Depending on where you stand, VS Naipaul is either a grand old man of letters or a grand old grump. Rightly famed for his steady literary output, Naipaul is also infamous for his provocations. Whether he's saying something nasty about Muslims or defending snobbery, when Naipaul speaks, you can almost guarantee there will be an uproar. For Naipaul, now 75, being disagreeable is a way of being alive; he likes to wind people up - and he generally succeeds. In Britain, Sir Vidia is practically a national institution of literary gossip; he's given up writing novels, but his bluster keeps him in the papers. (An anthology of Naipaul's vituperations would be immense, but his spleen is captured in his remarks about the people of Trinidad, where he was born in 1932: "These people live purely physical lives, which I find contemptible ... It makes them interesting only to chaps in universities who want to do compassionate studies about brutes.") For an alleged recluse who lives in the English countryside, Naipaul has always had a way of generating publicity. The English literary classes seem obsessed with his private life, and the recent publication of The World is What It Is, Patrick French's authorised life of Naipaul, has given them plenty to chatter about.
Greeted with considerable acclaim in Britain, the book is a monument to Naipaul; it is also a disturbing portrait of a fussy, resentful, emotionally ruthless man. French salutes Naipaul's literary gifts, but he also chronicles, in voyeuristic detail, Naipaul's darkest sexual secrets and the cruelties he inflicted on his first wife, Patricia, and long time mistress, Margaret. (That Naipaul himself signed off on the book is an act of sadomasochistic fortitude.) Naipaul's achievements - 29 books at present count: fiction, reportage, travelogue, criticism and autobiography, a Nobel Prize in 2001 and sundry other garlands - and his single minded dedication to honing his prose apparently came at a great human cost, to himself and his partners. Naipaul could not do it alone; tyrannical in his private life, he was also helplessly dependent on both Margaret and Patricia for emotional and literary support.
If anything, French's labours confirm an essential truth about Naipaul, which is that he writes out of an unappeasable sense of desolation. French takes his title from the opening line of A Bend in the River, perhaps Naipaul's best novel: "The world is what it is, and men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." For Naipaul, who has a profound fear of erasure, "nothing" is a key term. Singularly obsessed with his beginnings in Trinidad, Naipaul has compulsively worked and reworked the notion that to be born on a small island in the Caribbean is to be born into a kind of nothingness.
Conquered by slave owners and subjected to the savage rigours of plantation economics, the West Indies - "places of the lash"- are bereft of any useful inheritance. "The history of these islands can never be satisfactorily told," Naipaul has written. "Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies." For Naipaul, such "small places with simple economies bred small people with small destinies…their literary possibilities, like their economic possibilities, were as narrow as their human possibilities."
Naipaul's Trinidadian identity is especially vexatious. In Trinidad's hodgepodge of races - African, Asian, European - Naipaul could see no solidity; only fragmentation. His own people had originally come from India as indentured servants - "slavery with an expiry date," French calls it - and their descendants tried to recreate Indian village life in their new environment; but this was not an authentic creation, only a deracinated version of the real thing. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Naipaul recalled how he and his family lived "in our own fading India," and the narrowness it enforced on them: "It made for an extraordinary self-centeredness. We looked inward; we lived out our days; the world outside existed in a kind of darkness; we inquired about nothing."
Naipaul was once asked by an interviewer why he had come to Britain - he went to Oxford in 1950 on scholarship, and after graduation, worked at the BBC - and he replied tartly, "I came to join civilisation." Such remarks, and his chastened views on India, Islam, and post-colonial liberation movements in Africa and elsewhere have earned Naipaul a reputation as a political reactionary. This is not exactly the case. Both the right and left have misread Naipaul. He gives no comfort to liberals, but he is not one to take sides; he remains an observer - with a notably sharp point of view.
