Sex, truth and Vidia

[Updated on  March 25]

Patrick French was given unprecedented access to V.S. Naipaul and his sealed archive to write his biography. In this extract published in The Telegraph, UK, French examines Sir Vidia’s tortured first marriage and the 24-year love affair that fuelled his genius:

bookjacket.jpgWhen Vidia met her in February 1952, Patricia Hale was a slim, small undergraduate with a kind, pretty face. She was a member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, and he first glimpsed her holding a stack of programmes on the final night of his college play, Jan de Hartog’s Skipper Next to God. Vidia had designed the poster and helped to organise the publicity. They chatted, and he invited her to tea. Pat was 17 days older than Vidia, reading history at a women’s college, St Hugh’s. Like him, she came from a poor background and had reached Oxford University on intellectual merit, in her case on a state scholarship. Over tea, they talked some more, and a tentative romance began. In March, Pat went home for the vacation. Her parents and sister lived in a decrepit two-bedroom flat above a municipal bank in Kingstanding, a drab suburb of the city of Birmingham. Her father worked in a local firm of solicitors as a managing clerk.

(“The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul” by Patrick French; published by Picador)

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And in Outlook, another excerpt, this one on Naipaul’s insistence that Patrick French write a completely honest biography:

When slavery was formally abolished across the British empire in 1834, cheap labour was still needed for the West Indian sugar plantations, and V.S. Naipaul’s destitute forebears were shipped from northern India to the Caribbean as bonded labourers; it was slavery by another name, slavery with an expiry date. Vidia Naipaul, born in rural poverty in colonial Trinidad in 1932, would rise from this unpromising setting to become one of the great writers of the 20th century.

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Also in Outlook, on Naipaul and India:

By 1962, Nehru was old and ailing, and the glitter of freedom and the Congress party’s revolution was fading. For all his five-year plans, India was still painfully poor. The national mood of fatigue coincided with the arrival on India’s shores of its doubly displaced son Vidia Naipaul, whose approach to his ancestral land had been decided years before. Aged barely 17, he had written to his sister Kamla, then studying at Benares Hindu University: “I am glad you told off those damned inefficient, scheming Indians.

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A final excerpt from Outlook, on Naipaul and his three women:

As he approached the age of retirement, V.S. Naipaul felt compelled to go on writing. By early 1995, unable to find the spark for a work of fiction, Vidia decided to loop back on himself once more and write a reprise of Among the Believers, his prescient early study of Islamic extremism. In a new global political climate, he would return to Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan to look at the future of Islamist ideology through the fate of the places and personalities he had encountered in 1979. Once again, he would make a forceful rejection of the late 20th century academic convention that all cultures, peoples and belief systems are different but equal.

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