Category Archives: Biographies and autobiographies

Poison pens: When writers’ friendships turn sour

When writers’ friendships fall apart there is often acrimony and – being writers – details of their differences and bitterness are sometimes committed to print. How voraciously we gobble up these traded insults, verbal dust-ups and flurries of bitchiness!

It’s been going on for ages. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were great pals until the former insisted on getting solo billing on the collaboration that resulted in Lyrical Ballads.

Ernest Hemingway was notoriously unkind to former buddy F Scott Fitzgerald. After a toxic combination of jealousy, alcohol and money parted the pair, Hemingway spoke openly of Fitzgerald’s marital difficulties and artistic struggles – and publicly called Fitzgerald a “moaner and a sissy”. 

Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson feuded publicly after Wilson described the former’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin as “uneven and banal.” Nabokov fired back that Wilson was a “commonsensical, artless, average reader with a natural vocabulary of, say, 600 basic words.”

Sisters A S Byatt and Margaret Drabble have never really been friends. They haven’t seen eye to eye since childhood, the latter once saying: “It’s sad, but our feud is beyond repair.” Sad indeed – the sisters are both in their 80s.

Paul Theroux’s long-term friendship with his mentor Vidia Naipaul ended with the American author being snubbed by Naipaul as they passed in a London street. Theroux paused to chat with his old buddy, Naipaul coldly mumbled a grudging response and moved on without stopping. This was in 1997, some 31 years after the pair met at an academic outpost in Uganda when Theroux was 26 and the Trinidad-born writer 34.

In the London street Theroux had asked the recently remarried Naipaul why he hadn’t responded to his last note to him. “Take it on the chin and move on,” said the departing Naipaul.

But Theroux didn’t follow that advice. He nursed the insult, brooded over it and, eventually, wrote a book because of it. Is ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ an account of true friendship won and lost? Or is it a literary exercise in revenge – an attempt to erase the humiliation he felt at Naipaul’s treatment of him?

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In days of friendship – Paul Theroux, left, with his mentor V S Naipaul.

As San Diego Reader critic Judith Moore wrote: “I can’t help but believe that the Naipaul whom we meet in ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ is a creature born from Theroux’s wounded feelings.”

For the most part Theroux’s account casts his pal in a favourable light, only occasionally – and subtly – alluding to Naipaul’s legendary and undisputed nastiness. It is only towards the end of this fascinating account of an intense and complex relationship that mud-slinging, however disguised it might be, is evident.

Theroux admired Naipaul immensely, feeling gratitude for the encouragement he had given him in his early writing days. He recognised Naipaul as a brilliant writer who could also be an enthralling companion. Because of this, it seems he attempted to make himself blind to Naipaul’s many flaws – misogyny, racism, meanness and countless forms of rudeness, from the blatant to the subtle.

To put up with all that and, when in Naipaul’s company, to remain an uncomplaining, uncritical friend through three decades creepingly paints a picture of a rather pathetic and needy old dog who keeps coming back wagging his tail no matter what beating or scolding it has suffered.

Theroux is at pains to disguise this, but the evidence builds throughout the memoir. The American elevated Naipaul onto pedestal, took the kicks and was rewarded with a cold rebuff on a London pavement.

Apart from Naipaul’s parting words on that day there is nothing from him here to explain the reasons for that brush off or as to why he turned against his protege. It is clear that Theroux believes Naipaul’s haughty new wife bears much of the responsibility. He finds very little that is favourable to say about her.

The book, by design not accident, builds a picture of Naipaul as a deeply flawed individual notwithstanding his literary brilliance. But what of the book’s author? I’m a long-standing fan of Theroux’s work, greatly enjoying his reportorial travel writing and occasional brilliant novel (The Mosquito Coast for example).

But these days, the term ‘unreliable narrator’ has begun to creep into my assessment of Theroux, fuelled by observations of his behaviour in his travelogues: remaining wisely silent while others prattle out gauche comments; being non-judgemental while those around point fingers; not grumbling like the whining tourists he encounters, and so on. Can anyone be this benign and uncomplaining? Well, they can in print – it’s a kind of artistic licence I suppose. Few, after all, would paint themselves in a bad light.

All of which brings the reader to the question of balance in ’Sir Vidia’s Shadow’. It is, after all, written entirely from Theroux’s point of view; Naipaul is tantalisingly mute.

