July 2008

Arts & Letters

More than picong

By Louis Nowra
Patrick French’s ‘The World Is What It Is’

Whenever I read Proust's magnificent In Search of Lost Time I have to try hard to forget that the author liked to masturbate while watching rats being tortured to death. There are parts of Ulysses where I cannot but help recall Joyce's scatological letters to his wife. Faulkner's cruelty towards his only child remains difficult to put to one side ("No one remembers Shakespeare's daughter"), and knowing that Robert Frost was a monster towards his wife makes his poetry a troubling read. Although it has to be said that when I learnt that Virginia Woolf was a terrible snob and anti-Semitic bore, it gave me the perfect excuse not to read any more of her dismal fiction.

LoBut that's the problem with modern biographies of writers: I learn too much about the less savoury aspects of authors' personalities and behaviour. Of course, such knowledge enables critics to savage them rather than their work. Witness the bile directed at Philip Larkin when his racist comments in private correspondence to Kingsley Amis were published.

When VS Naipaul learnt that Evelyn Waugh, in one of his letters to Nancy Mitford, called him "a clever little nigger", he failed to take offence and instead remarked that Waugh was "showing off" and "acting". Imagine what other black or Indian authors would have said if they had been in his place. And how many of them would have come out and called multiculturalism a loathsome creed? This is what makes Naipaul and his writing fascinating. He doesn't take the common position but one that is solitary and, sometimes, perverse.

Vidia Naipaul was born in rural poverty in colonial Trinidad in 1932. His background is Indian. When slavery was abolished across the British Empire, workers were still needed for the sugar-cane plantations and his poverty-stricken forebears were sent to the Caribbean as bonded labourers. Really it was slavery by another name, but with the sweetener of an expiry date. From a young age Naipaul was a swot. He realised that education was a way of escaping the backwaters of the Caribbean.

In 1950 he gained a scholarship to Oxford. He was emotionally immature and had a first-class brain. He thought England was the epicentre of civilisation, yet he had no personal knowledge of Britain or its people. At the time of his arrival the British were still using ration cards and the immigrant population was about 25,000. Half a century later the non-white population had risen to about 4.5 million.

Naipaul proved himself a diligent student and while at university met and fell for a fellow undergraduate, Pat Hale, whom he married. After university, life was tough and he earned money working for the BBC Colonial Service. When he was 29 A House for Mr Biswas was published. It is a gentle, picaresque story of a man who is a failure but despite this becomes a kind of cut-rate hero. The novel made Naipaul famous and since then he has written such superlative fiction as A Bend in the River (1979) and The Enigma of Arrival (1987).

If anything, his non-fiction has been more successful and controversial. He has written the Indian trilogy (An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now) and two books about Muslims, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey and its sequel, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. His in-built bullshit detector revealed nationalist bombast and he was especially sharp about the miserable achievements of nations trying to come to terms with independence. Allied with this attitude was his unique way of viewing nations like a psychiatrist analysing a patient. No wonder these books have earned him many enemies. One of the kinder things said of him is that he is "a despicable lackey of neo-colonialism and imperialism". Edward Said labelled him an Uncle Tom, and Derek Walcott, a fellow Caribbean and Nobel laureate, savages him at every opportunity. His views of the dangers of political Islam for the West were lampooned by academics and small-l liberals until 2001 when, as usual, he was proved correct.

Naipaul doesn't mind spoiling for a fight. His public demeanour is that of a surly, curmudgeonly egotist who speaks badly of most people. Over the years he has been approached by potential biographers but he allowed a stranger, Patrick French, to write an authorised work. The word ‘authorised' has a chilling effect, because the reader wonders just how much of the subject has been sanitised. But, as French writes, Naipaul was franker than anyone he interviewed and, in fact, when Naipaul read the manuscript he didn't suggest a change. French views this as "at once an act of narcissism and humility".

Pre-publication publicity for The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul (Picador, 555pp; $32.95) featured Naipaul's scandalous conduct towards two women in particular: his long-suffering wife, Pat, who died in 1996, and Margaret Gooding, his Anglo-Argentine mistress of a quarter of a century. There is no doubt he treated Pat badly. He forced her to give up acting, never publicly mentioned her and, despite her considerable help in researching for him, treated her more as a servant than a wife. His sexual relationship with Pat was always feeble but he found in his mistress a woman who was just as much interested in sexual masochism as he was. Margaret adored the idea of being with a famous writer. Some of their arguments could be violent, but clearly the make-up sex was fantastic. She was "tempestuous, cynical and sexy", and not so much his intellectual equal as his sexual combatant. Once he was with her the depictions of sex in his work became more animalistic and brutal. She had liberated him where his previous, compulsive visits to brothels hadn't. She thought that once Pat died Naipaul would marry her but typically, in a contrary act, he married a Pakistani Muslim, Nadira Khannum Alvi.

Naipaul didn't want to become known as a regional writer but as an international master, so he rejected his homeland and its squalid petty jealousies. As one of the few coloured people in postwar Britain he ignored racial prejudice to find his own distinct voice. He was aware from a young age that his talent and intellectual honesty had to be honed in isolation and as such he had to depend on his own stubbornness and inner strength. What people find difficult is that he is a loner, and a loner is never to be trusted because they do not feel bound by mob- or group-think. His innate pessimism has acted as a scalpel when empty optimism and ideological conformity would blunt any dissection of a nation's or religion's faults.

Patrick French believes that Naipaul's desire to shock, his caustic mischievousness and his appalling rudeness are part of a Trinidadian characteristic they call ‘picong', from ‘piquant', meaning sharp or cutting. It's a trait, as French remarks, in which "good and bad taste is deliberately blurred, and the listener is sent reeling". So we have to ask: is that why Naipaul agreed to this biography? I think it's more than either picong or his monstrous ego.

From an early age Naipaul has been honest with himself: "I only know one thing - I am a beast and a cad and a fool and an egotist." Some of his greatest satisfactions have therefore come from being publicly recognised, hence his thrill at his knighthood and Nobel Prize. It must have been galling to have fallen recently into an obscurity he hasn't suffered since being a scared young man in London, so the shock that has greeted the biography's revelations will have left him overjoyed at being in the news again.

But there is something else: he adores annoying people he regards as his lessers. Their outrage amuses him and even galvanises him into making ever more outrageous statements. The critics have used the personal disclosures in order to wound him. But to Naipaul, every attacker is a pipsqueak and every time they criticise him he squirms with intense pleasure at this further proof of their inferiority. This is a wonderful biography of a prickly, complex man, and in a way it is one of Naipaul's great achievements. I think there is no doubt that the master writer is presently presiding in majestic and solitary splendour in his grand English country house, thrilled by the jeering and hissing of these mediocrities.

Louis Nowra
Louis Nowra is an author, screenwriter and playwright. His books include Ice and The Twelfth of Never, and he is co-winner of the 2009 NSW Premier’s Script Writing Award for First Australians.

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