The World Is What It Is

The World Is What It Is Cover

The World Is What It Is

The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul

By Patrick French

Knopf, Hardcover, 9781400044054, 576pp.

Publication Date: November 4, 2008

Description

Since V. S. Naipaul left his Caribbean birthplace at the age of seventeen, his improbable life has followed the global movement of peoples, whose preeminent literary chronicler he has become. In The World Is What It Is, Patrick French offers the first authoritative biography of the controversial Nobel laureate, whose only stated ambition was greatness as a writer, in pursuit of which goal nothing else was sacred.

Beginning with a richly detailed portrait of Naipaul’s childhood in colonial Trinidad, French gives us the boy born to an Indian family, the displaced soul in a displaced community, who by dint of talent and ambition finds the only imaginable way out: a scholarship to Oxford. London in the 1950s offers hope and his first literary success, but homesickness and depression almost defeat Vidia, his narrow escape aided by Patricia Hale, an Englishwoman who will devote herself to his work and well-being. She will stand by him, sometimes tenuously, for more than four decades, even as Naipaul embarks on a twenty-four-year affair, which will awaken half-dead passions and feed perhaps his greatest wave of dizzying creativity. Amid this harrowing emotional life, French traces the course of the fierce visionary impulse underlying Naipaul’s singular power, a gift to produce masterpieces of fiction and nonfiction.

Informed by exclusive access to V. S. Naipaul’s private papers and personal recollections, and by great feeling for his formidable body of work, French’s revelatory biography does full justice to an enigmatic genius.



Praise For The World Is What It Is

PRAISE FOR PATRICK FRENCH'S THE WORLD IS WHAT IT IS

“A great writer requires a great biography, and a great biography must tell the truth. V.S. Naipaul 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….Now Naipaul has his monument, “The World Is What It Is” 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 struggled 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 understand the enormity of the story to which he contributed so much candor is another….rich narrative….impossible to put down….Pat’s voice is faltering and uncertain where Naipaul’s is relentlessly in command, but its small observations, evasions and sudden bolts of understanding haunt the reader up until her death of cancer, which gives this story its heartbreaking end.”
- George Packer, on the cover of the New York Times Book Review

“a prodigious achievement, a wonderful biography, a justification for the art of biography itself.”
- A. N. Wilson, Times Literary Supplement

“astonishing (and astonishingly authorized)….With the aid of this exhaustive and efficient biography, one can make some more-educated surmises about the connection between Naipaul’s rigidly maintained exterior and the many layers of insecurity…that underlie it….shrewd and intelligent.”
- Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic

“I doubted whether an honest book could be written by anyone while Naipaul was still alive. I was wrong. The truth is not skimped in Patrick French’s excellent book....The great merit of a superb biography, such as this one, is that it can deepen our understanding of the literary character by telling us more about its creator....French…gets it right.”
- Ian Buruma, The New York Review of Books

“extraordinary biography….French has handled an immense amount of materials with a deft hand, and the reader actually wishes he had extended the book’s 487 pages of text and pursued his subject pas 1996….authorized but not compromised….It’s hard to see how French could have been more objective if his subject had been dead for ten years….French is so thorough that it’s likely no further biography of Naipaul, at least one covering the first sixty-odd years of his life, will ever be needed….French is very good on Naipaul’s writing….The World Is What It Is adds depth and clarity to the discussion of Naipaul’s work….French has met his own rigorous standards and, one feels, Sir Vidia’s as well.”
- Allen Barra, Bookforum

“one of the sprightliest, most gripping, most intellectually curious, and well, funniest biographies of a living writer…to come along in years….Mr. French is a relative rarity among biographers, a real writer, and at his best he sounds like a combination of that wily bohemian Geoff Dyer and that wittily matter-of-factual cyborg Michael Kinsley. Even the cameos in Mr. French’s biography are crazily vivid….crafty and inquisitive book….Mr. French quickly and adroitly steps back to give us a wide-angled and morally complicated view….vivid prose….Mr. French writes with wit and feeling.”
- Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“nuanced and generous….distinguished biography, one that aims to understand rather than simplistically condone or chastise….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, Washington Post

“extraordinary….Patrick French shrewdly…give[s] us an idea of…the world Naipaul had to join and beat….full of intimate and moving revelations…thrilling pages….masterly, mournful book…hideously just.”
- James Wood, The New Yorker

“candid….well-researched and fair-minded….French skews nothing and…illuminate[s] aspects of a life full of entanglements and opposing selves.”
- Alexander Theroux, Boston Sunday Globe

“shrewd and honest…[French is] a writer not given to extremes….French is a graceful, confident and subtle writer….offers a vivid, and sometimes enthralling, portrait of a deeply enigmatic writer….rich account….French skillfully evokes the atmosphere of political turmoil and transition….with brio and wit….French is alive to the nuances, quirks and contradictions in Naipaul’s character, and he has an acute sense of his subject’s displacement and rootlessness….a formidable achievement….contains a remarkable accumulation of rich, minute detail; covers a vast amount of history and politics in an effortless manner; and navigates difficult emotional territory with a very high degree of compassion, subtlety and authority….engrossing, with French pulling surprises out of his hat from the opening pages.”
- Scott Sherman, The Nation

