Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul is a Trinidadian-born British writer of Indo-Trinidadian descent, currently resident in Wiltshire. Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001 and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990. He was awarded the Booker Prize for his novel In a Free State in 1971.
Some of his famous novels include A House for Mr. Biswas which is incidentally the first ever English novel in India and is the story of Mr. Biswas – an Indo-Trinidadian. Others include A Bend in the River, Magic Seeds and The Enigma of Arrival. His novels derive inspiration from his life. In awarding Naipaul the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, the Swedish Academy praised his work “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.”
Patrick French’s biographical account on the life of Sir V.S. Naipaul titled The World Is What It Is is indeed an eye opener and a shocking insight into the personal life of Sir Vidia. It heads the shortlist for this year’s £30,000 Samuel Johnson Prize, one of the most prestigious awards for books published in the UK in English. The biography has alternately provoked renewed interest in Naipaul’s writing and worldview, even as it prompted revulsion at his selfishness, sexual cruelty, misogyny, miserliness and monumental self-centeredness.
The biography The World Is What It Is is surely one of its kinds. French had unique access to the personal archives of Naipaul’s life and his novel is probably the closest depiction of Sir Vidia’s life. The author lays down the events of the laureate’s life with such brutal honesty that it makes Patrick French’s writing no less than a heroic achievement. The book lays bare Naipaul’s views, his life, his complex relationship with his wife and his mistress, and his journeys. The novel begins with a detailed account of Naipaul’s childhood, growing up in an Indian family in colonial Trinidad and his period of study at Oxford, London through a scholarship which was the only way to escape his background to rediscover himself. However it was not too easy to escape the tag of Trinidad which is in his blood and is even reflected in his writings. It is in his tryst with homesickness that he met and subsequently married the English woman Patricia Hale, who stood by him through thick and thin. It is here that the reader is a spectator to the treachery of the Laureate as he embarked upon a twenty-four long year illicit association with Anglo-Argentine Margaret. Naipaul confessed to his biographer that his admission in a newspaper interview that he was “a great prostitute man” may have almost killed Pat while she was in remission from cancer. The writer says, “I think that consumed her. She had all the relapses and everything after that. She suffered. It could be said that I killed her… I feel a little bit that way”. The biography also describes Naipaul’s haste to bring his second wife, Pakistani journalist Nadira, into his world, to the extent that he sent his housekeeper to shop for food for her just twenty-four hours after Pat’s funeral.
The novel also answers questions about Paul Theroux’s account of V.S. Naipaul in Sir Vidia’s Shadow. This was a book written by Naipaul’s protégé Theroux after they ended their thirty one years of friendship and Theroux, as he says in his interview, “liberated and last” and given a subject to write on. This novel was highly controversial as it is a part memoir, part biographical account and largely Theroux’s attempt to settle scores with his once old friend. Thus, a novel which starts off as a great literary read ends up as cold and mercenary account of Sir Vidia’s life. In the biographical account by Patrick French, we read “The material in Sir Vidia’s Shadow combines the accurate, the fictional and the appropriated, and they merge to the point where they cannot be disentangled.”
We see French reveal the brilliance of the writer who amidst all the hurdles maintains his foothold as the self fashioned and inspiring writer who is indeed one of the greatest writers of the late twentieth century.
We see Naipaul as a brutally truthful subject to a brutally honest writer. The subject admits to his cruelty which has been a scandalous revelation that has almost shocked the entire world. Some have even gone as far as to think that laying his personal archives to French has cost much to Sir Naipaul. The fact that the man himself has “authorized” the biography and as French says, himself, that Naipaul did not try to influence his writing in any way in the five years that they spent together makes the creation of such a novel absolutely spectacular. The account of Naipaul’s life, by French, is unparallel as it tells the inspiring yet bruising tale of the writer without a hint of moral judgment.
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