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RIP V.S. Naipaul (17 August 1932 - 11 August 2018)

Via Times Select

By Andrew Donaldson

There has been a flood of tributes and career appraisals following the death at the weekend of VS Naipaul, arguably the greatest and most infuriating figure in post-colonial literature. For more than five decades he gave his readers often searing and withering portraits of societies in the developing world.

That honesty earned him severe criticism – and not just for his particular point of view on the colonialism and post-colonialism so unequivocally detailed in his novels and travel writing. He was just as brutal when it came to his own failings as a man, so much so that his violent behaviour threatened to overwhelm his literary reputation.

He spared his biographer, Patrick French, nothing – so much so that the latter’s The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of VS Naipaul (Vintage, 2009) is a gobsmacking page-turner.

Naipaul was fairly open about the humiliation he caused his first wife, Patricia Hale, and the 20-year affair he conducted with Margaret Gooding, a women he regularly assaulted. When the affair began, his editor Diana Athill rebuked him for his behaviour. He told her: “I am having carnal pleasure for the first time in my life, are you saying I must give it up?”

Pleasure meant degrading Gooding in bed. As Naipaul told French: “I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt … She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was bad. She couldn’t appear really in public. My hand was swollen. I was utterly helpless. I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion.”

What to read, though, of the 29 books that Naipaul produced? His first collection of short stories, Miguel Street (1959), details the lives of ordinary Trinidadians in a run-down corner of Port of Spain. The novels A House for Mr Biswas (1961), The Mimic Men (1967) and A Bend in the River (1978) are pretty much essential. Of his non-fiction work I recommend The Loss of El Dorado (1969), his India travelogues, An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977) and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998).

He was particularly scathing about South Africans in The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (2010). An uncomfortable experience, you could say.

The World is What it Is

Book details
The World is What it Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul by Patrick French
EAN: 9780330455985
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Miguel Street

Miguel Street by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780435989545
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A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522892
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The Mimic Men

The Mimic Men by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522922
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A Bend in the River

A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522991
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The Loss of El Dorado

The Loss of El Dorado by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522847
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An Area of Darkness

An Area of Darkness: His Discovery of India by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522830
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India: A Wounded Civilization

India: A Wounded Civilization by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522717
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India: A Million Mutinies Now

India: A Million Mutinies Now by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330519861
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Among the Believers

Among the Believers by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522823
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Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330517874
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The Masque of Africa

The Masque of Africa by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330472043
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Launch: Things We Don't Talk About. Ever. by Desiree-Anne Martin (7 August)

In 1980s apartheid Cape Town, five-year-old Desiree-Anne is grappling with how she’s going to turn her tar baby doll’s skin into sweet, soft lily-white.

What she has learnt is that Whites are better than ‘Slamse’ and much better than ‘Kaffirs’.

She doesn’t know how to force her father to stop drinking or gambling or make her mother love her or get the boys and men to stop touching her in secret.

She learns how to soothe the pain: through secret masturbation and lying. She also gives her life and heart to Jesus every summer at Scripture Union camps.

As she grows up, she begins to understand the rules of living in her depressed family as well as in her fractured community: We Don’t Talk About It. Ever. In her teens, laden with the awkwardness of bushy, unruly hair, braces, and a body shorter and rounder than a Womble – and now firmly planted in a ‘White School’, Desiree-Anne is forced to confront her ‘Coloured identity crisis’.

She turns to self-harm, disordered eating, the thrill of petty theft and escapism through books and acting. Although she wins a place to study drama at UCT, sensing her parents cannot afford the tuition, she opts to go to the UK where she gets lost in bars, clubs and pills.

On her return to South Africa she embraces the “free love” Ecstasy trance club scene but when she meets Darren, a heroin addict, she turns to needles. Her search for love and acceptance descends into a self-destructive spiral as an intravenous smack addict.

This is a harrowing memoir on the darkness of addiction, but it is also a touching and sometimes humorous account of a little-girl-turned-woman’s deep need and reckless pursuit for love.

When Desiree-Anne finally finds recovery years later, she uncovers her real voice to talk and write about things that were previously left unspoken.
 

