Select one of the keywords
The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul    by Patrick French order for
World Is What It Is
by Patrick French
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2009 (2008)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book

Read an Excerpt

* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

After reading and very much enjoying Patrick French's excellent and very balanced treatment of Tibet, Tibet, his name (as well as his subject's) caught my eye on the cover of The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul. Though I've only read a smattering of Naipaul's works, I enjoyed his sardonic approach to Among The Believers: An Islamic Journey and was curious to learn more about this controversial literary giant.

In his Introduction, Patrick French sets the tone with the mixed reviews around the world to the announcement that V. S. Naipaul won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature. He tells us that Vidia Naipaul, 'born in rural poverty in colonial Trinidad in 1932', would 'become one of the great writers of the twentieth century' and emphasizes the 'quality of integrity' in his writing. He proceeds to fill in the details of that background - and extremely impressive achievement - in fascinating detail, showing a driven, highly focused man who always put his writing first and 'stood for high civilization, individual rights, and the rule of law.'

Though Naipaul quickly shed his roots - he left Trinidad for England at age eighteen on scholarship to Oxford and never looked back - French tells us that speaking in Trinidadian picong - 'where the boundary between good and bad taste is deliberately blurred, and the listener sent reeling' - left the great man full of glee. French shows how Naipaul became 'an East Indian West Indian who had been pulled out of his own society by a superior British education, leaving him a double exile'. He describes his relationships with women - the strong female members of his family, Pat Hale whom he married young and who always put his work above her own needs, Anglo-Argentinian Margaret Murray with whom he had a twenty-five year affair (in a strange, shifting love triangle), and finally Nadira Khannum Alvi (born in Kenya of a family from Pakistan) whom he married shockingly soon after Pat's death from cancer.

In England Naipaul had 'become a radio presenter and a television pundit, produced journalism and book reviews, written short stories, comic novels and a coruscating study of the West Indies.' He also wrote 'what would come to be seen as the epic of postcolonial literature, A House for Mr. Biswas.' His life became an itinerant one, traveling overseas for research and then settling for a while to write. Ironically he was criticized for being too alarmist 'about the dangers of political Islam' in Among the Believers. And when he wrote Beyond Belief in 1996-97, he expressed the view 'that an individual's devotion to a perceived idea of Islamic teaching might push every other consideration aside, and lead him to unconscionable acts.'

In The World Is What It Is, Patrick French presents to his readers a man who is complex and insightful, charismatic when he chooses to be yet easy to offend, a domestic tyrant who can also be kind. He describes the context in which Naipaul penned each of his books, and relates it to the content of those works (making me want to take in more of them). If you are a reader of V. S. Naipaul's works, or are simply interested in the life and background of a Nobel prizewinner in Literature, then French's biography is a must read.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more NonFiction books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews