Biography of the 2001 Nobel laureate assesses with equal acuity his creative accomplishments and profound character flaws.
Although Naipaul cooperated with this biography, British writer French (Tibet, Tibet, 2003, etc.) declares that he did not intrude and did not insist on any changes after reading the manuscript. Born in Trinidad in 1932, Vidyadhar Naipaul was among the one-third of the island’s population whose ancestors had come from India. His mother cared deeply for him; his mercurial father worked as a journalist. Vidia, as he has been known throughout adulthood, had a fierce intelligence and a powerful subterranean river of energy and creativity. He also had few friends and a broad vein of contrarian ore in his soul. French proceeds in fairly routine fashion through a history of Trinidad and Indian immigration, family background and childhood progress. The narrative follows young Vidia in 1950 to England, where he matriculated at Oxford, dealt with racial prejudice and began working for the BBC and freelancing. At Oxford, he met Patricia (Pat) Hale, whom he married in 1955 and repeatedly betrayed in spectacular fashion for years; her death in 1996 closes the biography. In 1972, Vidia became deeply involved with Margaret Gooding, carrying on a decades-long affair with her between periods of fidelity to Pat and visits to prostitutes. Frank about Naipaul’s unedifying personal life, French attends responsibly to his literary achievements, highly praising his early work, occasionally condemning later efforts and concluding that A Bend in the River (1979) is his masterwork—though he also applauds A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). French admires Naipaul’s nonfiction, recognizes the strengths and weaknesses in his journalism and believes that for the past decade he has been in decline. The text features many quotations from Naipaul’s letters and diaries.
Eloquent and scholarly evidence that—no surprise—great writers need not be moral exemplars.