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The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul [Unabridged] [Paperback]

Patrick French
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 April 2009

This is the first major biography of V.S. Naipaul, Nobel Prize winner and one of the most compelling literary figures of the last fifty years.

With great feeling for his formidable body of work, and exclusive access to his private papers and personal recollections, Patrick French has produced a lucid and astonishing account of this enigmatic genius: one which looks sensitively and unflinchingly at his relationships, his development as a writer and as a man, his outspokenness, his peerless creativity, and his extraordinary and enduring position both outside and at the very centre of literary culture.

‘Its clarity, honesty, even-handedness, its panoramic range and close emotional focus, above all its virtually unprecedented access to the dark secret life at its heart, make it one of the most gripping biographies I’ve ever read’ Hilary Spurling, Observer

‘A brilliant biography: exemplary in its thoroughness, sympathetic but tough in tone . . . Reading it I was enthralled – and frequently amused (how incredibly funny Naipaul can be!)’ Spectator

‘A masterly performance . . . If a better biography is published this year, I shall be astonished’ Allan Massie, Literary Review

‘Remarkable. This biography will change the way we read Naipaul’s books’ Craig Brown, Book of the Week, Mail on Sunday

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Product details

  • Paperback: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Unabridged edition (3 April 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330440098
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330440097
  • Product Dimensions: 23.5 x 15.2 x 3.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 212,932 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'Breathtaking candour.' -- Mark Bostridge, Books of the Year 2008 - The Independent on Sunday

'Few biographies in recent years have been so universally acclaimed as Patrick French's... Brilliant.' -- Books of the Year 2008 - The New Statesman

'Startlingly candid life exposes Naipaul as an egotist, a domestic tyrant and a sadist; a magnificent achievement.'
-- 100 Best Holiday Reads, Sunday Times

'Surely no one will find a subject this ripe, or this forthcoming, again... so candid it makes one feel faint.' -- Books of the Year 2008 - The Obeserver

`Startlingly candid life exposes Naipaul as an egotist, a domestic tyrant and a sadist; a magnificent achievement'
-- Sunday Times - 100 Best Holiday Reads


'Surely no one will find a subject this ripe, or this forthcoming, again... so candid it makes one feel faint.'

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very balanced biography 13 Dec 2010
I cannot add much to J. Corbett's well concieved review, except to add that Patrick French has done an excellent job here, as the book is strangely compelling and beautifully written. Having said that I am slightly annoyed with myself for spending my time reading about a selfish, unpleasent and self pitying character, who actually doesn't deserve respect for anything other than his writing, and much of that is pretty introspective.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A comprehensive biography 17 Jan 2014
By Sylvia
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Patrick French has obviously done long and intensive research, spoken to hundreds of people and many long hours to Naipaul himself. The result is an extremely interesting story of the son of an immigrant family who keep up the customs, traditions and loyalties of their "home" country, struggle with identity when moving to another country and are ultimately disappointed with the idealised image of the "home" country. French's portrayal of the British community in Argentina is accurate and reflects another group of people who have kept up the customs, traditions and loyalties of their "home" country. His narrative is totally objective and in reality it is Naipaul himself who speaks to the reader throughout the book. Fascinating!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Naipaul's biography 5 April 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Excellent biography and French has grasped the brutality of life for a non white person in white British society of the 1950s and beyond (and now too!). But, alas, the great writer, wanted to belong and managed to do so in the end. Best review of book by A. N. Wilson, others focused with instinctive political correctness on the treatment of his angelic wife and mistress. The story French tells is more complicated and Naipaul gives ample indication of suffering autism and possessing the prodigious talent many of them seem to have.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The charm, wit and enigma of V.S.Naipaul 20 Nov 2008
By Yesh Prabhu, author of The Beech Tree - Published on
The much anticipated and eagerly awaited biography of the Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul by Mr. Patrick French is now in print. It is fascinating, gripping, deeply shocking, humorous, and hugely entertaining as well.

