Criticism & Features

Year 2008: 30 Books

2008 Biography Finalist The World Is What It Is, by Patrick French

By Eric Banks

Each day leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2008 NBCC awards, we highlight one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Eric Banks discusses Patrick French’s The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul (Knopf).

As biographies go, an authorized version of the life of V.S. Naipaul sounds like a nonstarter: that little modifier has 160-decibel effect on the expected negative return on any biographical work, much less one involving a writer who has been present at so many querulous moments over the course of his career and throughout his personal life. But when Patrick French was invited to take up the pen, Naipaul made his full University of Tulsa archive available, submitted to hours of interviews, and above all confided his desire and willingness to have the record made, come what may—an action that French credits as a unique “act of narcissism and humility.” To wit, a most Naipaulian gesture, and one that has resulted in The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul, one of the most fascinating literary biographies of recent years.

French diligently charts the arc of Naipaul’s career, a before-and-after split roughly occurring following the writer’s early success with A House for Mr. Biswas. He follows Naipaul’s painful time in London post-Oxford, where he is reeling from the death of his journalist father, mostly unemployed, and feeling miserably alone. He summed up his mood to a BBC colleague, “The future is as black as ever. Nobody loves me, nobody wants me. In England I am not English; in India I am not Indian.” As French puts it, Naipaul’s “predicament would become both his handicap and his opportunity.” As he did, Naipaul created one of the most forceful literary voices of the past fifty years in both his novels and his journalism—one that was at times censorious, frequently furious about the legacy of colonialism and the rotten fruits of postcolonialist rhetoric and regimes, and in virtually all that he writes, a powerful and stylistically flawless advocate for what he sees and describes. There is a masked self-portrait in everything Naipaul has written, a fact his writing never lets the reader forget even if the self is finally still hidden.

The lurid aftereffects of Naipaul’s personal and professional relationships are ugly and wince-making. French details the writer’s family background and the early literary acquaintances in London, as well as the sharpness in Naipaul’s severance of ties—a decisive gesture that becomes a leitmotiv in his future dealings. One figure that he was ultimately unable to cut away is his Pat, his wife of more than forty years who remains loyal even as she crumbles under the pressure of Naipaul’s campaign of destruction. The World Is What It Is is as much her story as it is his. The two-and-a-half decade affair he conducted with his Argentine mistress, who becomes virtually a stand-in for his wife during much of his travels, only magnifies Pat’s sad plight. But for all the sordid detail contained in the biography, not to mention the records of dust-ups and fallings out, The World Is What It Is never seems petty or gossipy. It is indeed an incredibly honest and poignant portrait of one of the most enigmatic writers of our time. Naipaul asked for an unflinching account, and for that we can be happy and appreciate his own need to understand himself and his life. In asking French to write it, he got what he wanted—and for that we too can be thankful.