The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul
by Patrick French
(Knopf, 576 pages, $30)
The Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul admits he is a cruel man. When Pat, his wife of 41 years, died of cancer in 1996, she had endured decades of his mental torture. “It could be said I killed her,” Naipaul says now. Pat, a fellow Oxford graduate, had helped her immigrant husband survive a breakdown early in their relationship. But as Naipaul won acclaim for his writing, he demoted Pat to a secretarial role and buried her in insults. He began frequenting prostitutes in his late 20s and at 40 initiated a torrid affair with a woman named Margaret Gooding. The more he beat Gooding, the more she worshiped him.
There’s “not much to like” about the Naipaul we meet in Patrick French’s “superb” new biography, said Michael Dirda in The Washington Post. Though there’s a “fairy-tale” quality to the novelist’s rise from dark-skinned scholarship student to worldwide literary celebrity, the artist behind such masterworks as A Bend in the River and A House for Mr. Biswas “starts life as a twerp, then fairly quickly becomes a jerk, and ends up being an old sourpuss.” But “a great biography must tell the truth,” said George Packer in The New York Times, and by agreeing to bare his monstrous selfishness to French through interviews and archives, “the greatest English writer of the past half-century” has awarded himself with a “monument” in prose. The World Is What It Is boasts “all the dramatic pacing, the insight, and the pathos of a first-rate novel.” When Naipaul launches his sadomasochistic relationship with Gooding, the book “becomes impossible to put down.”
But what a price Naipaul has paid for his devotion to truth-telling, said Joseph Bottum in The Weekly Standard. Though he’s trying to ensure “that readers a hundred years from now will find him interesting,” his own books now seem so “weighted down” by the dirt he’s revealed that “they feel like blocks of lead.” It’s also disturbing that French breaks off his story around the time of Pat’s death, said Martin Rubin in The Wall Street Journal. “One is left with the queasy feeling” that Naipaul, now 76, is less committed to truth than to “the chance to act out his hostility, yet again,” against two former lovers who “cannot or will not defend themselves.”