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Monday, 10 November 2008

Perfection of the life or of the work?

More reviews in the North American press of The World Is What It Is, Patrick French's Naipaul biography. In the Austin American-Statesman, Michael Barnes suggests that

...the odd effect of [French's] biography is that the reader's estimation of Naipaul's literary achievement rises, even as one's opinion of his personal behavior declines.

But, as he explains in the Weekly Standard, Joseph Bottum has almost the opposite reaction:

Both his anxious egotism and his hunger for future reputation may have led Naipaul to create, from the raw material of his life, one last literary construction. He's making a character out of it, and he's telling a final story.

Here's the arrogance: It's a grand literary joke on all his readers, for we gave Naipaul our admiration, and he turns out to have been someone we wouldn't have touched with a barge pole. And here's the insecurity: He authorized Patrick French's biography in a desperate concluding bid to make himself memorable by turning his life into something with the shape of a novel.

Unfortunately, this novelistic life injures the actual novels from which we get any desire to remember the man. Surely he sees that, after having all this forced down our throats, we can no longer read A Bend in the River or A House for Mr. Biswas in the way we used to? Surely he understands that his semi-autobiographical stories--The Enigma of Arrival, for instance, and Miguel Street--are now ruined for us? Surely he knows that it has become much harder to laugh at the jokes in such comic works as The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira?

It is an odd reaction, I think. Surely Naipaul's more devoted readers have known about the less savoury aspects of his history and character for some time now. French describes and analyses them with a superb and stylish subtlety, and divulges some fresh details of emotional depravity, but no one can have been under the illusion that Naipaul is an angel of sweetness and light. His books "ruined for us"? Not for me. What do you think, readers?

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