A brutal honesty

2008-10-22 00:00

That V. S. Naipaul is a great writer shines from every sentence in this biography. His fierce intelligence, his single-minded dedication to his craft, his shameless exploitation of everyone (his family and friends included), all clearly indicate that for him there has always been no compromise in his quest for literary greatness. From childhood he knew that he lived to write, and that without it he would be nothing. Such is the hallmark of genius.The descendant of indentured labourers shipped from India to Trinidad to work on the sugar plantations (a migration that has echoes in this province), Naipaul was born in 1932 in a rural town and brought up in relative poverty amidst an extended family. But despite these inauspicious beginnings, his intellect and resolve saw to it that he won a scholarship to a prestigious school in the island’s capital, Port of Spain, followed by another scholarship to Oxford. There he met the Englishwoman who would become his first wife, and dismissed his fellow students as largely unintelligent and worthless.

After university came his biggest challenge. Essentially alone in a foreign country, poor, wracked by psychosomatic illnesses yet sustained by his confidence in himself, he began painstakingly to forge the style and method that produced such classics as A House for Mr Biswas, In a Free State, A Bend in the River and The Enigma of Arrival. In addition to these exceptional novels were similarly accomplished volumes of journalism and travel writing, all characterised by an unremittingly brutal honesty.

Yet Naipaul’s single-minded quest has been littered with casualties. He alienated himself from his family in Trinidad; for 24 years he cheated on his devoted wife, and was wracked with guilt when she died of cancer; he discarded his friends at whim. Yet, slowly, incrementally, he earned one accolade after another: among them the Booker Prize in 1971, a knighthood in 1990, and the Nobel Prize in 2001.

To his credit, Naipaul, now 76, married again, and living in the English countryside, gave accomplished biographer Patrick French total freedom to tell his story. The result is a compelling yet harrowing account of the life so far of a creator and a destroyer.

John Conyngham

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