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Old 6th Apr 2005, 19:30   #1
Mike
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Default V.S. Naipaul

A collection of unrelated essays on identity rather than a true novel this the 1971 Booker Winner was a strange read. I though there would be some connection between the first chapters and the large story in the middle that bears the novels name but I was wrong. The thrust of the short stories is the question of identity and race, the first two stories are concerned with immigrants to the USA and the UK though there is a prologue that concerns alienation form considered norms. Beautifully written indeed but the lack of relation to the chapters means one never really gets to know the characters so superbly written, we certainly never find out what happens so it’s a little disappointing on that score. The main story - In a Free State - concerns two colonialists still in an African country at the point of its independence and a car journey across the country. Its quite brilliant how the descriptive passages build the whole picture of a dangerous fledgling African state on the brink of civil war. But again instead of being a whole novel we get the extra essays on life as an immigrant that whilst very good add nothing to the main story. The Booker winner should really be viewed as a collection of superb short stories but I wouldn't rush out to buy it.
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Old 19th Mar 2010, 1:31   #2
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Default Re: V.S. Naipaul: In a Free State

The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of V. S. Naipaul

More than one hundred pages are spent on V S Naipaul’s life in Trinidad. The young Naipaul comes across as a forceful figure in the largely female household, waited on by sisters, and always quick to display his academic prowess. A beady, vigilant child, it seems plain how much Mister Biswas’s relationship with the tight-fisted Tulsi’s is taken from the young Naipaul’s observations of his own father’s conflicts with the in-laws, the Capildeo’s. The opening sections provide a long and evocative portrait of a period which Sir Vidia has mined for his early fiction, from the lively stories in Miguel Street to the fierce bleakness of A Bend in the River.

At eighteen, Naipaul wins one of two ‘Island Scholarships’ to Oxford University, where he meets Patricia Hale, the future first Lady Naipaul. While at Oxford, Naipaul begins to write stories. In this he’s encouraged by his father, himself a failed writer ‘reduced’ to now working for the local island paper. Seepersad’s letters to his young son abroad are full of self-pity:

Quote:
This is the time I should be writing the things I so long to write. This is the time for me to be myself. When shall I get the chance? I don’t know. I come from work, dead tired. The Guardian is taking all out of me - writing tosh. What price salted fish and things of that sort. Actually that is my assignment for tomorrow! It hurts. Now keep your chin up, and far more important keep yourself out of mischief. Love from Ma and all, Pa.
The weight of his father’s expectations lay heavy on Naipaul. ‘One feels too weak to be caring about such a big responsibility - the responsibility of deserving affection’ he writes in a letter to his sister.

The beginning of Naipaul’s career contains the usual stack of aborted manuscripts and rejection slips. But then a young editor called Diana Athill reads Miguel Street, and in quick succession The Mystic Masseur, Miguel Street and The Suffrage of Elvira are published. Critics are impressed, if in a rather patronising way. It’s not until A House for Mister Biswas that Naipaul receives the international acclaim he’s desperate for. He’s still only twenty-nine.

Throughout his literary career Naipaul is supported by his wife, Pat, and the greater part of this authorised biography relates Naipaul’s treatment of her. They married straight after university, against Pat’s father’s wishes. She bought her own wedding ring as he refused to get her one: ‘I have no interest in jewellery,’ he tells his biographer. She was desperate for children, but they’d get in the way of his career. She worked several jobs to allow Vidia - or ‘the Genius’ as she calls him in her diaries - to concentrate on his writing. Naipaul, however, found little in Pat to satisfy him sexually, and early in the Seventies he took a mistress, an Argentine woman called Margaret Murray. A sadomasochistic relationship (‘I was very violent. Violent with the hand’), on one occasion Margaret is so bruised that she can’t leave her apartment for several days. She remains besotted with him for over thirty years. From Naipaul’s point of view, ‘I was experiencing carnal satisfaction for the first time in my life.’

It’s clear from Pat’s diaries how much this all devastates her, and Pat’s diaries are the most difficult passages to read in this book; the depressive and self-blaming middle-aged Pat is a long way from the witty, bright, confident university girl. ‘It could be said that I killed her,’ Naipaul says. If so, it appears the fatal insult was his public admission that throughout his marriage he was ‘a great prostitute man’.

