Patrick French, Biographer of VS Naipaul

Nobel and Booker Prize winner VS Naipaul has died at the age of eighty-five at his home in London. I never interviewed him myself, but I did interview his biographer Patrick French at the 2008 Edinburgh International Book Festival. Patrick French has won awards for his biography of the explorer Francis Younghusband and for his writing on India.

The World Is What It Is is his authorised biography of VS Naipaul, which reads like a novel in its arresting study of the man himself, like history as we move through Naipaul’s life, and like a work of literary criticism in its examination of Naipaul’s writing.

Before writing his book The World Is What It Is on VS Naipaul, Patrick French wrote books on Tibet, India and China. His biography of the explorer Francis Younghusband won the Somerset Maugham Award and the WH Heinemann Prize. His book Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, and he’s also the author of Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land.

But many would say that the difficulties of taking on Tibet, India and China pale into insignificance next to the mammoth task of taking on VS Naipaul, a small man with a very large sense of self and of course a great writer who won the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature for works such as his 1961 semi-autobiographical novel A House for Mr Biswas.

And as you’ll hear in this conversation I recorded in 2008 in Edinburgh, Edinburgh itself played quite a large part in the genesis of Patrick French’s book. But I’ll let him explain.

Patrick French: I think six years ago I interviewed VS Naipaul at the Edinburgh Book Festival. It was one of the first times that he’d actually ventured out in public to be interrogated, and he was amazingly forthcoming. It was directly out of that that I was asked to write the biography. I was quite nervous of the idea of taking on which a notoriously difficult man as a biographical subject, and so I hesitated until I was given the assurance that I would be able to write whatever I wanted.

The result was this book which detonated earlier this year with the extraordinary media response to having told the true story of a living person. A lot of journalists in London were writing these very shocked articles about Naipaul’s personal life and asking how could somebody behave so badly and so cruelly. And one of them I knew…journalists are not necessarily paragons of perfect morality, and one of them I knew that his own life was probably a great deal sleazier than anything VS Naipaul had done, and yet there was this very high ethical tone attached to it.

What I tried to do in the book was to tell the story, to make it like a narrative, almost like a novel, and not to sit in judgement too much. It’s very easy to do finger-wagging or finger-pointing at somebody who so willingly condemns themselves and also somebody who so willingly treats people badly and sees that as incidental to his larger ambition of becoming the Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

What I’m going to do is I’m just going to read three short paragraphs from different points in the book to try and…not so much go into VS Naipaul the writer, not go into the books at this point, but just to try and put him in a context which I think is very often forgotten. So if you think of Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul, the knight of the realm, the Nobel Prize-winner living in his cottage in Wiltshire and making grand pronouncements on the television or radio every so often…I want to take you back to 100 years before that, to his grandfather, after the abolition of slavery, coming to the Caribbean, making his strange life story and the novels that came out of it possible. This is on a ship going from India to the Caribbean.

[reading from One man among the many… to …which he cooks himself.]

And so you have a jump within a period of 40 years from somebody who is from a high caste background but reduced to penury, choosing to become an indentured labourer, finding himself in the Caribbean doing this backbreaking work cutting sugarcane. And the wife of the man who’s just been described, a very tough woman known to her grandchildren as ‘Queen Victoria’, decides that all the boys and girls are going to be educated in English and they’re going to go to school. This is quite a big ambition if you bear in mind that it’s 1932 now.

[reading from At the time of Vidiadhar’s birth… to …rough world into which Vidiadhar Naipaul was born.]

So if you imagine that the colonial government of Trinidad is giving three scholarships every year, you have tens of thousands of children all competing for the opportunity to go to the mother land, which of course they’ve never seen, to get a place at Oxford, Cambridge or London University, and through extreme devotion and hard work, VS Naipaul wins the scholarship, he lands up at Oxford. He has a perfectly happy three years there, even though in retrospect he always makes out that it was terrible and nobody quite saw how exceptional he was.

But then when he finds himself in 1950s London he’s in a total different category; he can’t get a room, he can’t get a job. He goes for interview after interview and is told ‘you have the wrong sort of face’. It’s very different from Britain 50 years later. The raw racial discrimination he faced is something that conditioned the kind of person and writer he turned into, and his reaction to this now is to pretty much pretend it didn’t happen, to say, ‘Well, that was something that happened to other people who came from India or the Caribbean.’ And only really in the process of writing the book did he pull back from that position and give some sense of just how desperate his life was in the 1950s.

