Paul West Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Paul Noden West is one of America’s most imaginative and innovative contemporary writers and finest literary stylists. He was born in Eckington, England, on February 23, 1930, the son of Alfred and Mildred (Noden) West. From his earliest days, West was surrounded by book lovers—parents, grandparents, and relatives—who viewed the written word as sacred and who considered nearly any book a worthy addition to an ever-growing canon of literary experiences, experiences they considered as valid as those of everyday life for authenticating the self and one’s existence in the world. West quickly assimilated this reverence for the word and literary text as experience and applied it to his studies at Oxford and Columbia universities. Between the childhood encouragement to sample literature from around the world and the Oxford mentoring that exhorted him to experience literature, learning, and activities outside the traditional academic setting, it is not surprising that West developed an eclectic, comparative taste in literature and in the versatility and variety of his literary craft.

Even a cursory examination of West’s works reveals their thematic variety and stylistic richness as well as the originality of his imagination. His themes include psychic abuse, failed relationships, societal indifference, and spiritual inadequacy, but a positive side exists in his writing as well. Self-discovery and survival are strong forces in his works. The dialectical tensions between the forces of genocide and the keepers of peace reinforce the paradoxical nature of existence in an indifferent, imperfect, yet potentially rich universe. This thematic richness and variety is the product of West’s interconnected beliefs about the human condition. Throughout his works, West juxtaposes a picture of a universe in flux, filled with a plurality of experience, to one of an arbitrary and imperfect world, self-absorbed and heedless of its members. West reveals that the tension and confrontation between these paradoxical sides of an absurd world produce both the darker sides of human behavior and being and the potentiality in life. Consequently, his works suggest the need to perceive the universe and life more inclusively and recognize the productive capacity of the imagination to construct meaning and even a measure of happiness in an absurd world.

West’s particular significance in contemporary literature rests strongly with his stylistic genius; he ranks with James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf in his ability to craft simultaneously lyrical and dense, elegant and economical tours de force. He captures the exciting, arbitrary nature of words for reflecting a universe in flux. West’s career has moved in a steady arc from the realism of the Alley Jaggers trilogy through the experimentalism of Caliban’s Filibuster and Gala to a sustained production of historical fiction . In these later novels he has imaginatively explored Count von Stauffenberg, the putative assassin of Adolf Hitler, a Parisian street person, Jack the Ripper, his own parents’ adolescence and courtship, and Chinese women conscripted by the Japanese to act as prostitutes. West has given historical fiction a depth and stylistic exuberance unmatched by most practitioners of the form. In all these novels, there is also a sustained examination of the creative...

(The entire section is 790 words.)