By George Packer
Thursday, November 20, 2008 (in IHT Saturday 22nd November)
The World Is What It Is
The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul By Patrick French Illustrated. 554 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.
Agreat writer requires a great biography, and a great biography must tell the truth. V.S. Naipaul wanted his monument built while he was still alive, and, sticking to his own ruthless literary code, he was willing to pay the full price. Approached around the time of Naipaul's Nobel Prize in 2001, the writer Patrick French insisted on complete access to the Naipaul archives at the University of Tulsa, which include his correspondence, his journals and the diaries of his wife, Pat (who died in 1996), never read by Naipaul. French also wanted his subject to sit many hours over many years for unrestricted interviews.
In the end, this most difficult and fastidious of writers didn't ask French to change a single word. Naipaul's scrupulous compliance with all of his biographer's demands, French writes, was "at once an act of narcissism and humility." Now Naipaul has his monument. "The World Is What It Is" (the severe opening words of "A Bend in the River") is fully worthy of its subject, with all the dramatic pacing, the insight and the pathos of a first-rate novel.
It is a magnificent tribute to the painful and unlikely struggle by which the grandson of indentured Indian workers, born in the small island colony of Trinidad, made himself into the greatest English novelist of the past half century. It is also a portrait of the artist as a monster. How these two judgments can be simultaneously true is one of this book's central questions. Whether Naipaul himself understands the enormity of the story to which he contributed so much candor is another.
Naipaul was born in 1932, into a large extended family that mingled Hindu caste pride, small-time political power and material poverty. It was a rougher, more chaotic world than one would surmise from Naipaul's autobiographical writings - at times there wasn't enough to eat - and it helps to explain the affliction that one of his characters calls "colonial rage," as well as Naipaul's less-noticed sympathy for the oppressed and blighted of the earth.
His mother Droapatie's kin were local potentates; his father, Seepersad, was a sensitive, psychologically unstable newspaperman, a failed writer who endured constant humiliation by his overbearing in-laws. The result in young Vidia was soaring ambition and unquenchable anger - a sense of destiny shared with his father, along with consuming resentments of his homeland, his family, the world's injustice and indifference.
French shows that, though Naipaul has always identified himself with his noble, tragic father - to the exclusion of the many Naipaul women - it was his mother who gave her son the means to force his way in the world: "Ma's bright, certain, robust, slightly mocking tone of voice would be inherited by Vido; without the impetus of Ma and her family, his later achievements would have been impossible."
In French's rich narrative, there are two turning points, two moments of truth that might have crippled or destroyed Naipaul, but that instead made him the writer and the man he became. After receiving a coveted scholarship to Oxford and graduating, he found himself, in the early 1950s, alone in London, racially marginalized, with no job or prospects, unable to get his first attempts at fiction published, desperately homesick, but unwilling to admit failure and return to Trinidad, even after his father's death. This crisis plunged Naipaul into what he later called "a great depression verging on madness" that continued for 18 months.
In his later writing he would return to the panic of this period of his life obsessively - in fiction, where he projects himself into the despair of various young male characters, or more directly in autobiographical work. But he always left out one crucial thing.
After he had become an internationally famous writer, Naipaul liked to claim that he was a man without commitments or entanglements, free to observe and tell the truth as other, more sentimental souls were not. But at the darkest moment of his life, he attached himself to a quiet, intelligent, self-effacing young Englishwoman from an unhappy lower-middle-class family named Patricia Hale; and she kept him from drowning. Excerpts from their letters reveal how desperately Naipaul clung to her: "You saved me once, and it is from that rescue that I have been able to keep going - from Feb. 9 to today. I love you, and I need you. Please don't let me down. Please forgive my occasional lapses. At heart I am the worthiest man I know."
