The World Is What It Is

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Patrick French’s The World Is What It Is indirectly links V. S. Naipaul’s canon (style, themes, characters) to his personal and familial history, showing readers how Naipaul has infused his art with his special vision of reality as a displaced, Oxford-educated East Indian, West Indian, Trinidadian and world wanderer. However, French does not read Naipaul’s works as biographical projections but instead, through discerning, intuitive discussions, confirms Naipaul’s enormous creative output, as he alternated fiction and nonfiction and turned from Trinidadian themes to close observation of the cultural and political realities of Argentina, India, the Caribbean, Central Africa, the Muslim world, the American South, and the English countryside. French’s title reflects his approach to biography, an open look at an outrageous and controversial figure, probing his fears, his self-doubts, his genius, his disturbing personal life, and his character flaws. This is Naipaul as he is: troubled, paradoxical, controlling, needy, brilliant, selfish, exploitive, patronizing, yet solicitous of patronage, an impish and often vicious masquerader whose insights shock and compel, a cruel taskmaster, and an enigmatic narcissist.

Fully committed to taking a cold, objective look at unpleasant realities, Naipaul provided French unrestricted access to his carefully preserved wealth of personal papers (fifty thousand documents in the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, collection, including his wife Pat’s diary), introductions to important figures in his life, and no-holds-barred, candid, face-to-face interviews. He did so without reservation, but requested that the book end abruptly, with Pat’s death and his second marriage. The biographer concurred that the years thereafter need distance to evaluate.

French provides an uncompromising yet empathetic portrait of the struggling writer, even at the top of his form methodically and obsessively controlling his art, producing twenty-nine books (history, linked stories, literary criticism, novels, travel writing, fused autobiography-fiction) while his personal life deteriorates, with friendships destroyed and enemies cultivated. In the main, French lets words and deeds speak for themselves, recording evidence gleaned from numerous interviews, direct quotations, and carefully cited sources while mostly avoiding psychological analysis and personal opinion.

French’s title is from Naipaul’s powerful 1979 novel A Bend in the River, written in the style of Joseph Conrad: “The world is what it is. Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” The title reflects the biographer’s thesis that, in the world’s view, the young Naipaul was a “nothing” who chose, with sheer determination, struggle, and self-assertion, to become something: a much declaimed and proclaimed author, a British knight, and a Nobel Prize winner. The chapter headings trace the movement: the young Trinidadian Vido suffers “Like Oliver Twist in the Workhouse,” copes with racism (“They Want Me to Know My Place”) and being undervalued and underpaid (“He Asked for 10 Gns!!”), but transforms himself into the noted, accomplished literary figure V. S. Naipaul, using clear, powerful but progressively elliptical prose (“The Schintsky Method”), highly concrete detail, and a sharp, biting wit (“There Wasn’t Any Kind Remark”). As V. S. Naipaul he challenged the literary dominance...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The Atlantic Monthly 302, no. 4 (November, 2008): 134-139.

Booklist 105, no. 4 (October 15, 2008): 13.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 17 (September 1, 2008): 926-927.

Library Journal 133, no. 17 (October 13, 2008): 69-70.

Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2008, p. E6.

The Nation 287, no. 19 (December 8, 2008): 30-36.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 18 (November 20, 2008): 22-28.

The New York Times Book Review, November 23, 2008, p. 1.

The Observer, April 13, 2008, p. 23.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 36 (September 8, 2008): 44.

Quadrant 52 (September, 2008): 58-63.

The Spectator 306 (April 5, 2008): 32-33.

Sunday Times, March 30, 2008, p. 39.

The Washington Post Book World, November 16, 2008, p. BW10.