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Author Podcast: Patrick French

abstract:Patrick French is an English writer, historian and biographer educated at the University of Edinburough. His latest book, The World Is What It Is (Random House 2008) is his second work of biography. His subject is widely considered to be one of the masters of modern English prose, the Indo-Trinidadian novelist and essayist V.S. Naipaul who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 and subsequently knighted. People currently refer to him as Sir Vidia Naipaul. In an interesting, if not ironic twist, Patrick French was also offered the OBE for his literary contributions back in 2003. He turned it down. His comment was, "It is ridiculous that honours given in the 21st century would have the word empire in them. The motto that goes with the OBE is 'For God and the Empire'. Which God and which Empire?" He added that understanding the British Empire in history lessons is "crucially important" and that it was not "taught in enough detail in schools". But this argument about medals relates to the present. And so we have a citizen of Britain refusing the same honor that a colonialist (who he is writing about) has accepted with pride if not glee. Didn't the Duke of Edinburgh suggest, about 30 years ago, that "the word empire in the medals OBE, CBE etc should be replaced by the word 'Excellence'? 'The Order of British Excellence' has a good ring to it." At any rate, turning down the OBE hasn't stopped Patrick French from winning the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for this book, or being shortlisted for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction 2008. BookBuffet caught up with Patrick French this past summer at the Southbank Centre on the banks of the Thames, London when he spoke about The World is What it Is and the issues of working with such a reputedly idiosyncratic personality.


May 19, 2009
— When asked if Naipaul co-operated his response was that this is no hagiography: "He believes that a less than candid biography would be pointless, and his willingness to allow such a book to be published in his lifetime was at once an act of narcissism and humility." Listen and read along, then click on links to purchase this book. Scroll to the end of the piece for the links to the rest of the Samuel Johnson Prize nominated author speeches. You can subscribe to our RSS feeds for this and all audio content, or simply click on individual mp3 files.

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  • Patrick French
  • Audio Transcript

    BookBuffet: This is Paula Shackleton podcasting for and today I bring you an author event recorded this past summer at the Southbank Centre, London where I had the opportunity to attend the readings of 5 out o the 6 shortlisted authors competing for the auspicious BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction for 2008.

    This is the 10th year that the BBC Four broadcasting corp will be awarding the Samuel Johson prize. From 131 submissions a panel of journalists determined the best nonfiction book published in the calendar year out of an array of genres from biography, travel and popular science to the arts and current affairs. The winner takes home the richest prize in the world for nonfiction. Join me in listening to each of the five authors talk about their books. If you don’t know who the winner is I won’t spoil it for you now. The topics range from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Stalin’s Russia, VS Naipaul of Trinidad to New York's classical music scene to a murder at a country estate in England that marked the beginning of the detective novel genre. Now Join me at the Southbank Center in London.

    Introduction by Gillian Moore, Head of Contemporary Culture, Southbank Centre: Preamble not transcribed.

    Moderator greeting by author and cultural commentator, Brian Appleyard, Times London: Pithy comments on the authors shortlisted, not transcribed.

    Brian Appleyard, Moderator: Patrick French has written the biography of a mutual friend of ours, V.S. Naipaul. I don't envy him taking on this task, knowing Vidia, who is a difficult person to get a handle on, who from minute to minute you don't know quite what he's thinking having heard what he's just said. He's an extraordinarily brilliant, magnificent writer, and also a very difficult individual. He's very difficult to know, he's very difficult to get to know. I've been through that process myself. And he's also a combination of secretive, but also, not quite so secretive. He's less secretive now, Patrick found, now that he's in his mid-seventies.

    I think you said that he was frank and abrasive toward himself, and that the other aspect that helped you was that said he archived himself very thoroughly. One of the things that I'm very interested in is that books like The Enigma of Arrival by Naipaul (1987,) make no sense unless you know the intimate biography. Now that's a very bold statement for a literary biographer. So, would you like to start from there?

    Patrick French: It's probably true of anybody that is writing fiction as powerful and creative as the stuff that Naipaul was turning out when he was in his 30's, 40's, 50's, that it's going to be drawn from life in some way. And I think that in his case, you're right, he is naturally very secretive. He went through long periods of his life without ever discussing what was really going on with anybody that he knew, whether it was family or it was friends, and it was a kind of strange process when I began the biography where he wrote me back to discuss things he had never talked about before, but I think that a book like The Enigma of Arrival or A Bend in the River (1979) or Guerrillas 2005), these really terrifying books, those were very clearly directly drawn from the bizarre triangular relationship that he had over the course of nearly three decades with his wife Patricia and his Argentinian lover Margaret. So he was with both of them and _ at the same time. And you see that played out in those novels.

    So what I thought I'd like to do, by way of introduction, is to just go back, because so much of the parts of the book that have gotten attention are the more sensational later parts, but I'd like to take you back to V. S. Naipaul, aged 17. He has grown up in rural poverty in Trinidad. People of Indian descent who are the descendants of indentured laborers. slaves effectively, to go back to the __ of the early two, that's the background he's coming out of and the assumption of a boy from that sort of family could never win one of the three annual island scholarships from Trinidad to go back to the Mother country, Britain; but somehow he does manage to win the scholarship and he's all set to try and see this really insane ambition, really, to be one of the world's great writers—and from this unpromising background.