All of this is there in his fiction: from the beatings in A Bend in the River to the weird brutality of his recent novel, Magic Seeds. But what’s also in his novels is compassion for the defenceless, an understanding of the way societies work, and a refusal to give way to easy or comforting answers. This complexity is there in this biography too: in the love letters to a homesick Pat, in his sad admission that he can only ever now be ‘a brown Englishman’, and in his tears at the end of the book, as Pat’s ashes are scattered in a small nearby wood, by the new Lady Naipaul.

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Old 19th Mar 2010, 10:40   #3
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Default Re: V.S. Naipaul: In a Free State

Great review Sam! Welcome to Palimpsest!

I haven't read any Naipaul. I have the recently reissued stand-alone version of In a Free State, so I must tackle it soon.
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Old 19th Mar 2010, 12:43   #4
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Default Re: V.S. Naipaul: In a Free State

Thanks for the review, Sam. I tend to avoid biography but some of the reviews here make me think I might like it in some cases!
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Old 19th Mar 2010, 20:13   #5
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Default Re: V.S. Naipaul: In a Free State

Thanks, John! It's been years since I read In a Free State, but I remember it as a great introduction to his late work. I do agree with the general consensus, however, that Naipaul's early novels are more of an out an out pleasure to read, especially Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mister Biswas.

Hi Ang - you're welcome. I don't read much biography, either, and I think this is the first I've read of a living author. The vast majority of my reading is fiction.
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Old 20th Mar 2010, 15:20   #6
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Default Re: V.S. Naipaul: In a Free State

SamG, thanks for your review of this book.
Do you need to be familiar with Naipaul's output to get the most out of this book?
(I have been intrigued since reading reviews on initial publication, but I have only read 2 novels: A Bend in the River; Half a Life.)
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Old 20th Mar 2010, 19:15   #7
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Default Re: V.S. Naipaul: In a Free State

Hi Alan - For me, part of the enjoyment of the book lay in connecting up, however conjecturally, the facts of Naipaul’s life with his work. For example, now I know more about his Hindu ancestry, I think, for me, it puts a bit more context around some of the more controversial remarks in his non-fiction, especially Beyond Belief. But I think Patrick French - whom I should’ve name-checked in my initial notes - has written a very accessible book, more about what made the man than what the man made. So I don’t think you need to be familiar with his work, but as you’ve already read two of his novels, I’d say you’re more familiar than most.

The only cautionary note: I’m not sure how my reading experience of his work would be affected if I’d read the biography first. I think I’d find some of the passages in, say, A Bend in the River, tougher to take now that they’ve had some of the fictional air sucked out of them.
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Old 20th Mar 2010, 19:55   #8
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Default Re: V.S. Naipaul: In a Free State

I read A bend in the river a month or so ago and loved it.
I knew a bit of Naipaul life in Africa through Paul Theroux, an old pal of his.
I never felt a strong lapse from what reality must have been and i actually snese a lot the bio in it.
I would be happy to read this now that i'm reconsiled with the man.(I remenbered resenting his betterness toward India and stayed away from his books for a long time)

My Father keep on telling me about on of his book where he predicted (a good few year ago) the slow end of Islam. I would like to read this as a curiosity now that in bounced off for another few years.
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Old 20th Mar 2010, 21:08   #9
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Default Re: V.S. Naipaul: In a Free State

Hi saliotthomas - it's only in retrospect, having now read the biography, that I see how closely parts of A Bend in the River are modelled on Naipaul's life. The biography's probably filled for me some gaps in that novel. For example, I'd always thought that the violence Salim administers to his mistress, Yvette, wasn't really earned, novelistically: it seemed a bit random, not following on logically from anything that we'd read up to that point. But now I know more about Naipaul's relationship with his own mistress, Margaret, I can give the passages some provenance, and the whole thing's less of a question mark.

I think maybe the book your father was referring to is Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples.
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Old 20th Mar 2010, 21:28   #10
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Default Re: V.S. Naipaul: In a Free State

Quote:
Originally Posted by SamG View Post
Hi saliotthomas - it's only in retrospect, having now read the biography, that I see how closely parts of A Bend in the River are modelled on Naipaul's life. The biography's probably filled for me some gaps in that novel. For example, I'd always thought that the violence Salim administers to his mistress, Yvette, wasn't really earned, novelistically: it seemed a bit random, not following on logically from anything that we'd read up to that point. But now I know more about Naipaul's relationship with his own mistress, Margaret, I can give the passages some provenance, and the whole thing's less of a question mark.

I think maybe the book your father was referring to is Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples.
Very good , i see what you mean now. It's more ore on the personal level.
Welcome and thanks for the book reference.
Delighted.
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