So finally, catapult forward 65 years, and he has just been knighted and he’s living in rural England. What you have a glimpse of now is VS Naipaul the public personality, the tricky, difficult, intelligent, clever, awkward man that pops up every so often denouncing somebody or something in the press.

[reading from Each day there were questions… to …of upgrading the existing A303.]

Ramona Koval: Well, where do we start? Let’s start at the beginning because I think Vidiadhar Naipaul said he got his words from his father, but you say his mother had a huge role in shaping him. So what was her influence?

Patrick French: He always tried to edit out his mother and his mother’s family as being incidental, and yet it was his mother’s extraordinarily strong, tenacious, powerful personality that enabled the seven children to survive, really, at the time when his father was going through emotional breakdowns. So it’s almost as if he attempts to remove his mother completely from his life and to elevate his father as this great literary figure, and his father was a very good writer. He never really got anywhere because he was a journalist in Trinidad in the 20s and 30s and he had no particular literary future.

Ramona Koval: He has memories of unhappiness and hunger in Trinidad but his sister disputes this. There seems to be disputation all along about what actually happened, what he remembers, what he says one month and what he’ll remember the next year. What’s going on?

Patrick French: I think it’s the way that when you write something it becomes the truth, and when you then rework it in the way that he often does, he’ll rework something maybe 30 years later, it becomes a version of that earlier truth. He sees his personality, his fastidiousness, his extremely high standards about everything as being the result of that kind of upbringing in a poor rural community. But his sisters, who are probably emotionally easier than him, better balanced than him, simply see it as an offshoot of his peculiar personality. So in a way it’s not untrue what he says but it’s filtered through the prism of his own mind.

Ramona Koval: His attitudes to friendship and sense of singularity start off when he was a boy, really. Do you think his personality was solidified that early?

Patrick French: Yes, I do. One of the extraordinary things about him was that he was…not fully formed but he was so impressive as a young writer. There’s a letter which he writes to a pen pal in America and he’s all of 14 and he’s got the same kind of precise, patrician tone of voice that you find in his books, and he’s just a schoolboy in Trinidad and he’s managing to adopt this persona early on.

Ramona Koval: That idea ‘adopt’ is very interesting because he separates his life between home and school, even in Trinidad. He doesn’t invite friends inside the gate. He’s ashamed, isn’t he, of his household.

Patrick French: He’s ashamed of his poverty but it’s also a racial difference. At Queens Royal College, which was the best school in Trinidad which was a bit like a British grammar school, only very few people were from the Indian community. Most people were either black or what was then termed mulatto, they were mixed race, so he was different, he looked different, his name was different, his religion was different, and he tried to keep his home life separate.

I think one of the things that I didn’t realise fully until I went to Trinidad in order to research the book was that Trinidad is the most multiethnic country almost in the world, even compared to other Caribbean islands. You’ve got people who are of Syrian origin, Chinese, Indian, people from West Africa, it’s everybody, you’ve got freed slaves from the USA, everybody is all mixed up together. I think what he did is not unusual. Other people who I met and interviewed, they said that…because everybody’s family ethnic background was so different from everyone else’s that you would sometimes try and keep your home life very secret and very private, and that if you wanted to see somebody it would always be out on the street or out on the cricket pitch.

Ramona Koval: As you say, he gets to England, he wins a place, and he goes with great enthusiasm and great honour for the family and for himself, and he meets difficult times, or he wants to be embraced and he’s not embraced. But talking about his fastidiousness, even when he tries to commit suicide he dresses for the occasion. He’s got a great sense of entitlement and a great sense of self and wanting and needing recognition.

Patrick French: But I think quite a lot of that, dressing in that way, I think that comes out of the Caribbean background. When you go to the Caribbean or if you see Caribbean people in England, often they will be very well dressed, it’s part of the culture, that you perform in some way, you have a public role and you have a private role, and the idea of being a natty dresser or a performer or adjusting your name, adjusting the way that you speak, that’s all part of the culture that he was coming out of. Of course now because he presents himself as a specifically British or even English figure and if he does have any lineage it’s an Indian lineage. I think people don’t realise the extent of the Caribbean roots of that.

One particular example is his public rudeness, and in Trinidad there’s a tradition of something called picong which comes from the French word piquant meaning cutting or sharp, and I got there and I realised this, again, was part of life; you insult people, you humiliate people, you say offensive things to them and they say them back to you. It’s not seen as peculiar, but when he does it in Britain people recoil and are astonished and don’t dare to say anything back. So a lot of the things that are seen as singular or particular to him are emerging out of Trinidadian culture.