Readers who shook their heads in disbelief when they read Mr. Paul Theroux's "Sir Vidia's Shadow" can now read this book and shake their head some more in disbelief at some of the cruel and unpleasant incidents described here in raw and unvarnished detail. Given an opportunity to comment and suggest changes to the manuscript, Mr. Naipaul, to his credit, did not suggest any changes and allowed the book to be published, wrinkles, blisters, cuts, gashes, bruises and scabs intact, which is precisely the reason that this book is so gripping and shocking to read.

The details of Mr. Naipaul's life, often, are not very pleasant to read. In fact, I cringed when I read some of the passages here. Even though I had read about several of the unflattering incidents in various articles, books, and also on the Internet, I was quite shocked, nevertheless, when I read those passages here. This biography confirms that, yes, Mr. Naipaul is a great and fascinating writer, but he is also a flawed man.

Mr. Naipaul comes across as a funny, witty man, a racist, misogynist, a married man with a young mistress whom he beat up many times, a man who patronized prostitutes, and also a writer who experienced racism from other writers such as Evelyn Waugh. If you have read any of his novels and non-fiction, while reading this biography you will vividly recall some of the brilliant passages from those books, especially "A Bend in the River", "The Enigma of Arrival", and "A House for Mr. Biswas". I did.

To write a biography of this great but much maligned and misunderstood writer and novelist, and a living legend, it takes a competent writer with good command over the English language, to complement and reflect Naipaul's elegant and mellifluous prose. After all, Naipaul is universally acknowledged as the world's preeminent stylist of English prose. Mr. Patrick French doesn't disappoint the readers. Written in crisp, clear, and lucid prose, the book fascinates and captivates the reader from the very beginning:
"He likes the look of the sixteen-year-old girl behind the counter, Droapatie Capildeo. Not realizing she is a daughter of the house, he passes her a note. It is discovered, the formidable Soogee intervenes, and on 28 March 1929 Seepersad and Droapatie are married at the warden's office in Chaguanas. They have a daughter, Kamla, the following year, and on 17 August 1932 their son Vidyadhar is born. He is named for a Chandela king, the dynasty which built the magnificent Hindu temples at Khajuraho in northern India. His name means "giver of wisdom."

Actually, there is a minor error here. The name Vidyadhar doesn't mean "giver of wisdom"; it means "one who possesses knowledge", the root word Vid, from Sanskrit, means "to know" and dhar means "to hold" or to possess. It's indeed a very apt name for a great writer like V. S. Naipaul.

"The World Is What It Is" is like a wonderful and potent medicine; it is brightly colored and slightly bitter, and it might even get stuck in your throat, but once swallowed it will open your eyes and compel you to see Mr. Naipaul in new light, and also make you think and ponder and shake your head long after you have finished the book. This book is a marvel.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine and deeply upsetting biography about V.S. Naipaul 18 April 2009
By Tache Noire - Published on
Author Patrick French has created a tour de force portrait of a great writer whose worldly success and emotional vulnerabilities eventually combined to push him off the deep end as a human being. I read this book for a chance to revisit the fine work that I remember admiring so much when I started to read Naipaul in college in the late 1970s (at the suggestion of a friend and fellow Duke student from Mexico City). A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, The Return of Eva Peron--I still have all the dusty paperbacks, and eagerly pulled them open to compare the text with what was in the biography. It was extremely, even intensely interesting to see French reveal the nuts & bolts of Naipaul's writing techniques and find out how these perfectly crafted works were created. So that's where that line about the Argentinean death squads driving Ford Falcons came from! For that alone, French's book is one of the best portrayals of the writing process I have read.