“He [Naipaul] was always the one who said you have to tell the truth [in writing],” Theroux once remarked. Later, after Naipaul’s death in 2018, he said that he believed his book to be “an unsparing and accurate portrait of the man, minus the instances of racism and physical abuse that I was forbidden by lawyers to publish.”

Responding to a critic’s referring to Naipaul’s “great modesty”, Theroux said: “In 30 years of knowing the man I was never privileged to observe this. I mainly saw his sadness, his tantrums, his envy, his meanness, his greed, and his uncontrollable anger. But I never saw Naipaul attack anyone stronger than himself; he talked big and insultingly but when he lashed out it was always against the weak: people who couldn’t hit back, the true mark of the coward.”

The critic, Ian Buruma, countered: “If Naipaul was quite the monster he describes, why did Mr Theroux spend decades of his life fawning over him? But then the demolition of an idol by a disillusioned worshipper is never an edifying sight, and in the case of an ageing writer a trifle undignified too.”

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Paul Theroux: Unreliable narrator or truth-teller?

’Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ divided opinions but sold in great numbers nevertheless. The British writer Lynn Barber summed-up the to-ing and fro-ing in 2000: “I’ve never known a book to divide people so strongly, between the Naipaul-is-a-shit and the Theroux-is-a-shit camps. The American critics uniformly took the latter view and Theroux’s name in the States is now mud. Theroux believes there was an orchestrated campaign against him, but that’s probably his paranoia. Naipaul stoutly maintains he has never read the book. Anyway, it’s a wonderful book, a modern true version of the sorcerer’s apprentice.”

Just over a decade after this was written there was, it appears, some kind of reconciliation between the two writers. In 2011 the novelist Ian McEwan nudged Theroux and Naipaul, after 14 years of frostiness, to shake hands at the Hay literature festival. A partial thaw ensued and the pair appeared to be were reconciled in 2015 when they met at a literary festival in Jaipur. Theroux’s admiring speech about Naipaul’s ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ (comparing the author to Dickens) brought tears to the eyes of his former nemesis.

Brilliant and beastly: the enigma of VS Naipaul

Reading Patrick French’s hefty biography of VS Naipaul brought back memories of my once playing Mahjong with incipient conjunctivitis; the game was challenging enough without the tile details going in and out of focus.

French’s writing style in general has little appeal for me – a little dry and academic and when he presents, as he often does in this tome, a lengthy, name-dropping paragraph, the hotchpotch of third-party comments and attributed quotes undermines clarity. Things become a little blurred – my response was often to skip ahead.

french bookPloughing through ‘The World Is What It Is’, I was also reminded of a lecturer long ago who recited his words of wisdom to us students while absently leafing through the pages of a newspaper. Like that academic, French is not, for me, a natural at engaging with his audience.

Published in 2008, this authorised biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author covers Naipaul’s life from his birth in1932 to his second marriage in 1996. The author, who won the Booker Prize for his novel ‘In a Free State’ (1971), died in 2018.

The biography’s title derives from the opening of Naipaul’s book A Bend in the River (1979):

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

The sentence, channeled through a fictional character, tells us much about the author’s view the world and his fellow travellers.

While French’s is not a hagiographical work, he is not overtly critical of his subject who was, it is clear from this book and other accounts, a difficult person to like.

Naipaul’s intelligent, unassuming wife Pat remained pitifully loyal to the author even though he treated her like a lowly servant.

You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station,’ he once cruelly barked at her. And then, in a moment of self-pitying regret, he wrote to her: ‘I love you, and I need you. Please don’t let me down. Please forgive my occasional lapses. At heart I am the worthiest man I know.’

His ‘occasional lapses’ included habitual visits to prostitutes, furious and violent domestic outbursts, a perpetual haughtiness and taking up a long-term intimate association with another woman who became, effectively, a second wife. This was how he treated  his nearest and supposedly dearest. Others, friends, associates, publishers who crossed him and so on found themselves subject to the notorious Naipaul ‘blank’. They simply became non-persons; he did not just cut them, he did not notice them.

