t get it. Please don’t read it … She read it privately. Shortly after that she became ill again, and people say that this cancer business can come with great distress and grief.”
“I was very violent with her for two days with my hand,” Naipaul told his biographer, “She didn’t mind it at all.’
The same New Yorker interview also mentioned that, in the 1970s, Naipaul had begun an affair with an Argentine woman who was of British descent. Her name was Margaret. But this revelation, according to Naipaul’s biographer, Patrick French, did not upset Pat. She had been aware of the existence of a mistress for years, as had been others, and it was more the news about her husband’s visits to prostitutes that horrified her. Soon after, Pat Naipaul refused further medical treatment; the cancer, no longer in remission, consumed her body.
Her husband told French, “She suffered. It could be said that I had killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.” It is a shocking, and shockingly candid, self-assessment.
This candor is only a part of the book’s appeal. What is more impressive is the narration: the calm, settled, often witty, always perceptive, tone of voice. It is a quality that is shared by both the subject and his biographer. The book describes Naipaul’s birth and childhood in a family descended from indentured laborers in Trinidad brought from India; it narrates his father’s struggle to become a writer, and the son’s achievement of that ambition; it ends with the death of Pat Naipaul and the writer’s quick, second marriage to a Pakistani woman he had met some months earlier.
Patrick French was granted unique and unprecedented access to Naipaul’s complete archives, including Pat’s journals, which Naipaul himself had never read. In the book’s introduction, French writes that Naipaul “believed that a less than candid biography would be pointless, and his willingness to allow such a book to be published in his lifetime was at once an act of narcissism and humility.”
Relying on an archive that contained more than 50,000 pieces of paper, and many interviews, French presents a story that gives a sharper sense of the famous writer’s personality. More than that, it grants the reader repeated glimpses into the process through which Naipaul put his books together. The biography also demonstrates that in Naipaul’s work the lucidity of what is said often obscures what is left unsaid. We become alert to the erasure, for example, of Pat’s presence in his life, and of her labor that was an integral part of the writing of his books. Indeed, French puts Pat Naipaul in the company of the “other great, tragic, literary spouses” like Sonia Tolstoy, Jane Carlyle, and Leonard Woolf.
But how remarkable is the discovery that some of what we have encountered in Naipaul’s books is largely drawn from his own life? Consider the scene from A Bend in the River, a book many critics regard among Naipaul’s best, which is shocking in its violence: Salim, the African man of East Indian origin, who is also the narrator, beats his lover Yvette until his hands ache. Then Yvette, who is married to an older intellectual, undoes her skirt and waits for Salim in his bed. He then holds her legs apart and spits on her between her thighs.
On the afternoon of January 10, 2005, at his home in Wiltshire, England, Naipaul told French the following story about his mistress, Margaret: She had come to visit him in London for two weeks in September 1974; and during that period, Naipaul found a letter for her written by a scion of a prominent banking family in Argentina. Margaret had come to Europe with the banker. Naipaul was upset. “I was very violent with her for two days; I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt … She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was bad. She couldn’t appear really in public. My hand was swollen. I was utterly helpless. I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion.”
The above words carry the shock and the sadness of a confession. One could see them as a clue to a book like A Bend in the River and its violence and rage; but the act of reading, especially a book as powerful as that, is a different experience. It is at once more personal and more broadly social. In that sense, the work as the well as the author belong to something bigger, and it is a part of the pleasure of reading this marvelous biography that we often catch glimpses of that larger world, in its nakedness.
Amitava Kumar is a writer and journalist born in Ara, Bihar; he grew up in the nearby town of Patna, famous for its corruption, crushing poverty and delicious mangoes. He is the author of several works of literary non-fiction, including Husband of a Fanatic, and a novel, Home Products. Kumar is Professor of English at Vassar College.