Ramona Koval: And yet, given that you say he’s so much a Trinidadian in what has formed him, he has such contempt for Trinidad. Why?

Patrick French: I think this is partly a generational thing. When he started out there was no such thing as post-colonial literature. He almost helped to fan or form the idea of post-colonial literature. He didn’t want to be seen in any way as a regional writer, he wanted to be somebody who was absolutely at the centre, which in the 1950s London was, and then in fact you see in the book that when the centre of gravity shifts towards New York, perhaps in the 70s, he’s then wanting to be part of America. So he never wants to be on the periphery of anything, he wants to be what he sees as the centre of the sort of civilisation that he aspires to.

Ramona Koval: You say that Naipaul was a spectator and free of emancipatory fire who had no wish to reform the human race. You call him a man without loyalties.

Patrick French: Yes, I think that a lot of writers have a kind of didactic intention, either explicit or incidental. But in Naipaul’s case he’s not trying to reform things. He saying ‘this is how it is’, ‘the world is what it is’, and so he will go to a particular society, for example, in his non-fiction, in his travel writing, and he will say the things that nobody else is particularly wanting to say. So when he’s writing about the Congo in the 1970s he’s actually anticipating everything that happens in the 90s, that brutal civil war that is still going on, killing about 1,200 people a day. Or the rise of radical Islam in the early 1980s.

He’s saying, well, this is something that I’m seeing and I’m going to report it and say this is a very big threat to the world. And at the time the reaction is to say he’s being alarmist and he’s being ridiculous. There was one review in an American paper saying ‘What is he saying? Is he seriously suggesting that Arabs are going to sweep out of the desert like the simoom and come down and destroy Bloomingdales?’ And then you think of 2001 and the whole thing has a sort of horrible irony to it.

Ramona Koval: We’ve talked about his contempt for Trinidad, so he’s not a Caribbean in the Caribbean, he’s not really English in England, although he’s making a damn good fist of it, he’s not Indian in India…but this unsettledness, this between-ness is pretty important for him and his writing, isn’t it?

Patrick French: Yes, and in fact he said an interesting thing when I interviewed him, he said that things are at their most creative when you are at your most disturbed. And I think there are points in his life where he tries to deracinate himself further, and that’s one of the reasons why he is so horrible to his friends and to his family because it breaks something, it ruptures something and out of that something new and creative might come. There are occasions in this life when that is true, but as it goes on and he does it more often, nothing particularly creative comes out of it, it’s just a kind of unnecessary cruelty.

Ramona Koval: Let’s talk about his marriage and his relationships to women. His marriage to Pat…at the beginning when they meet at Oxford in the 50s, she seems an equal. She’s a fellow student, they seem to have a lot in common, they talk a lot, and she was actually reading a lot of his work all through. And then he stops her from following an acting career and she begins to diminish, in a sense, she begins to subsume her life for him. Is that how you saw it? How would you describe their marriage?

Patrick French: I think that it starts off, absolutely, that they’re intellectual equals, they both won scholarships to Oxford, she comes from a comparatively poor background in Birmingham, her father is a clerk in a firm of solicitors. She is strong, she’s intelligent, she is an absolute believer in the idea that her husband is going to be a great writer, and it’s extraordinary, that faith that she has at the beginning…

Ramona Koval: And that they will be a marvellous literary couple.

Patrick French: Yes, they will be a marvellous literary couple, this dream which never quite comes right. But she believes in that, she believes in him, and it, I would say, goes relatively happily for the first ten years or so, maybe a little longer, and there’s then a point when he begins a relationship with Margaret Gooding, the Anglo-Argentine woman with whom he had a relationship on and off for 24 years, this triangulated relationship, so Pat/Margaret/Vidiadhar, and he would jump from one to the other. When he was travelling for his books he would be with Margaret and then he’d come back to Pat.

I think it’s a variety of things. It’s partly a lack of physical attraction that he felt towards her, it’s partly the fact that she was unable to have children, it’s partly that he becomes more socially ambitious. But the net effect of it is that he tries to hide the intimacy between them from the world. He doesn’t want to admit that this uniquely self-supported man is completely dependent on his wife, who he’s been with from the time they were at Oxford together…

Ramona Koval: And she will tell him what to eat for lunch…

Patrick French: Everything. When to change his shirt, all that stuff. And even when they’re getting on badly she’s reading his books, she’s reading what he writes every night. She’s absolutely integral to that process of literary creation.

