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The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul

A-The World Is What It IsPatrick French is a prize-winning English historian and biographer.

The Topic: In both his fiction and nonfiction, Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul (now Sir Vidia) developed an unflinching view of the world: the title of this biography is the opening line of one of his best-known novels. It was fitting, then, that he allowed Patrick French unfettered access to his archives and that when given the chance to look over the resulting book, he did not request a single change. The portrait of the author that emerges—from his childhood in colonial Trinidad to his time at Oxford, his marriage, his decades-long affair, and his examination of his own identity—is unflattering, to say the least. We discover a man variously childish and self-aggrandizing, racist and misogynistic, petty and proud, yet one of the greatest writers of our time.
Knopf. 576 pages. $30. ISBN: 1400044057

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a testament to French’s delicate skill that instead of trying to puncture Naipaul’s well-tested armor he shows how the plates lock together. Naipaul’s statements about [his wife] Pat seem like a bid to seal his reputation for candor, but French exposes just enough of this disingenuousness to make The World Is What It Is the best account of Naipaul we are likely to get." Thomas Meaney

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"In the end, it’s apparent that Naipaul could not have done other than what he did in life. … He was destined to be the kind of writer he became, the dissatisfied peripatetic who wanders the very world he grouses about." Alexander Theroux

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"V.S. Naipaul is a mean, nasty, brutish, smug, self-absorbed, racially insecure racist, but Patrick French writes so compellingly that one cannot stop reading. French blends immense narrative skills with shrewd observation and dogged research. Like Naipaul himself, French is unafraid of the truth." Patrick McGuire

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"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." George Packer

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"You will finish The World Is What It Is wishing to reread Mr. Naipaul’s best books immediately. You will also be glad he is not your friend, neighbor, sibling, landlord or barista." Dwight Garner

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[It] is a superb, clear-eyed study, always sympathetic, balanced and thoughtful, as well as rich in what Joseph Conrad called ‘the fascination of the abomination.’" Michael Dirda

Houston Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"Altogether, one can glean a truer sense of what makes Naipaul extraordinary from his early works of autobiographical fiction than from French’s tiresome chronicling of the writer’s comings and goings, alliances and betrayals, dinner dates, snits, funks and fulminations. French’s effort—a biography written, astoundingly, with Naipaul’s blessing and cooperation—has all the resonance of a datebook." Allan Turner

Critical Summary

Reviewers were mostly astounded that such a good writer as V. S. Naipaul could be such a horrible person. Though he has always been known as prickly, critics seemed to compete for new adjectives to describe the man who emerges in this book. Michael Dirda’s list: "whiney, narcissistic, insulting, needy, callous, impolite, cruel, vengeful, indecisive, miserly, exploitative, snobbish, sadistic, self-pitying and ungrateful." Patrick French, by contrast, earned quite positive labels for his well-written, warts-and-all biography. Yet critics agreed that Naipaul, despite the portrait of him that emerges here, has one remaining virtue. As the New York Times’s Dwight Garner put it, Naipaul "was brave to allow this complicated parsing of his own myth into the world."

Where to Start

In our profile of V. S. Naipaul in our very first issue (Summer 2002), we recommended two of his fictional masterworks. A House for Mr. Biswas examines the author’s early life in Trinidad, while A Bend in the River shows Naipaul’s expanded world view and captures the chaos of Third-World Africa.