The relationship began with Pat in the position of strength. Once they married and Naipaul began to publish his early books, the balance of power shifted decisively to him. Pat became his indispensable literary helper, his maid and cook, his mother, the object of his irritations, the traveling companion who never appears in any of his nonfiction. They had met as two highly repressed and untutored virgins, and a true sexual connection never formed. French places Naipaul's tormented sexuality at the center of his creative efforts, revealed in detail through various sources, above all Naipaul himself, without ever sinking into voyeurism or what Joyce Carol Oates called "pathography."
Over the years, as Naipaul's fame grew along with his irascibility, the marriage desiccated. Naipaul frequented prostitutes, which brought no satisfaction. The Naipauls moved from place to place all over the world, dislocation becoming his great theme. By the early 1970s, age 40, Naipaul had reached an impasse in his life and work. He told Pat that they had destroyed each other.
The second turning point comes when Naipaul, on a writing trip to Buenos Aires in early 1972, meets an Anglo-Argentine woman named Margarita, or Margaret Gooding. She was 30, unhappily married with three children, and Pat's opposite - "tempestuous, cynical and sexy." 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."
Naipaul's capacity for sympathizing with himself is large: it even extended to the moment when he revealed the affair to Pat. "She was so good: she tried to comfort me. ... I was so full of grief myself that in a way I expected her to respond to my grief, and she did." The tenderness soon passed, and Naipaul began to hurl insults at his wronged wife. But the sensual release with Margaret opened up Naipaul's most creative period, in the 1970s.
"And thereafter I thought if that thing hadn't occurred in my life I probably would have shriveled and died as a writer," Naipaul told French. Compare Naipaul's two Africa novels - the taut, austere "In a Free State," published in 1971, and his full-bodied masterpiece "A Bend in the River," published in 1979 - and it's impossible to deny that having sex with Margaret was good for his writing. But so was living with Pat - for Naipaul didn't leave her, nor she him. Instead, he went back and forth between them with the knowledge, if not exactly the consent, of both.
Pat acceded to the arrangement because she had no idea of any possible life without Naipaul. "Many years later, he acknowledged that his relationship with Margaret effectively undid Pat's life," French reports. "'I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable."' Note the passive voice. Also note the hand of fate. Naipaul's confessions to French are like those of a man who leads an investigator to the freshly dug earth in his backyard, and even points out the pieces of human flesh and bone, without ever saying, "I killed her." When she learned about her husband's affair, Pat resumed a diary that she had kept intermittently over the years. French's access to these words raises this miserable woman above the merely pathetic and gives the book a badly needed second point of view.
The diary, French writes, "puts Patricia Naipaul on a par with other great, tragic literary spouses such as Sonia Tolstoy, Jane Carlyle and Leonard Woolf." Pat's voice is faltering and uncertain where Naipaul's is relentlessly in command, but its small observations, evasions and sudden bolts of understanding haunt the reader up until her death of cancer, which gives this story its heartbreaking end. Naipaul, keeping a journal of his own, finally sees his wife as if for the first time: "I to her: 'Are you content?' Yes. Would you say you have had a happy life? No direct answer. 'It was perhaps my own fault.' ... The 'patch' is working together with the Zudol tablets. She sleeps. But when she wakes up she feels 'stunned' by what she has been through. Her bad - jaundiced - color comes and goes. She is pure grace." He scatters Pat's ashes deep in the Wiltshire countryside, accompanied by the woman he had already decided to marry once Pat was dead, having jettisoned Margaret a final time.
Naipaul's code of accountability lies in facing the truth, but it's a limited truth, with no sense of agency. He cannot begin to see himself as his biographer or reader sees him, for the pain of others always reverts back to his own.
And yet this bottomless narcissism, together with the uncompromising intensity of his vision, holds the key to Naipaul's literary power. He had the capacity in his writing to project himself into a great variety of people and situations, allowing him to imbue his work with the sympathy and humanity that he failed to extend to those closest to him in life.
George Packer, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the editor of a new two-volume edition of George Orwell's essays, "Facing Unpleasant Facts" and "All Art Is Propaganda."
