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Saturday 5 April 2008


As I mentioned in my last post, V.S. Naipaul is once again starring in the literary pages of newspapers on three continents, thanks to the long-awaited publication of Patrick French's authorised biography, The World Is What It Is. "It's hard to open a newspaper without seeing the face of Sir Vidia," said John Walsh in the Independent last week, and even the most dedicated Naipaul-philes must be getting a little weary now of the flood of newspaper articles--many of them with wonderfully scandalous headlines like "I Killed My Wife, Says Nobel Laureate". But for the sake of Antilles readers who have not been paying attention to this blitz, here's a roundup of some of the main reviews, features etc--rest assured there will be more to come.

- "The biggest surprise in Patrick French's colourful biography of Sir Vidia Naipaul is that its biographee should have allowed it to be published," says John Carey in his review in the Times. "For it exposes him as an egotist, a domestic tyrant and a sadist."

- "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," suggests Aamer Hussein in the Independent; he also gets the name of one of Naipaul's novels wrong. That should be In a Free State, not A State of Independence.

- "Few people expected Patrick French's biography to be a full account of the writer's life.... It turns out that doubters underestimated French," says Christopher Tayler in the UK Guardian.

- "This is an excellent biography which does nothing to diminish one's respect for Sir Vidia and leaves one liking him much more than I had expected -- a judgement he might himself dismiss as impertinent." That's Allan Massie in the Literary Review, expressing what is surely a minority view.

- The Economist's review shows a blithe disregard for fact-checking (who were the Dutch settlers that supposedly exterminated Trinidad's indigenous population in the sixteenth century, and where exactly are the Greek immigrants that supposedly arrived sometime thereafter?), but the anonymous reviewer is at least tenderhearted enough to be moved to tears by the biography's closing pages.

- In the India Business Standard, Nilanjana S. Roy suggests in her thoughtful essay that "the real tragedy of Naipaul is not that he’s produced middling work in his later years -- this happens, all too often, to even the best of writers, and his earlier works will continue to find an audience. It’s that Naipaul has been overtaken by the banality he has so often condemned."

- And my favourite line in all this Naipaul coverage comes from a short essay by former Granta editor Ian Jack, writing in the Guardian. "Naipaul gave French access to everything, including Pat's diaries (which he sold to an American university without having read them), and the biography must be the frankest authorised biography of anyone alive and in possession of their senses. Thanks to the New Yorker, we knew about the prostitutes; now we learn about the sexual violence. We are none of us straight pieces of timber but the woodshed usually has locks."

Meanwhile, readers impatient to get hold of the book can satisfy themselves for the time being with "Leaving the ghetto", an article by French on Naipaul's time with the BBC Caribbean Voices programme, in the New Statesman; and the Telegraph has run a couple of substantial excerpts from the biography, on Naipaul's early relationship with his first wife Pat, and his onetime friendship with Paul Theroux. You can also hear French reading a passage from his book here, at the Telegraph website.

Friday 4 April 2008

"Catapulted into privilege"

With Patrick French's biography of V.S. Naipaul about to hit the bookshop shelves, the literary pages of the British press are going into a Vidia-frenzy. More about that shortly. Meanwhile, a few days ago in the UK Guardian Chris Arnot profiled another celebrated West Indian-British writer, the Sabga-prize-winning David Dabydeen:

Dabydeen's own progress is a story that would test the imagination of any artist or writer. He was born in a one-roomed house on a sugar plantation in 1955, and won a scholarship to Queen's College, Georgetown, at the age of 10. "We had a solid colonial education modelled on the public-school system over here," he recalls. "That included Latin and strict discipline. We even had a tuckshop." So it must have come as quite a shock when he followed in his father's footsteps and arrived in south London in 1969....

Those were particularly tough times for black and Asian immigrants to the UK. Enoch Powell's 1968 Rivers of Blood speech had stirred up already rampant racism. "When Powell died, 30 years later, I remember feeling quite sad," Dabydeen says mischievously. "Were it not for him, I wouldn't have had the drive to achieve academically. I watched him wipe the floor with opponents in television studios. There was no Paul Boateng or Trevor Phillips at the time to match Powell's erudition and eloquence. I remember thinking 'I'd better get to Oxford or Cambridge'."...

