The American-Palestinian literary critic and political activist Edward Said (1935–2003) had a problem with the truth. In an epistemological sense, this problem was at the centre of his work, which has transformed the teaching of the humanities at universities and given birth to the modern discipline of post-colonial studies. He believed that representations, rather than any independent reality, are what really matter in the world, and that these always reflect deeper relations of power, particularly between the West and the rest. He placed quotation marks around such words as ‘objectivity’, ‘facts’, ‘evidence’ and ‘scholarship’. Critics who complained about the absence of such things in his writings, Moustafa Bayoumi, editor of the recently published The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966–2006, helpfully reminds us, were guilty of the very thing that Said claimed to be unmasking.
This was always going to pose a difficulty to any would-be biographer. On the one hand, if biography as a genre is to have any meaning, it must involve marshalling such vulgar things as facts and evidence to reconstruct an individual’s life. Yet on the other, if one is to