Book review: 'Stalin's Children'
By Liesl Schillinger
Thursday, November 20, 2008 (in IHT Saturday 22nd November)
Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival
By Own Matthews
Illustrated. 308 pages. Walker & Company. $26.
Sometimes the best way to get to know someone is to see his words on paper. And sometimes that's the only way. When Boris Bibikov, the maternal grandfather of Owen Matthews, Newsweek's Moscow bureau chief, was a soldier in the Red Army in the 1920s, his baby daughter, Lenina - Matthews's aunt - knew her father only as a bundle of letters her mother kept in a tin box. In his resonant memoir, "Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival," Matthews writes that when his grandfather came home from military service, 2-year-old Lenina cried in fright. "No, that's not Daddy," she insisted and pointed to the box. "That's Daddy in there." A decade later, Bibikov disappeared in Stalin's purges, never to return.
Almost 60 years after that, as long-closed KGB records were opened, Matthews traveled to Ukraine to investigate the mystery of who his grandfather was. Opening a file crammed with "flimsy official onion-skin forms" and a few sheets of plain stationery on which Bibikov, under coercion, had confessed to being an enemy of the people, Matthews began to reconstruct the evidence of a life. "This stack of paper is the closest thing to Boris Bibikov's earthly remains," he writes.
"He died a man without a past." In uncovering his grandfather's past, Matthews reclaimed his own.
At a recent reading in New York, Matthews explained that he began writing this book a decade ago, intending to record his adventures during Moscow's brief window of post-Soviet, pre-Putin revelry in the mid-1990s, which he characterizes as a time of "rampant, filthy raucousness" that could have come from Gogol's satires. In Russia, he found "not just another country, but a different reality." Matthews grew up in London, the son of Mervyn Matthews, a brooding Russophile scholar, and Boris Bibikov's second daughter, Lyudmila (also known as Mila), whom he describes as a loving, high-strung "dynamo of emotional energy." He arrived in Moscow in 1995, mostly by accident, after a couple of years of "hapless wandering" in Prague, Budapest and Sarajevo.
When he called his mother in London, she informed him that he'd been offered a job at an English-language newspaper, The Moscow Times, where his brief would be "trawling the lower depths of Moscow's underbelly for lurid features articles." Matthews's first language was Russian, but that seemed to him like an irrelevant, though exotic, technicality: "If languages have a color, Russian was the hot pink of my mother's '70s dresses, the warm red of an old Uzbek teapot ... the kitschy black and gold of the painted Russian wooden spoons which hung on the wall in the kitchen." English, the language he spoke with his father, was "the muted green of his study carpet, the faded brown of his tweed jackets." But as Matthews researched his book he gained a broader understanding of his identity.
His parents, he learned, met and fell in love in Moscow in 1963, while his father was doing graduate work at Moscow State University. After they tried, unsuccessfully, to register their marriage, Mervyn was deported and sent back to England. For the next five and a half years, he sacrificed his career, his savings and his energies to a relentless campaign to rejoin Lyudmila, even as she slid into a "morbid depression." "I think," his son writes, "he had become infected by something of the irrationality and maximalism of Russia." But Matthews's mother was equally stubborn: "Both Mila and Mervyn had always refused to reconcile themselves to what others believed was reasonable." On Oct. 30, 1969, their tireless suit finally succeeded. "If I have realized anything in writing this book," Matthews notes, "it is that my father is a deeply honorable man. He had promised to marry Mila, and he would keep his word." Their son came to see that his blended heritage was more significant than he had appreciated.
"All of us," he writes, "even me, who grew up in England - still carry something of Russia inside ourselves, infecting our blood like a fever." Matthews's family saga unfolds during four historic epochs: the Stalin era, World War II, the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reading his account of the privations suffered by his mother's generation - his grandmother left her sister to die on a train platform to save her own life; his mother, crippled from tuberculosis and weakened by hunger, spent her childhood in Stalinist orphanages after her mother was sent to the gulag - you find echoes of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, and of the filmmakers Mikhail Kalatozov, Nikita Mikhalkov and Grigory Chukhrai.
