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The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography Of V S Naipaul Paperback – Dec 29 2009

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Canada (Dec 29 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143017659
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143017653
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 4.1 x 21.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 367 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,294,451 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description



“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

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


"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."

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x99f4999c) out of 5 stars 22 reviews
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x99f40450) out of 5 stars The charm, wit and enigma of V.S.Naipaul Nov. 19 2008
By Yesh Prabhu, author of The Beech Tree - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The much anticipated and eagerly awaited biography of the Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul by Mr. Patrick French is now in print. It is fascinating, gripping, deeply shocking, humorous, and hugely entertaining as well.

Readers who shook their heads in disbelief when they read Mr. Paul Theroux's "Sir Vidia's Shadow" can now read this book and shake their head some more in disbelief at some of the cruel and unpleasant incidents described here in raw and unvarnished detail. Given an opportunity to comment and suggest changes to the manuscript, Mr. Naipaul, to his credit, did not suggest any changes and allowed the book to be published, wrinkles, blisters, cuts, gashes, bruises and scabs intact, which is precisely the reason that this book is so gripping and shocking to read.

The details of Mr. Naipaul's life, often, are not very pleasant to read. In fact, I cringed when I read some of the passages here. Even though I had read about several of the unflattering incidents in various articles, books, and also on the Internet, I was quite shocked, nevertheless, when I read those passages here. This biography confirms that, yes, Mr. Naipaul is a great and fascinating writer, but he is also a flawed man.

Mr. Naipaul comes across as a funny, witty man, a racist, misogynist, a married man with a young mistress whom he beat up many times, a man who patronized prostitutes, and also a writer who experienced racism from other writers such as Evelyn Waugh. If you have read any of his novels and non-fiction, while reading this biography you will vividly recall some of the brilliant passages from those books, especially "A Bend in the River", "The Enigma of Arrival", and "A House for Mr. Biswas". I did.

To write a biography of this great but much maligned and misunderstood writer and novelist, and a living legend, it takes a competent writer with good command over the English language, to complement and reflect Naipaul's elegant and mellifluous prose. After all, Naipaul is universally acknowledged as the world's preeminent stylist of English prose. Mr. Patrick French doesn't disappoint the readers. Written in crisp, clear, and lucid prose, the book fascinates and captivates the reader from the very beginning:
"He likes the look of the sixteen-year-old girl behind the counter, Droapatie Capildeo. Not realizing she is a daughter of the house, he passes her a note. It is discovered, the formidable Soogee intervenes, and on 28 March 1929 Seepersad and Droapatie are married at the warden's office in Chaguanas. They have a daughter, Kamla, the following year, and on 17 August 1932 their son Vidyadhar is born. He is named for a Chandela king, the dynasty which built the magnificent Hindu temples at Khajuraho in northern India. His name means "giver of wisdom."

Actually, there is a minor error here. The name Vidyadhar doesn't mean "giver of wisdom"; it means "one who possesses knowledge", the root word Vid, from Sanskrit, means "to know" and dhar means "to hold" or to possess. It's indeed a very apt name for a great writer like V. S. Naipaul.

"The World Is What It Is" is like a wonderful and potent medicine; it is brightly colored and slightly bitter, and it might even get stuck in your throat, but once swallowed it will open your eyes and compel you to see Mr. Naipaul in new light, and also make you think and ponder and shake your head long after you have finished the book. This book is a marvel.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x99dd8e10) out of 5 stars A fine and deeply upsetting biography about V.S. Naipaul April 17 2009
By Tache Noire - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Author Patrick French has created a tour de force portrait of a great writer whose worldly success and emotional vulnerabilities eventually combined to push him off the deep end as a human being. I read this book for a chance to revisit the fine work that I remember admiring so much when I started to read Naipaul in college in the late 1970s (at the suggestion of a friend and fellow Duke student from Mexico City). A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, The Return of Eva Peron--I still have all the dusty paperbacks, and eagerly pulled them open to compare the text with what was in the biography. It was extremely, even intensely interesting to see French reveal the nuts & bolts of Naipaul's writing techniques and find out how these perfectly crafted works were created. So that's where that line about the Argentinean death squads driving Ford Falcons came from! For that alone, French's book is one of the best portrayals of the writing process I have read.