I also remember the tone of pungent cruelty right under the surface of Naipaul's books. I remember tasting the same kind of barbed emotional aggression in Paul Theroux's books and the style went on to become very fashionable at the time. Now I understand how the many "follower" authors mimicked the leader. At the time, in the 1970s, many reviewers and established intellectuals welcomed the abrasiveness as authentic. I did not like the cruelty for it's own sake, and never read Theroux's books for that reason. Nevertheless, Naipaul was irresistible in spite of his meanness--he was just so damn smart you had to find out what he had seen and how he would write about it.

Now about Naipaul's honesty--it's a twisted variety. He's honest in everything that is angry, cynical or critical. In our world, that is unfortunately a very long list, and this makes him look "good" as a truth teller. However, he is so profoundly dishonest about those places where goodness is real, that he destroyed his heart and soul in the process of reaching the apogee of his career. The book's title sums it all up--You have to be willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to get ahead in this world--that's the way the world is. That's the way Naipaul is. That's why he is famous. We should all think about that for a minute.

As to the gossipy part about the three-way marriage (in truth, something beyond your average adultery, more like polygamy jury-rigged for the monogamous west) French has dared to give dignity to a cuckolded literary wife and to her suffering. These women usually get tossed out with the dishwater by macho literary lions (who glorify the thrill of outside passion) and women critics (who can turn on their own kind and be very contemptuous of sensitive women who cannot protect themselves). Some of these characters appear right in the book making condescending observations about Pat Hale's suffering, or cheering on Naipaul's kinky and self-centered sexual preferences as an "awakening" necessary for his literary output.

I suspect that he was cruel to Pat because he was and still is profoundly insecure about his masculine pride and he could never forgive her for having witnessed his early weakness. The more I read, the more I was actually embarrassed for him. In the photo of him strutting for Margaret Gooding with one leg up on a railing, he looks like one of those cocky, insecure little guys who would drive a Honda Civic Pocket Rocket with a loud muffler and think he was impressing girls. Ouch.

I would suggest that this biography is a conscious, artistic coda for Naipaul's writing career in the same way that Picasso's final self-portrait captures his belated and horrified recognition of the toll his fame has taken on the people around him. Picasso finally let the guilt emerge and looked at the truth of his inner self-loathing. Those two horrible burning eyes stare back at the artist in inexorable recognition of the human wreckage left behind him in his life-long pursuit of dominance, sexual pleasure and fame. We're part of it too--after all, we bought his pictures and fed his glory. In that picture, Picasso's even gone beyond shame--it's only fear left in his future. Luckily for Naipaul, he never had children to torment into committing suicide as Picasso did, so he hasn't quite gotten to that level of horror yet...

I celebrate French's courage in letting the facts speak for themselves. At the end, he gives Naipaul and Nadira the rope, and lets them hang themselves. French loves the truth as much as Naipaul.
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A first rate biography 14 Nov 2008
By B. Gudivada - Published on
I take several objections to the previous reviwer's criticism: it shows a serious lack of understanding and feeling.

Patrick French's biography is essential in understanding Naipaul, the man, behind Naipaul, the writer, who is so famously divisive and often caricatured. Unlike Paul Theroux's "Sir Vidia's Shadow" which is a bit fictionalized and sometimes factually wrong, French draws extensively on interviews and correspondences to narrate a realistic account of Naipaul's life until the late 1990s (French doesn't chronicle the Nobel Naipaul won in 2001).

Naipaul's life is full of violent relationships with people, places, and history. French doesn't let this material degenerate into sensationalism or melodrama. Remarkably, French also doesn't budge in to Naipaul's forceful personality and holds him responsible for his behavior towards
several people. It is quite fascinating to read French's account of some event which is at odds with Naipaul's own skewed recollection of the same event.

Unlike the other reviewer noted, French does connect the dots between Naipaul's life and work. For ex, Naipaul's affair with Margaret enabled him to write the sex scenes in "A Bend in the River," not to mention the rejuvenating effect it had on Naipaul's life and work.

