‘As a child I knew almost nothing,’ said V.S. Naipaul in his 2001 Nobel lecture, ‘nothing beyond what I had picked up in my grandmother’s house.’ This was the Lion House in Chaguanas, Trinidad. The atmosphere, Patrick French tells us in The World Is What It Is, his brilliant new biography of Naipaul, was one of mythologized family history. His grandmother embellished her late husband’s Brahmin inheritance (in fact, he had deserted his family for another woman shortly before his death). It was a house of ‘propaganda, alliances, betrayals’, in which the young ‘Vido’ witnessed the emasculation of his father Seepersad, an aspiring writer and rationalist smothered by Hindu traditionalism. What Naipaul learned was a vulnerable pride, a fierce and often cruel independence and overweening ambition. French traces the consequences of this complex background with compulsive honesty, debunking Naipaul’s unjust reworkings of his past but remaining sympathetic to the writer if not to the man.

A few weeks ago I heard Daniel Pennac in conversation with Alberto Manguel at Southbank Centre. Pennac read from his 1992 book The Rights of the Reader, a literary phenomenon that has sold over a million copies in France. It is a lovable polemic against the dogmatic hypocrisies that surround reading and its teaching. With raised fingers, waving arms, crescendos and quietness, Pennac read to his audience of the importance of reading aloud, of reading as a performance. ‘When someone reads aloud, they raise you to the level of the book. They give you reading,’ he said. Like an excitable child, I rushed to the foyer to buy my copy.

Amid discussions of a two-state solution to the conflict in the Middle East, Israel’s own Arab population occupies an uneasy position. Set in the tense aftermath of the Al Aqsa Intifada of 2000, Sayed Kashua’s second novel, Let It Be Morning, shortlisted for this year’s IMPAC Dublin Award, is a sharp dissection of the traumas of the region’s complex political geometry. But the narrative voice, of an Israeli-Arab journalist (like Kashua himself), is too flat to sustain the story and it sags as a result.

 

Photograph by Sam Greenhalgh

Sign of the Gun
Gordon Burn | Interview