- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

NEW DELHI — For British author Patrick French, writing his tell-all biography of author V.S. Naipaul was “like being a detective” as he explored the darker side of the acclaimed Nobel laureate’s personality.

Mr. French, the favorite to win Britain’s $60,000 Samuel Johnson prize tomorrow - the world’s richest in nonfiction - spent five years researching Mr. Naipaul’s life and says he never got bored writing about the Trinidad-born writer. Mr. Naipaul laid bare to Mr. French in searingly frank interviews all his worst aspects - his cruelty to those closest to him, rudeness, narcissism, arrogance and selfishness.

“He’s the most remarkable writer of the late 20th century. His life story fascinated me,” says Mr. French, who recently visited New Delhi as part of a launch tour for “The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography Of V.S. Naipaul.”

One British reviewer said it “must be the frankest authorised biography of anyone alive and in possession of their senses,” and Mr. French said in an interview that it was “a tightrope walk.”

He worried Mr. Naipaul, 75, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in literature for works such as his semiautobiographical novel “A House for Mr. Biswas,” might drop the project given his mercurial temperament and reputation for cutting people out of his life.

Mr. Naipaul famously fell out with American travel writer Paul Theroux, who later wrote a bitter, no-holds-barred memoir of their long association, but Mr. French’s fears that Mr. Naipaul, who had asked him to undertake the biography, might abandon the venture never materialized.

“He did not refuse to answer a single question,” Mr. French says, noting that Mr. Naipaul once said “the truth should not be skimped” in biographies.

Mr. French says it was “like being a detective.” Spending months “reading someone’s letters and journals, you develop an instinct about what is significant,” he said.

Mr. French says he tried to steer clear of making any judgments about Mr. Naipaul, who concedes in the book that his “cruelty” to his first wife, Patricia, as she fought cancer may have hastened her death. His wife was in remission when he told a magazine in 1994 that he frequented prostitutes.

The admission “consumed her. I think she had all the relapses and everything after that. … It could be said that I had killed her,” Mr. Naipaul says in the book. He belittled her for four decades, telling her she was too dull to take to parties. She died two years later.

The day after her cremation, he brought home not the Argentine mistress with whom he had a sometimes violent quarter-century affair, but a fiery Pakistani journalist 20 years his junior and the opposite of the self-effacing Patricia, who had been his constant literary support.

Mr. Naipaul, knighted in 1990, asked Nadira Alvi to be the next “Lady Naipaul” while his wife was dying.

“Readers can judge a character, just like they can in a novel,” says Mr. French, 42. “I didn’t feel the need to do moral signposting or put a health warning on the book,” says Mr. French.

He says he thinks there are explanations why Mr. Naipaul, grandson of an indentured slave, has behaved as badly as he has to many and paints him as a writer who overcame huge hurdles to become one of world’s literary giants.

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