    As he prepared to depart in August 1950, aged not quite 18, Vidia was highly educated, intelligent, ambitious and emotionally immature. He had been brought up with the idea that boys deserve special treatment by virtue of their sex. But in his life so far he'd only been influenced by strong women, Nonny his grandmother, Ma his mother, Camilla his oldest sister. Pa his father was depressive, literary and bad at holding down a job. Vidia was was heading to a country that had been presented to him as the epicenter of civilization. Each aspect of his education had emerged from overseas, yet he had no personal knowledge of Britain or the British. There were a few English boys and white Trinidadians at the Queen's Royal College, but as Erroly says to Hat in Miguel Street, "You don't know what you're talking about Hat. How much white people do you know?" He knew about school and a way of working that ensured success at Oxford University but he had no first-hand experience of social customs in Post War Britain or of the reality of life there for an Indian or West Indian. At the end of the scholarship process, what would he do? Stay in Britain or return to the West Indies, or get a job in the government of newly independent India as Pa had suggested? At Oxford what would be expected of him? Were his manners good enough? Would he have to restrain his opinions and speak quietly in public places? Would he be lonely? Would the natives in London behave like the white people in books or on news reels? In the day before commercial television and the Internet, the opportunity to comprehend or even see how another culture operated was minimum. For Vida everything that lay ahead would be alien, but seemingly familiar.

    On the first of August 1950 on the day of his departure, he woke early and hardened his heart. He would not show his stress. Since no ships were sailing to England on a suitable date, he would fly to New York to sail from there. He _ in luggage in the form of prefect and _ driven away from Port of Spain. Away from the sugar belt to the airport at Piarco. Members of the extended family were assembled there in the little wooden building at the side of the runway to bade farewell. Shortly after midday the plane left the ground and took Vida above Trinidad for the first time. He would never see Pa again. As he receeded to America and England he saw the island as he had never seen it before. The passing of the fields and the roads and the houses while his family looked up at him suspended in the sky in a cross at a right-angle to Columbus, leaving the New World.

    Moderator: The point you made at the beginning, that it was an absurd dream for a man from his background, in fact that turns out to be his strength, doesn't it? The exclusion of his background. The exclusion from the literary world that he dreamed of, is the very point.

    PF: Well exactly. The thing that is so strange now is that Post-Colonial literature is in the ascendant and a predominant form, and yet at the time that he was starting to write in the 1950's, it had not been invented. He was part of a small community of West Indian writers in London centered around a show called Caribbean Voices, a radio show at the BBC. The idea of writing about societies like all Indian in Port of Spain in Trinidad in a particular way, writing a book like A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) where you take a poor Indian family in the Caribbean and you kind of give them the Dickens treatment, I mean it wasn't something that anyone had really managed to do, or even possibly conceived. It is only in retrospect that it all makes sense, that that was what he was trying to do.

    Moderator: In his early days, when he was aspiring to his literary work was he consciously thinking that, or was he thinking, "I want to write like them; in that country" (in his case)?

    PF: I think in terms of style, he has very classical influences. He was reading the Russians, he was reading the great French nineteen century writers. So stylistically he was not experimental. He was trying to convey information in a the simplest way that he could. But he definitely knew from the beginning that his subject matter was completely different.

    Moderator: And so he was aware of the novelty of his material?

    PF: His ambition was fixed when he was probably in his late teens or early twenties. He wanted the Nobel Prize then. [laughs] I mean, at that time, it was a kind of outlandish dream! Somehow, at immense personal cost and of that of other people he got there in 2001.

    Moderator: He's very self-conscious about the fact that he was the first, wasn't he, in this Post Colonial literature world? He said to me, "Only the thing done first is any good." And this is talking about himself...

    PF: He was part of a group when he started in his early 20s. People like Yann C.... and Andrew Selke, and he was influenced by them. But once he got going, once he published The Mystic Masseur (1957) then he cut away from them and he thought, I don't want to be a regional West Indian writer. He very deliberately broke those friendships and moved into a new kind of literary set, like Athony Paul and Antonia Fraser. It was a very deliberate migration of novel to be marginalized.

    Moderator: Sorry to appeal to the journalists, but the sensational stuff... did he sort of give you interviews in which he said this stuff, or was this anonymous?

    PF: He had sold his archives to the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, where I've spent months of my life. The base of the book was the archive, particularly the journals written by Pat his first wife from 1972 onwards when she told the whole story. She told the story of the relationship with Margaret, the creation of the books and the cruelty, the great personal cruelty towards her; and then it was as if once I'd got the scaffolding of the book, I could write back to V.S. Naipaul and ask him about these things, and the extraordinary aspect of that process was that he never tried to deflect questions. He never denied that he'd behaved badly. He always attempted to give his own quirky explanation of why his life had worked out how it had.

    Moderator: Did you believe him?

    PF: I mean, he would distort things into his own emotional mental view of the world, which is very distinctive, but he was truthful, in that he didn't tell me things which I didn't hear from another source were inaccurate. But in terms of telling the truth, for example, [when asked the question] "Why did you not give Patricia a wedding ring?" Answer: "I had no interest in jewelry." And so, it's a true answer, but it's still a cruel answer, but it's his justification for the way that he behaved.

    Moderator: essential read for anybody interested in twentieth century literature, ladies and gentlemen, Patrick French.

    Listen to the other 4 shortlisted authors here

  • Tim Butcher, Blood River
  • Orlando Figues, The Whisperers: Stalin's Russia
  • Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise (coming)
  • Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Or The Murder at Road Hill House (coming)
  • About The Venue

    Southbank Centre is the UK’s largest arts centre, occupying a 21-acre site that sits in the midst of London’s most vibrant cultural quarter on the South Bank of the Thames. The site has an extraordinary creative and architectural history stretching back to the 1951 Festival of Britain. Southbank Centre is home to the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and The Hayward as well as The Saison Poetry Library and the Arts Council Collection. The Royal Festival Hall reopened in June 2007 following the major refurbishment of the Hall and redevelopment of the surrounding area and facilities. Ticket Office: 0871 663 2500 Online booking:



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