A hatchet job on Naipaul’s disagreeable qualities could fill a book. French’s commendably objective approach brings balance but there is no getting away from unpleasantness of the person under scrutiny. To take our minds off personality issues, French dwells at length on rather fringe and uninteresting threads – largely irrelevant family background and affairs, political machinations in Naipaul’s birth country of Trinidad, the humdrum details of foreign trips and so on.

Academics and professional reviewers will argue that such detail is necessary and required in a thorough biographical work. But that doesn’t make them any the less dull for the ordinary reader.

There is much here, rightly, about Naipaul’s output. The author’s work divides opinion among readers but I fall into the fan camp having enjoyed both his fiction (particularly ‘The Enigma of Arrival’) and non-fiction (‘An Area of Darkness’).

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Patrick French

But French’s accounts of the critical reception of each book is exhaustive to the point of being exhausting. And this is where some of those confusing paragraphs tend to crop up. Like many biographers, French has laboured long on thorough research, having had complete access to the Naipaul archives at the University of Tulsa and spent many hours  conducting face-to-face unrestricted interviews with his subject. The word count demonstrates that French wants us to know how industrious he has been but the extraneous detail is overwhelming and of little interest to anyone not engaged in writing a dissertation on Naipaul.

Critics universally lauded ‘The World Is What It Is’ on its release in 2008 so my comments here are very much against the current. I admire French’s achievement in writing this comprehensive biography but I am left with little sense of really knowing or understanding the man who is its subject. Naipaul once remarked ‘whenever we are reading the biography of a writer … no amount of documentation, however fascinating, can take us there.’ 

Given Naipaul’s nature – elusive, mistrusting, narcissistic, aloof, judgemental – perhaps it is unavoidable that little of the real person comes across. Perhaps there was no real person. Perhaps the man was unknowable, even to himself. An enigma.

Bring Me Your Favourite Memoirs

The Nonfiction November topic this week is an opportunity to take advantage of the wisdom of the crowd. The host, Katie at Doing Dewey, suggests we can “Be the Expert/Ask the Experts/Become the Expert”). 

I’m going to take the “Ask The Expert” path and ask for help with a newly- acquired reading interest I want to develop further.

Memorable Memoirs

Most of my non fiction reading this year has been in the form of memoirs. I never planned it that way and in fact until this year I wouldn’t have even predicted this genre would be a favourite.

But that’s how it’s turned out.

I’ve read some stunning books, vastly different in scope but every one of them written by a person with insight and the ability to let me into their world.

From Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt, I learned how medical practitioners get burned out to the point they give up the profession despite their passion for healing. Through The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, I appreciated how easily you can lose everything – home, money, career – and yet maintain your dignity and courage. And from Becoming by Michelle Obama I saw how, even when you have a high profile role on the world political stage, you can still have doubts about your abilities.

I know I have barely touched the tip of an enormous iceberg. But my appetite has been whetted and now I want more.

So here’s my request to you all.

Give me your recommendations for killer memoirs.

i’m looking for the memoirs that are breathtaking, spell-binding, unmissable etc etc They could be But – and it’s a very big BUT – you’ll have to avoid those from so-called ‘personalities’ or people in sports, show-business or politics. The reminiscences of a member of a girl-band/boy band have zero appeal to me. Nor am I particularly fond of the ‘misery memoir’ which deals with the abuse someone experienced as a child (I find them too painful to read sorry).

What I’m really looking for are books by people who witnessed or achieved extraordinary things. And they can relate this to me in a way that is memorable, engrossing and thought-provoking.

If you know just the thing to fit my requirements, do leave me a comment and tell me why you think your suggestion is special.

Obscene and vile: why Zola’s novels ruined a publisher

Zola and the VictoriansIf you were asked to think of a court case involving the thorny question of censorship and fiction, what books or authors would come to mind? D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover perhaps? Or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary?

Coming more up to date, how about the 1933 obscenity trial concerning James Joyce’s Ulysses or the 1961 case involving Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer which went all the way to the US Supreme Court?

No less significant, yet less well known, is the 1888 prosecution of Henry Vizetelly, the elderly head of a family publishing business in London.

His crime: publishing English language editions of some of the  most provocative and “vile” novels written by Emile Zola. His punishment: prison, the collapse of his health and the ruin of his business.

Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne  is a fictionalised account of the history of this case. Using court and Parliamentary records, letters and newspaper reports, Horne weaves a narrative showing how Vizetelly became the target of the National Vigilance Society – a group of moral vigilantes who wanted to rid England of “vile literature”.

