Naipaul and his women

The World Is What It Is by Patrick French

The book ends with Naipaul in tears leaning against a taxi cab after scattering the ashes of his wife, Pat, in a wood before returning to his home in Wiltshire. He sang the hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, he told his biographer, Patrick French, who writes, “Afterwards they (Naipaul and his new wife, Nadira) went back in the  taxi to the empty house. Enough.”

That’s the last word in this remarkable book which traces the life of Naipaul from his childhood in Trinidad to his present eminence. The narrative ends with Pat dying of cancer in 1996, five years before Naipaul won the Nobel prize, but he had already won every other honour by then including the title, Lord Naipaul. Her touching belief in his genius ever since they met in Oxford in the 1950s had been vindicated. But it didn’t bring them happiness. They had been married for more than 40 years, and yet they had not kissed for more than 20 years. That’s what Naipaul wrote in a journal he started on January 30, 1996 while she was being treated for cancer.

The last kiss — after 20 years

“She kissed me when I arranged her to sleep,”  he wrote. “She held me and kissed me. Which she hadn’t done for twenty years and more.”

She died less than a week later, on February 3.

Six days later, Nadira came to stay with Naipaul and they got married six weeks later, on April 15.

The marriage had been arranged while Pat was still alive. Naipaul had met Nadira in Pakistan while gathering material for Beyond Belief, the sequel to Among the Believers, and asked her to marry him, telling her his wife was dying of cancer.

While his wife lay dying, he was thinking of  the future. That was Naipaul. One of the greatest contemporary writers, but something seems to be missing from many of his books. How much love and tenderness do we see between a man and a woman in A House for Mr Biswas, The Enigma of Arrival, Half a Life or Magic Seeds?

The World Is What It Is takes its title from a quote by Naipaul reflecting a Darwinian view of life: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

The biography depicts the hardships Naipaul suffered to succeed as a writer. Until the mid-70s when he changed his agent and left his old publisher, Andre Deutsch, he earned less than eight thousand pounds a year on average though he was already regarded as Britain’s foremost writer. The Enigma of Arrival documents the insecurities he suffered.

Pat and Margaret

But he was supported by a loving wife – and then came his mistress, Margaret, whom he met in Argentina in 1972, and with whom he had a tempestuous affair till 2005. It was Margaret who accompanied him as he travelled around the world, writing India: A Wounded Civilization, A Congo Diary, Among the Believers, A Turn in the South, India: A Million Mutinies Now – just as Pat had done earlier.

Pat suffered silently; she did not mention the name of Margaret even in her diary, referring to her instead as “that woman”. 

Margaret suffered too. Naipaul would angrily dismiss her and send her home whenever they quarrelled during their travels. Her marriage broke down under the strain of her affair with Naipaul who, she realized, would never marry her – and yet she would go back to him every time he wanted her.

Naipaul ill-used both the women. He destroyed Pat’s self-esteem. She became a nervous wreck, blaming herself for everything. What pushed her over the edge was a New Yorker interview where he admitted he used to visit prostitutes.

Pat, who was being treated for cancer at the time, never recovered from that humiliation, said Naipaul. He told Patrick French:

“I think that consumed her. I think she had all the relapses and everything after that. All the remission ended…

She suffered. It could be said that I killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.”

Naipaul cheated on Pat, but he could not do without her. She was his muse. He read to her everything he wrote till her last days. When she could get up from her sickbed and sit down with him, he would read to her what he had written during the day.

He needed Pat and Margaret for different reasons, but did not always acknowledge them. Readers hardly register their presence in his travelogues.

Filling in the blanks

The World Is What It Is, is essential reading for Naipaul’s admirers because so much of his work is autobiographical. It is autobiographical but highly selective; Patrick French supplies the missing details.

The Enigma of Arrival, for example, is one book I admire. But it does not tell the full story about Naipaul’s trip to America and Canada. He writes he had to return to England because there was no market for him in America. He does not mention the hospitality and recognition he received from American literary circles. He was offered a chance to teach in a university but rejected it because he thought it would distract him as a writer.

The World Is What It is has plenty of interesting information about Naipaul. The portrait that emerges is of a single-minded, highly disciplined writer who knew what he wanted and got it after considerable sacrifice, both by himself and others.

Mother's lament

His mother did not forgive him for neglecting his family after his father died while he was at Oxford on a scholarship. Patrick French writes that when someone visited her in her old age and asked her, “How is your son?”, she replied: “I have no son. The son I had died.” She was referring to her younger son, Shiva Naipaul, the writer who died at the age of 40 in 1985. Naipaul did not return to Trinidad when she died at 78 in 1991.

Take away the personal relationships, though, and there’s lots to admire about Naipaul. The advice he gave to another Caribbean writer was both instructive and revealing. Naipaul advised the writer to write as a “white West Indian” – to stand out from others – and adopt a persona. In other words, don’t reveal everything; be selective.

A House for Mr Biswas

Naipaul wanted to succeed. But he did not compromise. When his then editor Diana Athill at Andre Deutsch suggested he shorten A House for Mr Biswas because an American publisher thought it was too long, he refused. The book has now become a classic.

“Every writer has his own voice,” Naipaul wrote to the publisher Sonny Mehta in an angry letter after a copy editor tampered with his punctuation. “My name goes on my book. I am responsible for the way the words are put together. It is one reason why I became a writer.”

The biography traces Naipaul’s progress as a writer. It shows how he got his ideas and went about writing his books – and his frustration when he couldn’t think of what to write next. Patrick French also notes the help he received from editors like Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books and Francis Wyndham of the Sunday Times colour magazine who commissioned his works when he was hard up for money. We also read about his skirmishes with writers like CLR James, Derek Walcott and Edward Said and his friends and admirers like  Antonia Fraser and Anthony Powell.

And it doesn’t just confine itself to the literary world. It also describes the people and places Naipaul encountered as he travelled around the world. Especially interesting are Naipaul’s mixed feelings about the Caribbean and America – which he found curiously similar to India in its attitudes in the 1970s – and the wide network of journalists, bureaucrats and others who helped him in India. Interesting too is Naipaul’s family. Bright and successful, they have spread to Britain, America and Canada without being uprooted from the Caribbean. Running to 500 pages, this is a whale of a book in every sense.

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