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. That he has been able to achieve this owes much to the generosity, openness and fairness of his subject, Sir Vidia Naipaul, who has imposed no restrictions on him and has, for instance, allowed him to quote extensively from the diaries written by his first wife, Pat – diaries which, French tells us, Naipaul has not read himself. So we have a biography that is remarkably frank, warts and all. Given Sir Vidia’s well-documented sensitivity, even touchiness, this is a mark of his high regard, even reverence, for Literature. A biography that is not honest is, he told French, no good at all.
The bare outline of the life is well known: the poor childhood in Trinidad, the influence of his father (a journalist and writer of short stories), the scholarship to Oxford, the depression and resentments from which he suffered, the early struggles and efforts to be published, the critical success of