Ramona Koval: She was the literary spouse extraordinaire. But when he met Margaret, what was her effect on his work? Because he was very sexually attracted to her, she was passionate, she was flamboyant, she was everything that Pat wasn’t, really, and she wasn’t intellectual either, so Pat had that over her too.

Patrick French: It was a strange and very intense relationship, quite violent, quite disrupted, almost always when they were together and travelling there would be some huge flare-up and argument and then Margaret would go off back to London or back to Buenos Aires. But he was sort of hooked on her in some way. I think a lot of the mental torment that you see in a book like Guerrillas, which is a very disturbing novel, or even A Bend in the River which I think is a much greater book but also one that has this disturbed sexual torment and this unnerving anxiety running right through the novel. All of that I would say came out of the relationship with Margaret. So, creatively Guerrillas, A Bend in the River, The Enigma of Arrival, those later books were dependent on this rather odd three-way relationship.

Ramona Koval: You write that ‘Pat knew where she stood with him; nowhere’.

Patrick French: Actually that’s an indirect quote from Sam Goldwyn, the Hollywood studio boss, and F Scott Fitzgerald in his later alcoholic days, there’s a quote from him saying, ‘I always liked Sam Goldwyn because you knew where you stood with him; nowhere.’

Ramona Koval: But of course this is between women. We talked about between worlds and between places and the confusion, as you say, it’s part of his recipe for finding some spark to write from, in a sense.

Patrick French: Exactly. The thing also that maybe I should have said is that the first four books, those three brilliant comic novels set in the Caribbean, The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira and Miguel Street, very funny novels which stand absolutely today. And then out of that, the masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas, one of the great novels of the 20th century. Once he’s done these four books (and bear in mind he was only 29 when he’d done them) his material was gone; he wasn’t living in the Caribbean, he didn’t know the slang anymore, he didn’t know what was going on politically because by now those countries were independent, and so what was he to write about? Was he to write about Britain where he was an alien, or was he going to try and invent some new form, a sort of mixture between fiction and non-fiction? In the end what he settled on was almost always picking the deracinated figure, normally of Indian origin, and putting that figure at the heart of the later books.

Ramona Koval: Explain what happened when, towards the end of Pat’s life…Pat got cancer, she had a recurrence of breast cancer…what was Vidiadhar’s role in this? When she tells him she has cancer, when he hears that, he goes off as if he’s got cancer, very self-centred (that’s my opinion), very lacking in human touch to his own wife. What did you think?

Patrick French: I had different feelings about that. He clearly does suffer from some kind of emotional incapacity which stops him from expressing or exhibiting sympathy, even when he feels it, and he did treat Pat in a particularly cruel way at that time. But one of the things that interested and surprised me was that the housekeeper who was there during that time, she was adamant that he was devoted to her, but that when he couldn’t take it anymore he would disappear and then she would be left to do everything. So there was a kind of tenderness, but he was unable to express it in a way which would have been completely useful for that situation.

The later stages are terrible; he’s off researching his book Beyond Belief, he goes to Pakistan, he meets a Pakistani journalist and falls in love with her, asks her to marry him, comes back to England, Pat dies, Pat is buried. The next day Nadira, the second Lady Naipaul, flies in and is installed in the house, and he still hasn’t told Margaret, after 24 years, that she’s sacked. So she reads it in a newspaper. It was extraordinary to write, and the only way to write it was to tell it in a very plain and factual way. The story told itself at that point.

Ramona Koval: But in a sense the ecology of his relationships with his wife, the devoted literary wife, and someone who he could talk to intellectually, his mistress who was sexy and passionate, and once one of them goes he’s got to find something else, he’s got to find an ecology.

Patrick French: Yes, exactly, ‘ecology’ is the word. Yes, that is it, somebody to prop him up and sort him out and look after him.

Ramona Koval: And the second Lady Naipaul has obviously got everything he needs all in one.

Patrick French: The thing is I stopped the biography in 1996 for reasons of tact and practicality, but she’s quite stern with him, in a way, but it seems to have a positive effect. And his remaining old friends all said to me that he’s a much more easy going personality now than he was 20 or 30 years ago. So think what he was like then!

Ramona Koval: Of course the opening sentence of A Bend in the River is; ‘The world is what it is. Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, had no place in it.’ Of all the words that he’s written, you’ve chosen this as the title of the book. Why is that?

