Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Life Split in Two

By George Packer, writing in The New York Times November 21, 2008

A great writer requires a great biography, and a great biography must tell the truth. V. S. Naipaul (illustrated left by Joe Ciardiello) 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.

Read the full review at NYT online.

The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul
By Patrick French
Illustrated. 554 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $30

Published in the UK earler this year by Picador (20pds) where a survey showed it to be the year's most popular biography.

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