Naipaul's work contains politics, French writes, but not a political message. In a letter to his wife Patricia in the early 1950s, Naipaul described his viewpoint: "Now don't believe I want to reform the human race," he told her. "I am the spectator, the flâneur par excellence. I am free of the emancipatory fire. I want to create myself, to work out my own philosophy that will bring me comfort. I want to see the good and the bad." Working out his own philosophy - and the forms adequate to contain it - would become Naipaul's central preoccupation as he matured as a writer. ("Half a writer's work is the discovery of his subject." Naipaul once wrote.) Finding the centre, a way in the world, became his vocation.
He has often said that the traditional form of the novel proved inadequate to his needs. If he had come to civilisation to escape the stagnation of his homeland, the European literary tradition would prove bewildering: "Great novelists wrote about highly organised societies. I had no such society; I couldn't share the assumptions of the writers; I didn't see my world reflected in theirs." Hard up, living in a dreary succession of London bedsits in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Naipaul struggled to assimilate these customs as he tried to give shape to his experiences in Trinidad.
These efforts culminated in an early masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas. A loving tribute to his father Seepersad, a journalist who Naipaul has claimed as his decisive influence. This big, sturdy novel is a classic of post-colonial literature, but it is also a creative dead end. Naipaul could do little more with an alien tradition; the old-fashioned novel could only take him so far. (Whether Naipaul should even be called a novelist is a matter for debate; his own description is better: "a manager of narrative.")
But Naipaul's creative crisis pushed him in a new direction. Toward the end of the Sixties, consumed with a need to explore new societies, Naipaul uprooted himself once more. ("VS Naipaul was of everywhere and of nowhere," French notes perceptively. "His instincts and prejudices were intact, but his eyes were wide open, missing nothing.") He found his theme: surveying the wreckage of "half made societies that seemed doomed to remain half made".
He produced one of his most powerful works, The Loss of El Dorado, a surreal, horrifying study of Trinidad's colonial past. (Naipaul thought the effort a "dud".) India would become an increasing preoccupation for Naipaul, though his writings on the country of his ancestors were strongly critical in tone. ("The dereliction of India overwhelms the visitor," begins one piece.) He was out of sympathy with the slogans of an era inflamed by racial protest. In Jamaica on assignment for the New York Review of Books, Naipaul complained bitterly in a 1969 letter of "protest after protest, enemy after enemy: this is what passes for political thought in these primitive societies."
If Naipaul's political opinions were sharp, even heretical, he wrote with a humane subtlety on collapsing empires and the violent paradoxes of freedom. Naipaul was a member of no avant-garde - his finely calibrated prose, with its measured pauses and fastidiously deployed semi-colons, is beautiful for its compact simplicity - but his life of habitual transit, his estrangement from any fixed boundary, drove him to tinker with different perspectives and formats.
"Displacement gave Vidia a distinct view of the world," French writes. He would fuse the imaginary and the real, memoir and the make-believe, in startling ways. In a Free State, which won the Booker Prize in 1971, opens with a documentary fragment, a ferry trip from Egypt to Greece - "Even from the quay it looked overcrowded, like a refugee ship": a perfect metaphor for Naipaul's concerns - and then moves to a novella set in an unnamed African country, and a dazzling series of short stories pitched in different registers.
"People are at their most creative when things are very disturbed," Naipaul has said. From the Seventies onward, Naipaul would seek out turbulence, both in his relationships and in his travels to the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and South America. His fiction and journalism would take on a nasty sexual charge, but he did some of his best work while things around him were falling apart. Ever watchful, he would observe and record in long books on the Muslim world and India. French's conclusion about Naipaul is just: "Repeatedly he had to recreate or mask himself, clearing away his past, in order to become the apparently stateless, hyper- perceptive global observer who could, as a book reviewer once put it, look into the mad eye of history and not blink."
Yet there remains a troubling question of how much Naipaul's deep grievances occluded his vision. Consumed by the stranglehold the past has on the present, the decay of tradition, the corrosive deformations of imperialism, and the ironies of liberation, Naipaul has collected much data to confirm his prejudices. There may be no political messages in Naipaul's work; but there is little hope either.
Matthew Price's writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Financial Times and Bookforum.