According to the society young girls were being led to prostitution because of cheap translated versions of books by Emile Zola. In 1888 they launched a prosecution for obscene libel against Henry Vizetelly, Zola’s British publisher.

Three titles from Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series were used as evidence in the subsequent Old Bailey trial: Nana, The Soil (La Terre) and Piping Hot! (Pot Bouille). They were books, the court was told, that featured rapes, pregnancies, menstruation, nudity and women’s sexuality. 

Against such an attack Vizetelly’s argument about the artistic merits of these work by “a great French writer”, held no sway.

Emile Zola’s book La Terre “is a filthy book from end to end,” the chief prosecuting counsel tells the jury.  “I will not call what I am about to read literature. There can be no question of literature with regard to this garbage.” 

He and his sons were ordered to cease publication and sale of the offending books. Faced with financial ruin, they tried to ‘soften’ the translations to make them more acceptable. But even that wasn’t enough – Vizetelly was hauled back into court and this time, the result was a prison sentence.

Naturally Horne devotes a large proportion of the book to the legal case but doesn’t drag her narrative down with exhaustive details of the legal arguments used in the Old Bailey trials.

Her approach is rather to focus on how the whole saga affects the people involved, particularly Vizetelly and his son Ernest who was translator of Zola’s texts.  Horne takes us into the heart of the family, ‘listening in’ to their conversations and their differing views on how to respond to the accusations. Vizetelly comes across as a proud man who believes right is on his side and will not listen to his son’s voice of caution.

By the time he finishes his sentence he is a frail old man.

He is a free man but he is broken. The many weeks of poor hygiene and haphazard medical attention in insalubrious quarters have ruined him physically as surely as the court’s verdict ruined him financially.

Emile_Zola

Emile Zola in 1902. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License

The sections of the book that take place in France were actually more interesting than the court case. Most of these are set in Zola’s home, a very large country villa expanded to include a “Nana tower” and a “Germinal Tower”  and reveal much about his process of writing. 

Apparently after a daily walk, Emile Zola would change into his writing clothes – a version of “peasant’ clothes chosen so they didn’t cause itches and thus distract him. He knew exactly the trajectory of the book he was currently working upon. He had done a preliminary plan and research (often that took him longer to complete that did the actual writing). His pace was so measured that he could predict how long each book will take him to write.

Emile Zola didn’t emerge from this book as a very likeable man. He never lent  any support to the Vizetelly, instead actually telling a journalist that he would be pleased if the prosecution succeeded. He would prefer, he said, that people read his books in the original French instead of being sold in “wretchedly done translations to the uneducated who cannot comprehend me.” Ouch…

Zola and the Victorians reveals a fascinating episode in British publishing history.  It pitted moral outrage (and more than a dash of hypocrisy) against literary merits, a clash which continued right through to the watershed trial of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. 

Less engaging is the way in which Thorne tells the tale. The mixing of present and past tenses irritated me enormously, the reported conversations among the family seldom sounded authentic and the characters came across as one dimensional. I’m not regretting reading this book, if for no other reason than it’s given me an appetite to read those three Emile Zola novels for myself. 


Footnote

Zola and the Victorians was published in hardback by Maclehose Press in 2015.  American-born Eileen Horne worked as a television producer for twenty years before setting up her own production company.  She now combines writing adaptations for television and radio with teaching and editing.

Since reading Zola and The Victorians I’ve  heard of another book about Zola that sounds interesting: The Disappearance of Emile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen. It deals with a period in 1898 when Zola fled France because of hostility around his intervention in the Dreyfus case.

Life by Keith Richards #book review

I lead a gentleman’s life. Listen to Mozart, read many, many books. I’m a voracious reader. History, in  particular the British Navy, is my subject. The Nelson era and World War II are top of my list, but I do the ancient Romans too. I have a fine library furnished with these works, with dark wooden shelves reaching to the ceiling. This is where I hole up.

lifeThis is not perhaps how most people would picture the leisure days of one of rock and roll’s most famously debauched characters. Yet in his 2010 autobiography Life (there were surely more compelling title options than that!), Keith Richards comes across as a surprisingly erudite, intelligent and articulate individual. And yes, in his own way, he seems to be a gentleman – and a gentle man.

