A decade ago Paul Theroux wrote a vivid and unflinching account of his friendship with Naipaul that had broken down some years previously. It was described as `literary suicide' and in many ways has come to define Theroux's career since the late-1990s. French is largely dismissive of the American, portraying Theroux as a fawning character whose book was a bitter personal attack on Naipaul and replete with inaccuracies.
And yet he draws most of the same conclusions. After the publication of French's book, Theroux wrote: `French's biography amply demonstrates everything I said and more. It is not a pretty story; it will probably destroy Naipaul's reputation for ever, this chronicle of his pretensions, his whoremongering, his treatment of a sad, sick wife and disposable mistress, his evasions, his meanness, his cruelty amounting to sadism, his race baiting. Then there is the "gruesome sex", the blame shifting, the paranoia, the disloyalty, the nasty cracks and the whining, the ingratitude, the mood swings, the unloving and destructive personality.
At the same time French brings some context to these character traits. For example, Theroux complained bitterly in his book that he was always left holding the bill when they lunched. But as French reveals, while Naipaul was one of the most revered novelists in the country, until the late 1970s he was pereptually broke, reliant on his wife's salary and was at times even homeless.
The book is at its best when it reveals Naipaul's immigrant experience in the 1950s, the poverty and pallor of his existence. The relationship with his first wife Pat - its early romance and many lows - is well rendered, and her last days are touchingly told. Her recollections in her diary are sad and harrowing.
It falls short when it comes to his abysmal treatment of his mistress, Margaret Gooding, who is discarded and disappears off the pages as if she is dead. What she makes of the physical and metal abuse at Naipaul's hands is not known. The explanation of his marriage to Nadira Alvi is inadequate. It still seems incomprehensible and horrendous that she moved into his marital home a day after Pat's funeral. The book ends with Naipaul and Alvi scattering Pat's ashes in the mid-90s, but what happened next? The Nobel award is dealt with in the introduction, but the last 15 years are not mentioned.
French is also not critical enough of Naipaul's carefully cultivated cult of personality as `the greatest living writer of English.' He's not. It's true that he's written some great books, but little of note in twenty or more years. Beyond A House For Mr Biswas and, perhaps, A Bend in the River, how many of his works will be read in 30 or 50 years time?
But for all these faults, this is a fantastic book - as vivid and comprehensive a literary biography as you can ever expect to read. Patrick French's life of VS Naipaul is a rare thing: an authorized biography that is at once rigorous and critical of its subject. Impeccably researched and brilliantly written, French unravels the enigmatic Naipaul,. Anybody with any interest in Naipaul should read it.