Paul West 1930–
English-born American novelist, critic, short story writer, essayist, poet, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides coverage of West's career from 1987 to 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7 and 14.
Though West's publications range from poetry to literary criticism and autobiography, he is perhaps best known for his fiction, written in an intricate and ornate style that is frequently concerned with the psychological lives of minor historical figures. A French war refugee in Rat Man of Paris (1986) and the Romantic artist Walter Sickert in The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper (1992) are two examples of minor real-life figures who become key players in West's prose. These and other novels explore the complex motivations of various characters, with West's writing providing a window on their actions and life choices. West acknowledges influences on his writing as diverse as Samuel Beckett, Juan Goytisolo, and Marcel Proust, and he identifies more strongly with the writing of South Americans than North Americans. West's nonfiction has also been well received, especially his two-volume set of literary criticism, The Modern Novel (1963), a collection of essays that put forth his philosophy of fiction writing.
West was born in Derbyshire, England, to a working class father partially blinded during combat in World War I and a middle-class mother whose career as a pianist was deferred to care for the family. The couple's relationship is the topic of West's autobiographical novel, Love's Mansion (1992), in which two people from differing backgrounds overcome obstacles of class and politics to form a lifelong bond that manages to transcend even boredom and familiarity. West received his Masters degree at Columbia University in 1953 and shortly afterwards relocated to the United States to teach, spending most of his career at Pennsylvania State University. West has one daughter, Mandy, born brain-damaged and mostly deaf, who is the subject of two of his books: Words for a Deaf Daughter (1969) and Gala (1976), in which he attempts to explain his daughter's place in an imperfect and random universe. West himself has suffered from various illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, and migraine; in A Stroke of Genius (1995) he chronicles his experiences as a stroke victim.
Most critical attention is focused on West's novels. Though his first novel, A Quality of Mercy, was published in 1961, his fiction did not gain wide critical reception until The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg (1980). This historical rendering of the plot to kill Adolf Hitler is similar to West's other novels in that it presents a highly personal history of someone on the periphery of public history. This was followed by Ratman of Paris, a story about a real-life eccentric who roamed the streets of post-war Paris exposing passersby to a "rat"—a fox stole—which was one of his few remaining possessions from before the war. West gives the Rat Man a history and describes the chain of events that may have eventually led to his notoriety. In Lord Byron's Doctor (1989), West travels further back in time to fictionalize the events of Lord Byron's elite circle of writers and friends in the early eighteenth century. Though much is known of Percy and Mary Shelley, and even Mary's half sister Claire Clairmont, a more obscure figure is Byron's doctor, John William Polidori, who travelled with the group and was accepted at least in part into their literary parlors. West describes the doctor as a character filled with self-importance and second-rate prose, who eventually bored his companions and fell from their favor. One of West's most popular novels is The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, in which he expounds upon the previously-published theory of a sinister plot in eighteenth-century London to keep scandal at a safe distance from the throne—a task that involved murdering several prostitutes who knew too much about Prince Edward's dealings in the city's underworld.
While West has not enjoyed the widespread popular success of many well-received novelists, his reputation among critics is secure. Most have regarded his novels as well-crafted and consistent, even if some have taken issue with his meticulous prose style, marked by frequent and lengthy passages in which characters contemplate their motives and thoughts. These criticisms have prompted West to write an essay entitled "In Defense of Purple Prose," in which he lambasts the current preference of critics for a more minimalist style and staunchly defends his ornate prose as being richer and more colorful than a novel constructed with as few words as possible. Conversely, some critics admire this style. Of The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, Partisan Review critic Ronald Christ noted that "the richness of West's prose is the real wealth here and it is, like Stauffenberg's hours, loaded with all the treasures of a 'truant mind.'"