“shocking moments…startling candor…as haunting and harrowing a psychological document as you could ask for….French pursues his prey with an acuity worthy of the man himself….The particular achievement of The World is to flesh out the two potent forces that Naipaul has often seemed to repress: women and Trinidad, where he grew up….French grippingly develops an account of the writer’s life as cool and undeluded as Naipaul’s former friend Paul Theroux’s was rivetingly emotional….French is …as plainspoken as his subject.”
- Pico Iyer, Time

“perhaps the most shockingly ‘authorized’ biography in the history of authorized biographies….French handles the incendiary material with novelistic subtlety and grace.”
- Sam Anderson, New York Magazine

“a major achievement….harrowing….frank ….Naipaul’s work will inevitably be read differently in light of this biography.”
- Floyd Skloot, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“sweeping ….Highly recommended.”
- Stacy Russo, Library Journal



PRAISE FROM THE UK FOR PATRICK FRENCH'S THE WORLD IS WHAT IT IS
longlisted for the prestigious BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction

“French’s character analysis is not flattering, but it does justice to its subject’s complexity….French’s book is a magnificent achievement….But the achievement is partly Naipaul’s. For he did not have to agree to these conditions, or speak to French so openly. He has chosen to submit himself to the truth-telling and ruthless objectivity that have always characterised his own work.”
- John Cary, The Sunday Times

“penetrating, wide-ranging and unflinching biography….The closing pages…are enough to draw tears.”
- The Economist

“He has written a biography of a living person that is every bit as honest, perceptive, compelling and plain good as if his subject was dead. It is a masterly performance, and if a better biography is published this year, I shall be astonished….It is rare to wish that a biography running to over 500 pages was longer, but this is an exception.”
- Allan Massie, Literary Review

“French’s character analysis is not flattering, but it does justice to its subject’s complexity….French’s book is a magnificent achievement….But the achievement is partly Naipaul’s. For he did not have to agree to these conditions, or speak to French so openly. He has chosen to submit himself to the truth-telling and ruthless objectivity that have always characterised his own work.”
- John Cary, The Sunday Times

“penetrating, wide-ranging and unflinching biography….The closing pages…are enough to draw tears.”
- The Economist

“Patrick French has brought off something very difficult, so difficult indeed that I would have thought it impossible. He has written a biography of a living person that is every bit as honest, perceptive, compelling and plain good as if his subject was dead. It is a masterly performance, and if a better biography is published this year, I shall be astonished….It is rare to wish that a biography running to over 500 pages was longer, but this is an exception.”
- Allan Massie, Literary Review

“a brilliant biography: exemplary in its thoroughness, sympathetic but tough in tone. Against Naipaul’s own increasing ‘tendency to caricature himself in public,’ and against the distortions peddled by snubbed friends and ideological enemies, French has set down a complex and credible portrait. Reading it I was enthralled — and frequently amused (how incredibly funny Naipaul can be!). I was also continually aware of a great and unrelenting pressure on the developing writer; it suffuses the book like suspense….lovely to read….French’s accounts…have their own entertainment value...”
- Sebastian Smee, Spectator

“Patrick French’s brilliant and candid The World Is What It Is lays bare the demons that drove one of our greatest — and most controversial — writers….one of the brutally frank interviews that provide the backbone of this extraordinary book….a biography that reads on one level like a contemporary variation on Bluebeard’s Castle, the kind of malign fairy tale at which, according to Naipaul, English writers excel….The World Is What It Is must have taken nerves of iron to write. 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, The Observer

“Few people expected Patrick French’s biography to be a full account of the writer’s life … It turns out that doubters underestimated French, who appears to have won himself a free hand”
- Christopher Tayler, The Guardian

“A terrific achievement — in effect, an addition to the canon of Naipaul’s own works.  There is very much more to this narrative than this personal story that has been so seized upon.  French portrays the Trinidad of Naipaul’s childhood brilliantly; he discriminates finely between Naipaul’s books; he deals sharply with the business side of Naipaul’s literary career.  The research, documentation and organisation of the material are admirable.”
- David Sexton, Evening Standard

“Copiously detailed and largely sympathetic … French’s method is phenomenological: he presents the evidence as he finds it, in his subject’s words or the words of those who knew him, keeping psychological analysis to a minimum, and intervening only occasionally to add his discreet opinions.”
- Aamer Hussein, Independent

“The biography must be the frankest authorised biography of anyone alive and in possession of their senses.”
- Ian Jack, The Guardian

“This astonishing biography … It seems I didn’t know half the horrors.”
- Paul Theroux, Sunday Times News Review

“A gripping book, one of the most compelling biographies I have read.”
- Sara Wheeler, Daily Telegraph

“French’s integrity impresses … a magnificent read.  It will be one of the Books of the Year … a serious read that is more than worthy of its subject.  And beautifully made.”
- Tom Adair, The Scotsman

“French’s engrossing biography never forgets Naipaul is a great writer.  One hopes he will, in due course, go on to complete the life.”
- John Sutherland, Financial Times

“An awesome achievement.”
- Peter Lewis, Mail on Sunday