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.
Ploughing 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’).
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.
The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago was the beginning of the end for one of the world’s most repressive intelligence and secret police agencies. For decades the Stasi spied on the population of East Germany using a vast network of informants to infiltrate every aspect of their lives and root out dissidents.
David Young provides a sinister reminder of this organisation and its methods in Stasi Child, the first title in a crime series set during the era of the Cold War.
On a cold winter morning in 1975, Oberleutnant Karin Müller, senior detective with the East German police force, is summoned to the Wall where the mutilated body of a young girl has been discovered. The official Stasi line is that the girl was shot trying to escape to the West but Müller quickly realises all is not as it seems. She’s particularly troubled to be told her inquiry should focus on discovering the identity of the girl rather than the identity of her killer.
Truth is Impossible
Müller’s quest for the truth takes her on a clandestine trip into West Berlin, up snow-laden mountains and down into a secret tunnel running under the East-West border. At every turn she feels the dark and sinister presence of the Stasi. Their interest in her activities not only threatens to derail her investigation, it makes her fear for her future.
With tremendous attention to detail, Stasi Child shows the near impossibility of uncovering the truth in a society determined at all costs to prevent certain secrets ever being discovered.
Karin Müller is a savvy operator and a forceful character – you have to be pretty darn smart to become the highest ranking woman in the Volkspolizei. But she is not immune to the reality that in this society, her job, her security and her life are at risk if she is seen to over-step her authority or persue unhelpful lines of inquiry. Her vulnerability increases still further when her schoolteacher husband, is arrested after surveillance showed him meeting a a church pastor suspected of anti-communist beliefs.
Question of Trust
This is a world where your neighbour can be ‘persuaded’ to become state informers, citizens are sent for ‘re-education’ in Communist values and young people made to endure the harsh regimes of state reform schools.
The bleakness of life in East Germany permeates the entire novel. For the citizens of East Berlin, the west is tantalisingly close but they’re not sure it is necessarily better. Can they trust what they have been told or is this yet another example of distorted truth.
As they entered the checkpoint, Muller glanced up the road past the barriers to the bustle of West Berlin beyond. She wondered if it really was as glamorous as the adverts on western TV made out. Or were Der schwarze Kanal’s accounts of strikes, homeless unemployed begging on the streets and ruthless greedy bosses nearer the truth?
One night in West Berlin opens Karin Muller’s eyes to the realities of life in the west. As part of her investigation she’s required to go shopping and to spend the night in a hotel. She relishes the variety and quality of the clothing available though is horrified by the cost. Once that geni is out of the bag it’s difficult to put it back in again.
In the office, she allowed herself one reminder of the West. She piled the shopping bags on the long table, under the noticeboard, and then lifted out the large shoebox that contained the boots. She opened it, and peeled back the protective tissue paper. Then she removed one boot, and caressed the fur-lined top, as though stroking a cat. A small touch of luxury. Then she looked up at the photographs pinned to the noticeboard. The dead, nameless girl without teeth. The girl without eyes.
Müller dropped the fur-lined boot as though it was infected.
The ambiguity of attitudes plus the atmospheric setting of the novel make Stasi Child stand apart from the thousands of police procedurals published ever year. The plot is satisfying enough, with plenty of twists and revelations though it’s not overly complicated. There’s added interest via another narrative strand from nine months earlier in a reform school where a teenage girl plots how she and her friend can escape. Karin Muller is a character whose vulnerability yet determination is engaging. But it’s really the dark portrayal of a society controlled by fear that was utterly gripping.
Stasi Child: EndNotes
Stasi Child is the debut novel by David Young which won the 2016 Crime Writers’ Association Endeavour Historical Dagger for the best historical crime novel of the year. It was also longlisted for the 2016 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. He explains the origin of his series in this interview
There are now four novels in the series with a fifth, Stasi Winter, due to be published in January 2020.
David Young became an author after a career in journalism and broadcasting. He now writes in his garden shed and in his spare time supports Hull City football club.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Of the million or so photographs featuring Michelle Obama, two will be forever etched in my memory.