I also remember the tone of pungent cruelty right under the surface of Naipaul's books. I remember tasting the same kind of barbed emotional aggression in Paul Theroux's books and the style went on to become very fashionable at the time. Now I understand how the many "follower" authors mimicked the leader. At the time, in the 1970s, many reviewers and established intellectuals welcomed the abrasiveness as authentic. I did not like the cruelty for it's own sake, and never read Theroux's books for that reason. Nevertheless, Naipaul was irresistible in spite of his meanness--he was just so damn smart you had to find out what he had seen and how he would write about it.

Now about Naipaul's honesty--it's a twisted variety. He's honest in everything that is angry, cynical or critical. In our world, that is unfortunately a very long list, and this makes him look "good" as a truth teller. However, he is so profoundly dishonest about those places where goodness is real, that he destroyed his heart and soul in the process of reaching the apogee of his career. The book's title sums it all up--You have to be willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to get ahead in this world--that's the way the world is. That's the way Naipaul is. That's why he is famous. We should all think about that for a minute.

As to the gossipy part about the three-way marriage (in truth, something beyond your average adultery, more like polygamy jury-rigged for the monogamous west) French has dared to give dignity to a cuckolded literary wife and to her suffering. These women usually get tossed out with the dishwater by macho literary lions (who glorify the thrill of outside passion) and women critics (who can turn on their own kind and be very contemptuous of sensitive women who cannot protect themselves). Some of these characters appear right in the book making condescending observations about Pat Hale's suffering, or cheering on Naipaul's kinky and self-centered sexual preferences as an "awakening" necessary for his literary output.

I suspect that he was cruel to Pat because he was and still is profoundly insecure about his masculine pride and he could never forgive her for having witnessed his early weakness. The more I read, the more I was actually embarrassed for him. In the photo of him strutting for Margaret Gooding with one leg up on a railing, he looks like one of those cocky, insecure little guys who would drive a Honda Civic Pocket Rocket with a loud muffler and think he was impressing girls. Ouch.

I would suggest that this biography is a conscious, artistic coda for Naipaul's writing career in the same way that Picasso's final self-portrait captures his belated and horrified recognition of the toll his fame has taken on the people around him. Picasso finally let the guilt emerge and looked at the truth of his inner self-loathing. Those two horrible burning eyes stare back at the artist in inexorable recognition of the human wreckage left behind him in his life-long pursuit of dominance, sexual pleasure and fame. We're part of it too--after all, we bought his pictures and fed his glory. In that picture, Picasso's even gone beyond shame--it's only fear left in his future. Luckily for Naipaul, he never had children to torment into committing suicide as Picasso did, so he hasn't quite gotten to that level of horror yet...

I celebrate French's courage in letting the facts speak for themselves. At the end, he gives Naipaul and Nadira the rope, and lets them hang themselves. French loves the truth as much as Naipaul.
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x99bf4e7c) out of 5 stars A first rate biography Nov. 14 2008
By B. Gudivada - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I take several objections to the previous reviwer's criticism: it shows a serious lack of understanding and feeling.

Patrick French's biography is essential in understanding Naipaul, the man, behind Naipaul, the writer, who is so famously divisive and often caricatured. Unlike Paul Theroux's "Sir Vidia's Shadow" which is a bit fictionalized and sometimes factually wrong, French draws extensively on interviews and correspondences to narrate a realistic account of Naipaul's life until the late 1990s (French doesn't chronicle the Nobel Naipaul won in 2001).

Naipaul's life is full of violent relationships with people, places, and history. French doesn't let this material degenerate into sensationalism or melodrama. Remarkably, French also doesn't budge in to Naipaul's forceful personality and holds him responsible for his behavior towards
several people. It is quite fascinating to read French's account of some event which is at odds with Naipaul's own skewed recollection of the same event.

Unlike the other reviewer noted, French does connect the dots between Naipaul's life and work. For ex, Naipaul's affair with Margaret enabled him to write the sex scenes in "A Bend in the River," not to mention the rejuvenating effect it had on Naipaul's life and work.