In Chukhrai's classic war film, "Ballad of a Soldier," a young man travels by train across his war-ravaged country, encountering scenes of joy and hardship that showcase the Russian soul. In one of the most memorable, a soldier who has lost a leg tells him he doesn't want to return to his wife, fearing she will shun him. And yet, spotting her husband across the crowded platform, the wife runs to embrace him. A similar drama occurred in the life of Matthews's Aunt Lenina when her fiancé lost a leg after his car hit an antitank mine. When he broke off the engagement on a pretext, she flew to his side. "She was 19," Matthews writes, "he was 26. Strangely, after a marriage that lasted nearly four decades, Lenina cannot now remember which leg he had lost." When Matthews's maternal grandmother was released from the gulag in 1948, her reaction to the sight of 14-year-old Lyudmila, whom she'd last seen as a healthy toddler, was less heartwarming: "The first glimpse Martha had of her younger daughter was a crippled silhouette at the end of the hall. Martha called out Lyudmila's name, and howled as the little girl ran lopsidedly towards her. Lyudmila remembered that awful wail all her life."
And yet, Matthews learned, his mother's afflictions were part of what had drawn his father to her, just as his troubles attracted her. Like Mila, Mervyn was hospitalized in his adolescence, in his case for a crippled hip and pelvis. Mila had pitied her fiancé.She wanted, she wrote, "to make your life rich and happy." In London where Matthews grew up, amid family tensions that occasionally "crackled like frost," he saw little evidence of the passion his parents once had for each other. But in the attic he found proof: love letters they wrote during their years apart, stacked in an old steamer trunk. "At some moments," Matthews writes, "their epistolary conversation is so intimate that reading the letters feels like a violation. At others the pain of separation is so intense that the paper seems to tremble with it. ... The letters are charged with loss, and loneliness, and with a love so great, my mother wrote, 'that it can move mountains and turn the world on its axis."' The letters, papers and confidences Matthews inhabits in "Stalin's Children" rehabilitate all the generations they touch - including his own - showing how their times shaped their choices. When Matthews found his own Russian bride at the end of the '90s, he didn't need to set off a diplomatic barrage to win her. "Neuzheli dozhili," a friend of his mother's wrote to her when Soviet Communism died.
"Can it be that we have lived to see this day?" Some lived, some didn't. Matthews's book reminds his readers to mark the difference, to remember and to acknowledge how quickly luck can change - for a family or a country.
Liesl Schillinger is a regular contributor to the Book Review.
Why so many Holocaust films now, and for whose benefit?
By A.O. Scott
Friday, November 21, 2008 (ran in IHT paper on Sat. 22nd November, 2008)
This holiday season the multiplexes, the art houses and the glossy for-your-consideration ads in publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter will be overrun with Nazis.
A minor incursion of this sort is an annual Oscar season tradition, but 2008 offers an abundance of peaked caps and riding breeches, lightning-bolt collar pins and swastika armbands, as an unusually large cadre of prominent actors assumes the burden of embodying the most profound and consequential evil of the recent past.
The near-simultaneous appearance of all these movies is to some degree a coincidence, but it throws into relief the curious fact that early 21st-century culture, in Europe and America, on screen and in books, is intensely, perhaps morbidly preoccupied with the great political trauma of the mid-20th century.
The number of Holocaust-related memoirs, novels, documentaries and feature films in the past decade or so seems to defy quantification, and their proliferation raises some uncomfortable questions. Why are there so many? Why now? And more queasily, could there be too many?
