Saturday, April 19, 2008

The man and the myth

In my office, I ofter discuss Naipaul with one of our editors. He also likes Naipaul's works and we agree that there are very few writers left like him in the world (It was he who sent me this gleefully written I-told-you-so type of piece by Paul Theroux when I was in Sydney. Have you read it?)

What we don't agree with is what he did to his wife and the kind of sexual life he led. On my part, I tend to empathize with what Naupaul has gone through. Could he write as freely and as brilliantly as he did without making those visits to the brothels in London or having a sexual companion or a paramour? Didn't he need a release of his sexual urges when none might have been available to him (remember, his wife was ailing)? These visits apparently, when revealed in a magazine interview, hurt his wife Patricia the most, hurtling her down to the abyss of sadness and early death from cancer.

Everyman fashions his own morality and Naipaul chose his own. Primarily that's his business. But now that it has come into public debate after the biography's publication, we have been forced to discuss it.

This is my theory on the matter.

Naipaul was not a rock star or a film personality. I guess a serious and brooding writer like him wouldn't have attracted a bevy of screaming girls to do whatever he wanted to do with them (If you don't believe me, ask Shekhar Kapoor). And let us say, even if he had a few of them, it would have been taxing and time consuming for him to pursue them for carnal reasons. However abominable it is, Naipaul's visits to the prostitutes would have been less time consuming and emotionally taxing for him, freeing him to devote his time and attention to writing. I guess Marquez also lived in brothels when he was young. And Ghalib was besotted with a domini. Was he doing something new and completely unheard of thing in this case? I guess not.

Another interesting review on the book.

Reviewing Patrick French's biography of Naipaul, THE WORLD IS WHAT IT IS - THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY OF V.S. NAIPAUL, Sunil Khilnani does a great job of analysing the work:

The result is gripping, magnificent—a triumph of the biographer's art. Patrick French's book peers unblinkingly at the dark, destructive energies that have sustained Naipaul's creativity. It counts and counts again the human—womanly—cost of Naipaul's drive to make himself and his work, and yet fully accords him, as a writer, his due.

It is not easy to make sense of Naipaul's life and work. Sprawled across four continents (the Caribbean and South America, England, India, Africa) it spans the eras of colonial rule, the struggle against that rule, the early decades of nationalist hopes and the brutal subsequent betrayals. What is so striking about Naipaul is how, out of this unprecedented diversity of experience, he has created and sustained a cohesive vision of the world—turning himself in the process from a 'regional' novelist of Caribbean street life to a maker of 'global' literature. On what authority did he ground his grand perspective—the fearless dissections of anti-colonialism, the future of Africa, the Muslim world—of civilisation itself? By labouring, in his own version, to be a disciplined writer, he proclaimed his fidelity to one enterprise: pen, pad, desk; nothing else.

French, through mastery over his materials and sources, restores to the purist tableau the messy stirring life—the mess that made the myth, and the books, possible. French weaves his myth-puncturing subtly into the narrative, knocking off Naipaul's poses one by one. Here, more crudely than French would want to note them, are at least half dozen that he addresses.

The conlusion may seem harsh yet it humanizes Naipaul's achievements:

Naipaul came to perfect this stance: controlling a situation by appearing helpless, then getting others to do his bidding—while making them feel that they were doing it inadequately. In this biography, however, this method has failed him. This may be an authorised biography, but it is firmly and in every sense in Patrick French's control—and he has written a superb account of the life, as what it is. Now, knowing the myth, having read the life, one goes back to the work. That is Naipaul's monument. We are many, who lead less than exemplary lives; but very few are able to turn the matter of their lives into great work. Naipaul, as Patrick French lets us still better see, is one of them.



Laju K. said...

Many great artists have had extramarital affairs, so have the not so famous artists and the non artists. So what? Who are we judge what is okay what is not. Will continue more on this at

Zafar Anjum said...

True. Who are we to judge? I guess people were more shocked about how he treated his wife Patricia than about anything else.

Laju K. said...

I suppose so; but then again people would be just as shocked if someone they knew well behaved the way he did. With all due respect, I don't see the novelty in Naipul's behavior. I could say it's a male thing. But then I would be discriminating, when in my blog I have said otherwise. Instead I will say, "it is one of those incomprehensible mysteries," which perhaps make sense to some.
Your work "The Rats" has been mentioned in brief at