He likens the culture shock of moving to Selwyn College from the Ernest Bevin comprehensive, Balham, to being "catapulted into privilege". And he disliked it intensely, apart from the library. "I used to have the odd surreptitious cigarette in there," he admits. "You couldn't do it now and I shouldn't have done it then. I could have burnt the place down." He shakes his head in admonishment.

R.I.P. Milton George, 1939-2008

The National Gallery of Jamaica has issued an obituary of the Jamaican artist Milton George, who died on Monday 31 March:

Milton George (nĂ© George Oliver) was born in Asia, Manchester, in 1939 but lived in Kingston and Braeton for most of his life. While he attended part-time classes at what was then the Jamaica School of Art and Craft, he was in essence self-taught and developed a pictorial language which reflected his awareness of modernist expressionism but was uniquely his own. He was aptly described by Dr David Boxer, Chief Curator of the National Gallery, as “a born painter, who quickly understood the emotive power of line and colour when freed from the conventions of academia.”

George was indeed the ultimate expressionist, who freely used colour, paint application and imagery to appeal to the emotions and the senses. While he also commented on social and political issues -- perhaps most memorably in his hilarious The PM Speaks at 8 pm of 1987 -- most of his works were autobiographical and he often stated that all his paintings were self-portraits. Veerle Poupeye, Research Fellow and Curator at the Edna Manley College, wrote in 2007 that George’s “paintings convey feelings, moods and situations by means of an instinctive, poetic visual and verbal language -- and his titles are important -- that is not easily translated into rational terms but nonetheless speaks eloquently to those who are willing to listen. Milton's themes usually draw from his turbulent personal life but we can easily identify with what he is talking about: our most private and vulnerable moments, which are filled with tenderness or exhilaration but also with anxiety and aggression, and our bewilderment and impotence at the tragicomic spectacle of the private and public worlds we inhabit. In that sense his paintings are not only self-portraits but about all of us, about the human condition.”

George’s work evolved significantly over the years. In the 1970s, he was best known for his quiet, delicately coloured semi-abstract portrayals of women, although his Opening Night (1978), an irreverent send-up of the pretensions of the art world, revealed a more unruly, satirical eye that later came to dominate his work. By the early 1980s, George was at the peak of his artistic powers, with paintings and pastel drawings that expressed raging emotions, a wicked sense of humour and, in many instances, a raw sexuality. Some were hilariously funny, such as his Fourteen Pages from my Diary (1983), which depict the “battle of the sexes” in George’s own, rather turbulent private life, but even his most carnal and humorous images were always infused by a deep sense of anguish. His most haunting works dealt overtly with these anxieties, such as Journey (1984) and The Ascenscion (1993), two meditations on the subject of death. George had in recent years become less visibly present in the artistic community, because of lingering health problems, but continued working and exhibiting, among others in the National Biennial. In 2007, he had his last solo exhibition at the Mutual Gallery, in which he represented a new body of work in oil and watercolour paint, which exuded a gentle wariness that reminded of his work of the 1970s, thus bringing his work full circle.

George’s work has been widely exhibited in Jamaica and abroad, among others in Jamaican Art 1922-1982 (1983-86), which toured in the USA, Caribbean Art Now (1987), and New World Imagery (1995), which were shown in England, and has represented Jamaica in the Havana and Santo Domingo biennials. His awards include the Silver Musgrave Medal in 1987 and a gold medal at the 1994 Santo Domingo Biennial. His work is represented in major local and regional collections, such as the National of Jamaica, where his Opening Night is on permanent view, and the private collections of Wallace Campbell, David Boxer, Guy McIntosh and Herman van Asbroeck in Jamaica, and Mervyn Awon in Barbados. One of Milton’s children, Beverley Oliver, has recently also gained acclaim as a painter and shown her work at the National Gallery and Harmony Hall.

Milton George passed away on Monday, March 31. The National Gallery extends its condolences to his family and many friends.