David Thewlis, playing a death camp commandant in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," will be joined by Willem Dafoe, who takes on a similar role in "Adam Resurrected," Paul Schrader's new film. In "The Reader," directed by Stephen Daldry and based on Bernhard Schlink's best-selling novel of the same name, Kate Winslet plays a former concentration camp guard tried for war crimes. Tom Cruise, the star of Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie," wears the uniform of the Third Reich though his character, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, was not a true-believing Nazi but rather a patriotic German military officer involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
And of course there will be plenty of room on screen for the victims and survivors of Hitler's regime. Adam, the title character in "Adam Resurrected," is a Berlin nightclub performer, played by Jeff Goldblum, who finds himself, after enduring the camps, confined to an Israeli asylum. And in Edward Zwick's "Defiance," Daniel Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, the real-life leader of a group of Jewish partisans who fought the Germans in the forests of Belarus. Meanwhile, the wave of European cinema dealing with Nazism and the Holocaust - most prominently represented on American screens in recent years by "The Counterfeiters," which won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film back in February, and earlier aspirants like "Downfall" and "Black Book" - continued this autumn with the U.S. releases of "A Secret" and "One Day You'll Understand," two quiet, powerful French-language films exploring themes of memory and its suppression.
The moral imperatives imposed by the slaughter of European Jews are Never Again and Never Forget, which mean, logically, that the story of the Holocaust must be repeated again and again. But the sheer scale of the atrocity - the six million extinguished lives and the millions more that were indelibly scarred, damaged and disrupted - suggests that the research, documentation and imaginative reconstruction, the building of memorials and museums, the writing of books and scripts, no matter how scrupulous and exhaustive, will necessarily be partial, inadequate and belated. And this tragic foreknowledge of insufficiency, which might be inhibiting, turns out, on the contrary, to spur the creation of more and more material.
Shortly after the war the German critic T.W. Adorno declared that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." This observation has frequently been interpreted, aphoristically, as a fiat of silence, a prohibition against the use of the ordinary tools of culture to address the extraordinary, inassimilable fact of genocide. But those tools are what we have to work with. The perception that this catastrophe overwhelms conventional aesthetic strategies and traditions has led to the creation of a remarkable range of formally innovative work, including the lyric poetry of Paul Celan, the early prose works of Elie Wiesel, Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary "Shoah," Art Spiegelman's "Maus" and Peter Eisenmann's Berlin memorial to the Jewish victims of Nazism.
To describe these as masterpieces is not especially controversial, but it is also, as Adorno perhaps anticipated, somehow unseemly. If the Holocaust can inspire a great work of art, then it can also incubate the ambition to achieve such greatness, and thus open itself up, like everything else, to exploitation, pretense and vulgarity. Worse, the aura that still surrounds this topic - the sense that it must be treated with a special measure of tact and awe - can be appropriated by clumsy, sentimental and meretricious films or books. Thus the immodest indecency of a movie like Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning "Life Is Beautiful" was, during its initial period of triumph, deflected onto those with the temerity to criticize it.
And a similar defense is invoked, explicitly or implicitly, so routinely that it calls forth cynicism. Why do opportunistic, clever young novelists gravitate toward magic-realist depictions of the decidedly unmagical reality of the Shoah? For the same reason that actors preen and leer in jackboots and epaulets, or for the same reason that filmmakers commission concrete barracks and instruct their cinematographers to filter out bright, saturated colors. To win prizes of course.
Winslet said as much on an episode of "Extras": "I've noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust, you're guaranteed an Oscar." She was joking, of course, though her appearance in "The Reader" suggests that the joke is funny because it's often true. Why else do you suppose all the movies listed at the beginning of this article, including "The Reader," are coming out in November and December? Not because Hanukkah is coming.
The television miniseries "Holocaust" is nobody's idea of a masterpiece, but its broadcast, in 1979, on West German state television was a decisive event in that nation's reckoning with its culpability. It is estimated that more than half of the adult German population watched the series.