Overall, this book is far from a dissappointment. I enjoyed reading it as much as Naipaul's books. I can think of no better compliment.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x99e125d0) out of 5 stars Emotional bully; outstanding writer Jan. 2 2009
By Fernando Melendez - Published on
Format: Hardcover
When V.S. Naipaul was given a copy of the completed manuscript of this biography he returned it to the author without comments or corrections; that surprising fact appears on page xi of this book; and by the time one reaches page 490, two hypothesis about why he would not change, or at least comment upon, a book that draws him in such repulsive terms remain standing: One, he never looked at the manuscript for fear of a disagreeable and emotional entanglement with it (a habit of avoidance he had carefully honed throughout his life) or, Two, his corrections would have been so massive that they would have forced an entire rewriting or rethinking of his biography, something that neither he, nor the author, would have found tolerable since truth would per force suffer deeply in any effort to redraw Naipaul as an acceptable human being. So he is here, warts and all, for all to see and sneer at.

Patrick French was given unlimited access to the entire and heretofore highly restricted Naipaul archives at the University of Tulsa; this included "his notebooks, correspondence, hand written manuscripts, financial papers, recordings, photographs, press cuttings and journals,(and those of his first wife Pat, which he had never read.)" The materials were massive and thus the book is hefty; unfortunately it is also dull. Quite possibly the sheer quantity of material led to the huge stretches of uninteresting prose which dominate the narrative.

The author remains aloof and non-judgmental about the tortures that Mr. Naipaul's narcissism inflicts on his many victims, thus depriving the story of the emotional vibrancy and color it deserves. Although the author does not condone Mr. Naipaul for his repulsive and cruel treatment of others, his detachment is at times irritating for its very coolness in the face of the dreadful situations that are being described. One thing is to shrugg off the sadomasochistic games he played with a consenting (more or less consenting) mistress, and quite another is to be neutral about the years of torture Naipaul inflicted upon a passive but adoring wife whom he eventually killed with his nonsense.

That such a profound character disorder would coexist with the capacity to write exquisite English prose remains a mystery, even though it should not: character and temperament are, perhaps astonishingly, quite independent from artistic genius, and examples abound: Picasso, Wagner and Beethoven quickly come to mind. This biography only indirectly and superficially presents the irony of a person combining a supreme mastery of writing with a miniscule sense of human compassion. Great writers are not necessarily great people.

One cannot help but draw a comparison with that other book devoted to Naipaul by his one time friend Paul Theroux: "Sir Vidia's Shadow" is flawed because if its many inaccuracies, and its motives (revenge, certainly); but never a dull momemt there. Theroux's comment upon reading the current biography was a rueful "It seems I did not know half of all the horrors." Indeed.

I would recommend this book only to the serious Naipaul scholar, for whom it is frankly an absolute necessity in terms of the historical facts it displays. I would not recommend it to the average reader or to the Naipaul fan looking for an understanding of the man.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x99e1ae34) out of 5 stars Truth, Passion and History Nov. 23 2008
By Anita Anand - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I am a huge fan of Naipaul, I want to say that first. The book was released in India 6 months before it was in North America. This is a big book. Once in a while, I have to admit, I skipped some pages. But, it helped me understand Naipaul in a way I couldn't have unless I read it. French's expertise in pulling together all the pieces of Naipaul's life is enormous and admirable. Te book is bold, frank, highly personal, political and has so much history over several continents. It is a personal and political story of migration, the people left behind and the people Naipual goes to. His complex relationships with his wife Pat, his mistress and his second wife are very well presented. French manages to explore the depth, beauty and pain of all of these.

I empathise with Naipaul. Having lived outside India for 20 years, aware of the migration to the Caribbean and UK, I can sense what Naipaul went through. My life and experience are very different to his, but there is a raw quality to his writing, about any part of the world, that rings true to me. This 'rawness' made him unpopular. He wrote about what he saw and people were upset. It was too close to the bone.

I am amazed that Naipaul handed over his archives to French to write the book. This is an act of ocurage. And, French didn't let him or us down. Read the book!

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