Overall, this book is far from a dissappointment. I enjoyed reading it as much as Naipaul's books. I can think of no better compliment.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Emotional bully; outstanding writer 3 Jan 2009
By Fernando Melendez - Published on
When V.S. Naipaul was given a copy of the completed manuscript of this biography he returned it to the author without comments or corrections; that surprising fact appears on page xi of this book; and by the time one reaches page 490, two hypothesis about why he would not change, or at least comment upon, a book that draws him in such repulsive terms remain standing: One, he never looked at the manuscript for fear of a disagreeable and emotional entanglement with it (a habit of avoidance he had carefully honed throughout his life) or, Two, his corrections would have been so massive that they would have forced an entire rewriting or rethinking of his biography, something that neither he, nor the author, would have found tolerable since truth would per force suffer deeply in any effort to redraw Naipaul as an acceptable human being. So he is here, warts and all, for all to see and sneer at.

Patrick French was given unlimited access to the entire and heretofore highly restricted Naipaul archives at the University of Tulsa; this included "his notebooks, correspondence, hand written manuscripts, financial papers, recordings, photographs, press cuttings and journals,(and those of his first wife Pat, which he had never read.)" The materials were massive and thus the book is hefty; unfortunately it is also dull. Quite possibly the sheer quantity of material led to the huge stretches of uninteresting prose which dominate the narrative.

The author remains aloof and non-judgmental about the tortures that Mr. Naipaul's narcissism inflicts on his many victims, thus depriving the story of the emotional vibrancy and color it deserves. Although the author does not condone Mr. Naipaul for his repulsive and cruel treatment of others, his detachment is at times irritating for its very coolness in the face of the dreadful situations that are being described. One thing is to shrugg off the sadomasochistic games he played with a consenting (more or less consenting) mistress, and quite another is to be neutral about the years of torture Naipaul inflicted upon a passive but adoring wife whom he eventually killed with his nonsense.

That such a profound character disorder would coexist with the capacity to write exquisite English prose remains a mystery, even though it should not: character and temperament are, perhaps astonishingly, quite independent from artistic genius, and examples abound: Picasso, Wagner and Beethoven quickly come to mind. This biography only indirectly and superficially presents the irony of a person combining a supreme mastery of writing with a miniscule sense of human compassion. Great writers are not necessarily great people.

One cannot help but draw a comparison with that other book devoted to Naipaul by his one time friend Paul Theroux: "Sir Vidia's Shadow" is flawed because if its many inaccuracies, and its motives (revenge, certainly); but never a dull momemt there. Theroux's comment upon reading the current biography was a rueful "It seems I did not know half of all the horrors." Indeed.

I would recommend this book only to the serious Naipaul scholar, for whom it is frankly an absolute necessity in terms of the historical facts it displays. I would not recommend it to the average reader or to the Naipaul fan looking for an understanding of the man.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truth, Passion and History 23 Nov 2008
By Anita Anand - Published on
I am a huge fan of Naipaul, I want to say that first. The book was released in India 6 months before it was in North America. This is a big book. Once in a while, I have to admit, I skipped some pages. But, it helped me understand Naipaul in a way I couldn't have unless I read it. French's expertise in pulling together all the pieces of Naipaul's life is enormous and admirable. Te book is bold, frank, highly personal, political and has so much history over several continents. It is a personal and political story of migration, the people left behind and the people Naipual goes to. His complex relationships with his wife Pat, his mistress and his second wife are very well presented. French manages to explore the depth, beauty and pain of all of these.

I empathise with Naipaul. Having lived outside India for 20 years, aware of the migration to the Caribbean and UK, I can sense what Naipaul went through. My life and experience are very different to his, but there is a raw quality to his writing, about any part of the world, that rings true to me. This 'rawness' made him unpopular. He wrote about what he saw and people were upset. It was too close to the bone.

I am amazed that Naipaul handed over his archives to French to write the book. This is an act of ocurage. And, French didn't let him or us down. Read the book!
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