Subsequently, according to the historian Tony Judt, "Germans would be among the best-informed Europeans on the subject of the Shoah and at the forefront of all efforts to maintain public awareness of their country's singular crime." The French conscience may have been stirred by superior movies - "The Sorrow and the Pity," "Shoah" - but France was much slower to acknowledge the full measure of its complicity.
And in the United States "Schindler's List" in 1993 was a similar watershed. Though the Holocaust was not a central event in U.S. history, "Schindler's List," even more than "Holocaust," made it into one by turning it into the basis of a Hollywood epic. Buying a ticket was treated almost as a moral duty.
"Schindler's List" undoubtedly gave rise to a new pedagogical and commemorative impulse. It also, however, helped to domesticate the Holocaust by making it a fixture of American middlebrow popular culture. Which I don't mean entirely as a criticism, since that culture is better than a lot of the alternatives. But Hollywood trades in optimism, redemption and healing, and its rendering of even the most appalling realities inevitably converts their dire facts into its own shiny currency.
Thus "Schindler's List," for all its unsparing and powerful re-creations of the horror of the Krakow ghetto, is a story of heroism, resilience and survival. And a great many of the mainstream Holocaust movies that have followed, including documentaries and some foreign films, have emphasized hope and overcoming rather than despair and destruction. When death dominates these films - as it does in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," an apt successor to "Life Is Beautiful" - it is spiritualized and rendered aesthetically palatable by an overlay of maudlin sentiment.
More often the reality of mass death gives way to yet another affirmation of life, and even faithfully rendered true stories are bent into conformity with familiar patterns, themes and conventions: forbidden love; noble sacrifice; victory against the odds. The Holocaust is more accessible than ever, and more entertaining.
At the same time it is receding from living memory, which may by itself explain the recent burst of cinematic and literary interest. The movies I find most interesting, most authentic, either address this painful process directly, measuring the distance between our time and the 1930s and '40s rather than recreating that era faithfully in every detail, or else cleave to the particulars of a single story. Thus Roman Polanski's "Pianist" and Lajos Koltai's "Fateless," though both tales of survival, register the absurdity and abnormality of survival in the manner of the first-person literary works on which they are based.
"A Secret" and "One Day You'll Understand" are meditations on what it means to remember. It is no coincidence that both take place in France, where the habit and policy of forgetting endured until quite recently. In those films, full of unresolved feelings of grief, tenderness and bewilderment, French Jews born after World War II try to figure out what the annihilation of their parents' world means to them. In both cases the past is both painfully pressing and, mercifully but maddeningly, out of reach.
And in both cases the filmmakers explore not only strong feelings but also complicated ideas. The sensations associated with the Holocaust have become perhaps too easy to evoke, given the power of cinema to dispense fear, pity, sorrow and relief through sound, image and pageantry.
This has been the route taken by most English-language films about the Holocaust, and also some of their slick European counterparts, like "Black Book" and "The Counterfeiters." But "A Secret" and "One Day You'll Understand" represent another strain in European and Israeli film, one that may reflect a deeper cultural difference. In the United States the Holocaust is a mystery, a puzzle, and the obsessive interest in it testifies to its intrinsic strangeness. In France, in Germany and in Eastern Europe it remains an urgent problem that needs to be worked out - in art, in politics and in the society as a whole.
It seems right that movies about a difficult subject should themselves be difficult. But the fate of difficult movies with subtitles, usually, is to slip in and out of American theaters without leaving much of a trace. The big Holocaust movies of the big movie season will make more of an impression, allowing audiences vicarious immersion in a history that they, nonetheless, keep at a safe, mediated difference, even as they risk bathos and overreach in the process. We don't have to ask what the Holocaust means to us since the movies answer that question for us.
For American audiences a Holocaust movie is now more or less equivalent to a western or a combat picture or a sword-and-sandals epic - part of a genre that has less to do with history than with the perceived expectations of moviegoers. This may be the only, or at least the most widely available, way of keeping the past alive in memory, but it is also a kind of forgetting.