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So what do you really think of him, Paul?
April 8, 2008 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Paul Theroux reviews Patrick French's frank, full, authorized (!) biography of Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul. Sir Vidiadhar is not, in Theroux's estimation, a very nice man. He tortures his wife emotionally, his mistress physically, and he treats people of all races with narcissistic condescension. But can he write?

Other reviews of the book, some of which argue that Naipaul's art redeems his life, and all of which are taken from here.
posted by sy (18 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Really interesting article, although I have to wonder what happened during the editing of this particular paragraph:

To the people who first knew him in Britain or India, he is an odd fish – severe, manic, “very tightfisted”, a worrier. To the West Indians he is the epitome of a smart- mouthed Trinidadian, practising “picong” (from piquant) – a vicious sort of verbal life, her reactions, the conversations, the abuse? Her voice comes from beyond the grave in the form of 24 notebooks, which she humour intended to unsettle the hearer.
posted by saladin at 1:50 PM on April 8, 2008


Gives new context to his New Yorker story about "buggering."
posted by jcruelty at 2:02 PM on April 8, 2008


Good writer, bad man. Nothing new here. But Christ, is Sir Vidia’s Shadow really a decade old? Seems like that ruckus was just yesterday. And now his biographer is saying much worse about him and getting accolades—and Allan Massie says "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." It may or may not be impertinent, but it certainly is bizarre. I guess we all see what we want to see.

Interesting post; thanks!
posted by languagehat at 2:18 PM on April 8, 2008


Wau.

It's not often that a book review actually forces me to head straight to the bookstore. Well played, Paul.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 2:28 PM on April 8, 2008


I hate biography and I've only read three biographies in my life: Terry Teachout's bio of H. L. Mencken, Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Ceasars and Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson. I may be adding a fourth to the list because I anticipate getting a perverse thrill out of this bio.
posted by Falconetti at 2:38 PM on April 8, 2008


l-hat---
A decade ago?
Yikes.
I remember buying my first iMac the same week I bought French's book.
Tempis all over my fugit.
posted by Dizzy at 2:59 PM on April 8, 2008


I should say that I know Margaret to be a decent woman who was not just ill-used by Naipaul but subjected to a species of soul-murder.

Brilliant. Soul-murder. I'm stealing that.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 3:03 PM on April 8, 2008


A rare literary event: a decent man saying bad things about another writer, then being savaged for his motivations (jealousy, envy), and then seeming to have actually soft-pedaled his remarks at a later date.
posted by kozad at 3:26 PM on April 8, 2008


Brilliant. Soul-murder. I'm stealing that.

Soul Murder (1991) popularized the phrase, but it goes back to Daniel Paul Schreber over a century ago (Memoirs of My Mental Illness: "He believed he was connected to God through nerves or 'rays,' which, he thought, made up the human soul. He feared that his soul would be handed over to Flechsig, who would either abuse his body or let it rot. This was 'soul murder.'). It's from German Seelenmord.
posted by languagehat at 3:36 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


I believe every word in this review and I would likely cross the street to avoid Naipul in real life, and yet I can't help but think... so what. I mean, aside from the people he destroyed in his personal life, who deserve the compassion I hope we would grant to anyone, what does it matter just what species of foul human being or near-sociopath Naipul was? Bad person, great artist, it's an old story, and I suspect that the way our society has carved out the niche labelled "artist" almost requires that it be filled with a narcissist or an abuser or a monster of neuroticism.

I used to believe that wisdom in the art mean wisdom in the artist too, but I no longer do. So it goes.
posted by jokeefe at 3:52 PM on April 8, 2008


That Theroux actually has the balls to call other people assholes kind of boggles the mind
posted by matteo at 4:05 PM on April 8, 2008


It's been, well, a decade since I read Theroux's book, but two parts have stayed with me and perversely amused me ever since:

-Theroux inscribing a touching dedication on the title page of his first book as a gift to Naipaul, only to find out that he sold it once Theroux became famous enough to make some money off it.

-When a surprised Theroux discovered that Naipaul had uncharacteristically bought himself a car, he asks him what kind he got. The answer: "I don't know, some kind of European monkey wagon!"


The latter came in especially handy when my girlfriend bought a Mini...

posted by Ian A.T. at 4:24 PM on April 8, 2008


What's with the missing words in that review? I see a few sentences like, "How do we know so much of Pat’s awful obsessively kept from 1972 to 1995,when writing was her solace." The passage saladin quotes above also seems to be missing something...
posted by mr_roboto at 4:58 PM on April 8, 2008


matteo: wtf? Theroux is an honest and even compassionate travel writer. He is critical when it is called for (Pacific Islanders littering their islands with Spam cans), but he is pretty generous, in my opinion, as a warm-hearted cynic: like Vonnegut, he is.
posted by kozad at 10:14 PM on April 8, 2008


What's with the missing words in that review? I see a few sentences like, "How do we know so much of Pat’s awful obsessively kept from 1972 to 1995,when writing was her solace." The passage saladin quotes above also seems to be missing something...

The paragraphs got scrambled. They should read:

To the people who first knew him in Britain or India, he is an odd fish – severe, manic, “very tightfisted”, a worrier. To the West Indians he is the epitome of a smart- mouthed Trinidadian, practising “picong” (from piquant) – a vicious sort of verbal humour intended to unsettle the hearer.

and

How do we know so much of Pat’s awful life, her reactions, the conversations, the abuse? Her voice comes from beyond the grave in the form of 24 notebooks, which she kept from 1972 to 1995,when writing was her solace.
posted by newmoistness at 7:31 AM on April 9, 2008


That Theroux actually has the balls to call other people assholes kind of boggles the mind

Hey, Matteo, honest question here: is Theroux an asshole? I'm not trolling here, I'm serious. I'm reading something by him right now and don't get that impression but I'm curious if my impression is way off.
posted by RockCorpse at 11:49 AM on April 9, 2008


No, he's not. And I had to bite my lip about matteo's comment.
posted by languagehat at 3:28 PM on April 9, 2008


Thanks for the post sy, I'd have missed this otherwise. I have always been a big fan of Theroux. It was through the spat between them that I discovered and read Naipaul. Thanks Paul!
posted by tellurian at 6:15 PM on April 9, 2008


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