by Patrick French. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. November 2008. 576 pages. $30.

Writing the biography of a writer as controversial as V.S. Naipaul, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990, would be a daunting project for anyone. But Patrick French, the winner of the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the Royal Society of Literature’s Heinemann prize, and the Somerset Maugham Award, rises to the herculean task in his authorized biography of Naipaul, The World Is What It Is.

The book is daunting in scope, revealing both Naipaul’s brilliant mind as well as its darker side, which is a notable achievement considering that Naipaul is a very private person. Naipaul is described as a sort of dangling man, a “double exile, a deracinated colonial” with a superior education, who owed allegiance to neither country nor heritage, not even his adopted home, England, which, French points out, was of all places “the most agreeable to him, intellectually, morally, and materially.” Naipaul is quoted saying, in a self-deprecating admission, that to him “departure is always more welcome than arrival.” He is an unapologetic curmudgeon who can only see the glass half empty; yet the unpleasant truths that he has observed in his books are undeniable, whether about Trinidad, Tehran, India, Pakistan, Africa, Malaysia, or Indonesia.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in 1932 to a Brahmin family that had immigrated to Trinidad from India at the end of the 19th century. His forbears had been indentured laborers, brought to work on the sugar plantations of Trinidad. Naipaul broke out of the confining circumstances that previous generations of his family had faced by winning a scholarship to University College, Oxford. French provides vivid glimpses of Naipaul’s childhood and the valiant attempts by Naipaul’s father, Seeprasad, to maintain his brahminical heritage by reading and writing and to resist being mired in the mud of the plantations. Naipaul’s desire to be a writer was inspired in part by his father. Seeprasad’s self-published collection of stories, Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales, was to become a source of inspiration for Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas (1961).

As French tells it, Naipual always had the makings of a writer; he was ever observant, with a pencil sharpened to note down his experiences, even during his flight out of Trinidad. London did not exactly measure up to his expectations, but Oxford was a different story. Peter Bayley, a specialist in 16th and 17th century English literature and something of an Indophile himself, took Naipaul under his wing, and introduced him to several literary societies. Seeprasad’s death in 1953 at the age of 47 seemed to close the door on the possibility of Naipaul’s returning to Trinidad. Oxford had been a sanctuary, and when the university could no longer protect him and he moved to London, life became intolerable. He tried without success to get a job, any job. He fictionalized these rejections in his novels The Enigma of Arrival (1987) and Half a Life (2001). After years of being penniless and depressed, Naipaul’s break came when he got a job as the presenter of “Caribbean Voices” at the BBC, which would be for him a training ground for serious writing in the manner of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Zola.

French’s biography of this enigmatic figure is unique in revealing minute details of Naipaul’s day-to-day life. As biographer, French is never judgmental, and Naipaul has held back nothing in revealing his narcissistic willingness to sacrifice everything, or nearly everything, for the sake of succeeding in his career as a writer.

French describes Naipaul as over-developed and under-developed at the same time because of the contrast between his sharp intellect and emotional deficiency. Naipaul met his first wife Patricia Hale in Oxford in 1952; in spite of the disapproval of his parents and Pat’s father, they were married when they were both 22. His early love letters to Pat show a split personality: his intense love for her as well as his insane jealousy and mistrust.

In the early days of their marriage, Pat supported Naipaul financially. He felt justified in taking this support for granted because he felt it was owed to him as a great writer. For her part, Pat was loyal to him to the end of her life (she passed away in 1996) and did everything she could to advance his writing career. Pat was his best and most sympathetic critic, and he accepted and benefited from her constructive criticisms. She also took care of all the household chores. As Moni Malhotra of the Commonwealth Secretariat observes: Pat was “a very Indian wife in many respects—more Indian than most Indian wives—the way the woman sacrifices her own life for her husband. It was an unusual kind of relationship for an Englishwoman.” Even after he brazenly flaunted his Argentinean mistress, Margaret, Pat stayed with Naipaul, cooking and cleaning for him when he told her that he could not write without her. Naipaul had tremendous power over the two women in his life and each played a distinct role for him: Pat for intellectual sustenance, and Margaret to satisfy his sexual appetite.

Naipaul was never comfortably open about sex. He tried to satisfy his desires by visiting prostitutes, but could not accept sexual relations with his wife Pat without feeling guilty. His remorse about his infidelities was half-hearted, tinged with self-justification, but honest: “As long as Pat could look after me, it was all right. When I felt this [note his inability to face the reality of Pat’s illness] had come to her, I was full of rage … When you start writing, it is such a delicate thing, writing, shaping a paragraph, a page, shaping a chapter, having a sense of the bigger structure of the book, you’ve got to be with it all the time.” To an extent, Pat seems to have given him free license to be cruel to her. One wonders whether she fell in love with Naipaul-the-writer, rather than Naipaul, the man. French’s description of the last days that Naipaul spent with his dying wife brings out the tenderness that still lingered between two remarkable people. But Naipaul’s self-absorption and ruthless pursuit of his own happiness returned. He lost no time in marrying Nadira Alvi, a Pakistani journalist and divorcee, whom he had met in Pakistan on the very day he cremated his wife.

French’s biography, in spite of its length, is fascinating reading. It tells the story of a complicated human being, a contrarian for whom dirt and squalor were more visible than goodness. After revealing his comic vision in Miguel Street (1959) and A House for Mr. Biswas, Naipaul’s vision of man became increasingly dark, especially in his non-fiction. But most of what he said, for instance in Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981), was undeniable, and as French points out, “the admonitory pessimism proved justified, [and] the sky did fall” on September 11, 2001.

Naipaul has always spoken the unvarnished truth, whether about the marginalized victims of colonization, or the apathy of Trinidadians and Indians who do not try to better themselves materially, socially, or even spiritually. The title of French’s biography is from the opening sentence of Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979): “The world is as it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

It is a message that sends a chill down the reader’s spine.

Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.