In a typical brain-spasm of deep insight, James Wood once wrote that V.S. Naipaul “is a writer who has a conservative vision but radical eyesight.” This, in an essay for The New Yorker a few years ago. The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul by Patrick French had just come out. The literary world was agog. Naipaul, never shy to air controversial opinions or disreputable thoughts, had given his biographer total access to his private life. This created some surprises. One surprise was a revelation about Naipaul’s affair with an Argentinian woman in the early 1970s. Here’s how George Packer described the episode in his review of the biography for The New York Times:
Naipaul and Margaret began an affair that set free all of his desires and fantasies. When his editor and friend Diana Athill scolded him, he replied, “I am having carnal pleasure for the first time in my life, are you saying I must give it up?” Carnal pleasure meant violence — in fact it was inextricable from beating Margaret up, degrading her in bed, turning the great man’s penis into an object of worship. How do we know these things? Because Naipaul tells them to his authorized biographer. “I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt. . . . She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was bad. She couldn’t appear really in public. My hand was swollen. I was utterly helpless. I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion.”
Reading French’s biography, some praised Naipaul’s honesty. Others felt disgust. It has always been so with Naipaul. He splits opinions, drives a wedge into what might otherwise be polite literary conversations. Nearly everyone who has read Naipaul has strong feelings about him. No side ever fully wins the debate. The Naipaul Question has been a live one for more than forty years.
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