One shows the First Lady of the United States jumping about and getting sweaty with a bunch of kids on the front lawn of the White House.
The other image dates from her first visit to the United Kingdom. During an official reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, Michelle Obama put her arm around the monarch.
To say the resulting photographs astonished royal watchers is putting it mildly because touching the Queen is strictly forbidden. It’s not treason as such (an offence that could see you carted off to the Tower of London) but it’s definitely one of the most heinous transgressions of royal protocol.
What was astonishing about both these images was that they turned on their head everything we’d ever seen from previous holders of the role of First Lady.
There’s no position description for the First Lady. But we got used to the idea over the decades that they’re in a supportive role to the star turn of The President. Always gracious, always immaculately dressed; a walking advert for American fashion designers. They can engage in charitable endeavours but rarely speak out about issues.
Michelle Obama broke that mould. Never before had we seen a First Lady dress so casually in sneakers, leggings and t shirts; Never before had we seen her get down and dirty while digging and planting a vegetable patch. And never before had we seen someone so touchy-feely.
Her memoir Becoming was similarly ground breaking. It’s the first completely honest account from a First Lady of the experiences that shaped her personality and influenced her attitudes.
It’s a work of stellar storytelling taking us from her modest background in Chicago, through academic success to an unfulfilling career in corporate law. The life she envisaged was “a predictable, control-freak existence – the one with the steady salary, a house to life in forever, a routine to my days.”
But then came the event that changed her life entirely – she was asked to take a young, mega talented law student under her wing during a summer placement. Barak Obama put her life on a completely new trajectory, catapulting her into the uncomfortable world of politics and to the highest office in her country.
It’s a career progression that in some eyes would be considered a fairytale. What I loved most about Becoming is that she is so candid about her struggles and disappointments.
Most of the issues she describes are those that ordinary people can relate to easily. The struggle to balance work with family commitments; the heartbreak of miscarriages and the challenge of maintaining a relationship with a partner who is away from home for much of the week.
Taking up residence in the White House presents a whole new set of difficulties. She can’t open a window because it’s a security risk. She can’t go out with her husband without entire streets being closed down. She can’t even go to a shop to buy him an anniversary card. Being in the public eye means every thing she says or wears is subjected to public scrutiny; even a change of hairstyle has to be agreed in advance by the Presidents’s staff.
Chief of her concerns however is the well-being of her daughters. The constant question for Michelle Obama is how to make sure the girls enjoy a normal childhood experience when they have to be accompanied everywhere by protection offers. Not much fun when you want to go out on your first date.
Dealing With Criticism
And of course, there is the constant threat to her projects from detractors who see her as a threat.
I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry.’ It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.
What comes through strongly is that Michelle Obama is a woman with an exceptionally strong streak of determination. She learned at an early age to never give up and that the best way to deal with people who wanted to thwart her ambition, was to ignore them. It’s an attitude she saw exhibited by many of the highly talented people she met later in life.
All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise, doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.
Self -belief is one of the lessons she wants to pass on through the book, as she did with the groups of young women she met throughout her time as First Lady.
Becoming A Role Model
Becoming has been one of my best reading experiences of 2019. It’s an account of extraordinary life told with intelligence, humour, warmth and oodles of self-awareness.
This is a woman who had a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring about changes. While her husband focused on changing attitudes to healthcare and gun control, she focused on child obesity and job and education opportunities for ex servicemen.
In doing so she became a role model for young women around the world. But Michelle Obama is emphatic at the end of the book that she has no intention of going into politics herself.
I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten
years has done little to change that.
That doesn’t mean she is going to disappear – the initiatives that she lead while First Lady are so close to her heart that she is continuing to work on them. But what lies ahead is an interesting question. The title of her book refers to the idea that each of us is perpetually changing, evolving, not stopping at some set point — with the implication that we can always become better. It’s a clue that we can expect to see more of her in the future. A clear case of Watch This Space.