‘Surprisingly’ sounds condescending and perhaps a little naive – swallowing the druggie, dissolute showman image whole and not giving too much thought to the fact that that there is a person underneath this facade.

And this autobiography reveals a person who is thoughtful, perceptive, caring and seemingly completely without prejudices and the baggage of judgement. Naturally his background means that he is not a great respecter of ‘suits’ – the Establishment. The 75-year-old (67 when the book came out) has always been ready to ‘stick it to the man’ both in song, gesture, verbal exchange and – in previous years – in deed (he’s had a few punch-ups along the way and admits to habitually carrying a knife).

The writing style here is engaging. How much credit is due to the co-author James Fox is difficult to judge. The former Sunday Times journalist has been a friend of the rock star since the early 1970s and would certainly be able to bring an authentic authorial tone to the writing. But to me the voice (and certainly the view of life) belongs largely to the man himself. Fox is perhaps not so much ghosting and tidying up the prose – putting apostrophes where they should be and reworking sentences which lost their way.

First meeting with Jagger

We begin in 1940s Dartford, Kent, birthplace of Richards and a certain Mick Jagger. The family history background, often rather tedious in works such as these, is illuminating and entertaining. By sticking to the salient, Richards keeps the reader engaged. 

From a boyhood love of the guitar and hours of finger-bleeding practice, his story leads us through the famous railway station meeting with Jagger – where a profound affinity in musical taste is established – to the early days of playing for beer (or for nothing) in seedy clubs and grimy pubs. Band members come and go; Brian Jones appears and stays; Jagger and Richards really want a drummer called Charlie Watts and they manage to snare him; a bassist called Bill Perks completes the line-up under the name of Wyman.

Years of poverty (getting the deposit back on stolen beer bottles) in squalid houses and flats precede a sudden propulsion – under the management of Andrew Oldham – to modest fame, notoriety (urinating at the roadside) and ultimately world-dominating rock deity.

Keith Richards

The career-span of The Rolling Stones is unprecedented in the world of showbiz. In the 1989 documentary 25×5, Richards (then a mere 46 years old) said the band was travelling ‘without maps’. No other group had lasted that long; there was no model, no template to follow. Amazingly the Stones continue to tour to this day filling gigantic stadia the world over. They’ve gone from ‘Lock up your daughters’ through ‘Lock up your mums’ to ‘Lock up your grannies’ and still (replacing a guitarist or two) they rock on.

The rise-to-fame part of the story Richards tells without pretensions of grandeur. He knows the band is unique and very good at what they do. He doesn’t have to work the message. His engaging, chat-over-a-pint style is never affected. He is proud of his achievements but not boastful.

An unreliable narrator?

There is, however, a point in the book where Richards becomes less engaging and develops the feels of an unreliable narrator. For most of the 1970s he was catastrophically involved with drugs. Heroin, in particular, created turmoil in his life. Though he somehow managed to make the gigs and turn up in the recording studio, his life was formed around drugs and the necessity to have them available. It took several years, in and out of cold turkey, to free himself from smack. When he came round, it was the 80s.

It is in this passage of Life that Richards loses my good will. He complains about Jagger’s insistence on controlling the band and making the decisions – conveniently forgetting that for a decade he was more or less out of his wits and his band mate had stepped up to the mark to keep the show on the road. Until then Richards had always been the glue, keeping the best interests of the group at heart and pushing forward.

Though there had been some disagreements between the two before (an unavoidable clash of two massive egos) this was the start of a rift between the boyhood friends which endures to this day. Richards complains that Jagger became ‘a control freak’ but doesn’t acknowledge that there was probably good reason for Mick taking the reins – doubting, as he must have done, the mental capabilities of his junkie partner.

Earlier in the book Richards complains that Brian Jones had become unpredictable and unreliable because of his drug habit. Regarded as an embarrassment and dead weight, he wanted Jones gone. Jagger can’t be blamed for feeling Richards had become a similar encumbrance, though the loss of this gifted songwriting partner would probably have dealt a lethal blow to the band.

But Richards pulled out of his nosedive and the band played on. The group’s legendary globe-trotting tours continue to this day with all four frontmen well into their 70s, travelling without maps and, seemingly – bar the odd accident with a coconut tree – without care. As they once observed: it’s only rock n roll.

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