Patrick French: Because I think that within the brutality, if you like, of that view, it’s a kind of extreme realism, in saying that you should never be sentimental about anything. And in his life it’s carried to an extreme where he has no devotion or loyalty to anybody. The only thing that he has loyalty to is producing works of literature, that’s what everything else is pushed aside in favour of. But at the same time it is a philosophy of the world which yields great insight. So if you look at A Bend in the River, The Enigma of Arrival, Among the Believers, even his first book on India An Area of Darkness, there is a level of perception there about what is actually going on as opposed to what should be going on which is extraordinary.

So to take Area of Darkness, when it came out everybody in India hated it, they denounced it, they said it was insulting to a country that’s only been independent for 16 years. And yet now everybody says, well, of course it was like that and he was just telling the truth so what’s the problem. And you get it, in a way, with The Middle Passage. There’s a younger generation of Caribbean intellectuals who greatly admire The Middle Passage because it identified so many of the problems that are thrown up by the creation of a post-colonial administration. So all the grand nationalist dreams, within five, 10, 15 years of independence, things start to do wrong, and he was identifying those things much earlier than everyone else.

I suppose what I hoped to do in the book was to say that that is the brilliance of VS Naipaul. Discount the later VS Naipaul, the person saying insulting things about Tony Blair or whatever, because that is secondary to the literary achievement.

Ramona Koval: From what you just said, too, and in a review of his work that you wrote about his ability to write about the uncertainties and nuances in human encounters, it just made me think that he’s obviously wonderful at perceiving what’s actually going on, but what happens between his perception and his ability to actually relate to the people who are around him? Or does he reserve his good human touch for the research, getting a story or finding out what goes on..?

Patrick French: I think he reserves everything for what ends up on the page. I think a lot of writers do that, it’s something that goes with the territory, but with him it’s carried to an extraordinary extreme.

Ramona Koval: Your subject is not a man who suffers fools gladly or anyone especially who’s got a different idea to him. Are you a trained diplomat?

Patrick French: No, part of being able to get that far and to do the interviews with him was by almost not being particularly diplomatic in that…a lot of people are afraid of him and he thrives on people being afraid of him, whereas I never really had that reaction. So I asked all the questions in quite a plain and direct way, and that was what made him open up. The only thing that I didn’t do was that…I probably did about two dozen interviews for the book, each one lasting about 80 minutes…

Ramona Koval: At his place?

Patrick French: At his place in Wiltshire, sitting across the table, with him sometimes furious, sometimes in tears, always very emotional, unexpectedly emotional. I knew early on from the way he had reacted in the very first interview that if I did the Jeremy Paxman interviewing technique…have you come across this in Australia? He’s an interviewer on BBC Newsnight who famously asked the same question to a government minister about 20 times, and his idea is that the more aggressively you interview somebody then the more you’ll make somebody crumble and reveal things.

But I found with him that as soon as I asked anything aggressive he would start to play games and become more extreme and it just went nowhere. So when I was speaking to him, whatever it was about, I would tend to just let it come out in his own particular version. I wasn’t trying to challenge him particularly in the interviews, or at least I wasn’t initially, and when he’d said what he had to say, I would then start to try to unpick what he’d said.

Ramona Koval: Your last words in this book are ‘Enough’, but in a note you say ‘For the moment’, so he hasn’t left your consciousness. Are you going to complete the biography on his death?

Patrick French: Yes, probably at some distant point in the future I’ll write a sequel of some kind, but it might be a different kind of book. It might be more of a memoir of partly the things that were unsaid here that I couldn’t quite say…

Ramona Koval: Why couldn’t you say them?

Patrick French: There were just some things that related to the last ten years that it would have been too difficult with the people involved to write about them. But with the distance of time I think that will be possible. I’ll probably write it in the form of a first person account, a memoir.

Ramona Koval: My Life with Naipaul?

Patrick French: Something like that, I’m not sure. I suppose it will be a shorter thing, it will be a sequel of some kind, but I think that’s probably some way away. I’ve now started doing a completely different kind of book about modern India, about contemporary India, so that’s what I’m focusing on now. I don’t want to get dragged back by the tentacles of biography for another few years.

Ramona Koval: Patrick French speaking to me at the 2008 Edinburgh International Book Festival about his authorised biography of VS Naipaul The World Is What It Is, published by Picador.  ISBN-13 9780 3304 5598 5

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