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The World Is What It Is

January 11, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments
Pat and Vidia Naipaul

Pat and Vidia Naipaul

I finished Patrick French’s riveting biography of V. S. Naipaul (The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul) just before dinner yesterday. I already wrote at the end of November about my desire to read it, after I read George Packer’s lead Sunday NYT review of it the week before. And I wrote at the end of December about having started it, with additional comments just a few days later. I didn’t expect to devote yet another post to it. Yet, it is an extraordinary book, and I can’t let it pass without additional comment.

As has been noted in various reviews, an especially notable feature of the book is its discussion of Naipaul’s marriage to Pat(ricia Hale) Naipaul, an Englishwoman from Birmingham whom he met when they were both students at Oxford. One expects a biography to discuss his family background in Trinidad and the development of his professional career, and it does. This alone is of great interest. But the book’s power comes from its unsparing treatment of the marriage, based in part on V. S. Naipaul’s own interviews with the author and on Pat Naipaul’s diaries (which are in the Naipaul archive at the University of Tulsa and which French had access to). I’m not giving anything away if I mention that part way through their marriage, Naipaul met an Argentinian woman who became his mistress, and that he spent over two decades splitting his time between the two of them. Nor am I giving anything away (since every review mentions this) if I add that Naipaul’s treatment of his wife was unspeakably painful. The book’s account of these relationships is superb.

The book ends in 1996, after Naipaul had been knighted but before he received his Nobel Prize. There’s more to say about his career, but not about the heart of the book, his marriage. Pat died of cancer in February 1996. Shortly before then, Naipaul met the woman who would become his second wife. This woman makes a fleeting (and confusing) appearance about 3/4 through the book, but otherwise doesn’t show up until the amazing final chapter. In the final ten pages, we read of Pat’s death, the funeral, the second marriage, and — in the final two pages — the spreading of Pat’s ashes. One blurb on the back cover says, “The closing pages are enough to draw tears.” Yup.

In a lighter vein, in 1988 Naipaul left his long-time publisher and made a deal with Knopf for a book about the American South, which would become A Turn in the South. When he received the copy-edited manuscript from Knopf, he was unhappy. The biography reprints some of the text of the fax he sent back in May 1988. I’ll close with a portion of it:

I thought it might have been known in the office that after 34 years and 20 books I knew certain things about writing and didn’t want a copy-editor’s help with punctuation … I didn’t want anyone undoing my semi-colons; with all their different shades of pause; or interfering with my “ands,” with all their different ways of linking.

It happens that English — the history of the language — was my subject at Oxford. It happens that I know very well that these so-called “rules” have nothing to do with the language, and are really rules about French usage. The glory of English is that it is without these court rules: it is a language made by the people who write it. 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.

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