Event Details

"It’s an extraordinary story" - Margaret von Klemperer reviews Becoming Iman

Published in The Witness: 30 July 2018

For readers who only know Iman Rappetti as a warm, skilled and urbane presenter on television and radio, this memoir will come as something of a surprise.

We may think we know someone through their daily arrival into our space via the media, but in fact, we really know nothing about them other than that they are the one we like, or dislike.

Rappetti grew up in Phoenix, living with her Indian father and her Coloured mother, a combination that caused deep family rifts. She loved both her parents, though her father was violent and abusive to his wife until he became part of an Evangelical Christian church and apparently changed his ways.

And then there were her siblings.

Her eldest brother had been forcibly removed from her mother straight after his birth to live with his Indian grandmother, and there were another older brother and sister who suddenly arrived back to live with the family without explanation.

It was a complex, very South African childhood, taking place in the apartheid days where discovering your own identity was always going to be compromised and complicated.

But Rappetti tells her tale with humour, bringing to life aunties and their “School of Suffering” (SOS) which they raised to an art form. The writing is beautiful, with unexpected and memorable turns of phrase, while the telling of the story is episodic, linear in emotion rather than in time.

Once beyond the coming-of-age memoir stage, Rappetti’s life takes unexpected turns. From the evangelical Christianity of her upbringing, she converts to Islam, moves with her husband to Iran and becomes a veiled, submissive Muslim wife and mother as the reader begins to realise that whatever Rappetti does, she does wholeheartedly.

It’s an extraordinary story, and the frankness with which she relates her growing later disillusion with both her marriage and her faith is powerful and compelling. Now, she sees the Muslim veil as a symbol of oppression, but her journey into faith and on to rebellion is fascinating to follow, as are the swings in her story between the sacred and the profane.

Book details

Book discussion: Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang (7 August)

The Governing Intimacies Project and WiSER invite you to a book discussion of Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country – a remarkable tale of belonging, identity and coming of age in the postcolony. Insightful and beautifully written, the memoir sets a new benchmark in the genre.

Event Details

Glen David Gold’s mother has overtaken the field in the Mad Maternal Stakes, writes Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times

Glen David Gold became a successful writer despite his pitiable, maddening mother. Pic: supplied.
 
I Will Be Complete
****
Glen David Gold, Sceptre, R300

In the Flaky Mater Olympics – a hotly contested subsection of memoirs – Glen David Gold’s mother is the new leader. She’s overtaken Jeannette Walls’s mother in The Glass Castle, who was free-spirited to the point of criminal neglect, and has nosed past Augusten Burroughs’s mother who gave him away as a child to her psychiatrist, as he described in his memoir Running With Scissors.

Gold, best known for his bestselling novel Carter Beats the Devil, was born and raised in California as the ’60s swung into the ’70s.

The family was wealthy for a while, living in a vast ranch house in a shiny new suburb, with “a living room conversation pit with hidden television cabinet, executed by contractors who’d worked on the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland”.

His engineer father was proud of his success, showing off his smart modern art and his ethereal British wife who used to be mistaken for the actress Linda Evans.

Gold was an anxious, precocious child who his parents labelled as gifted; so serious that someone commented “that’s not a child, it’s a 36-year-old midget”.

His father’s business tanked and his parents separated when he was 10. His father quickly met and married a much younger woman and moved to Chicago to start a new family. Gold’s mother (she is never named) dreamed of being a novelist but slipped into a life of spiralling failure, starting off with a decadent conman in San Francisco then an abusive fashion designer in New York and a violent, illiterate meth addict who dragged her through various states.

Even when reduced to living in a woman’s shelter she always believed her ship was about to come in. She is a pitiable figure, but a maddening one. The faultline in Gold’s life was the day she went off to New York for a few days and left him in their apartment in San Francisco to fend for himself.

She was gone for months. He was 12 years old.

And fend for himself is what he did, making himself fit in, first at boarding school, then at college, working in a rackety bookstore to make ends meet and trying to fill in the emotional chasms that his adolescence had opened in him. How many times could he rescue his mother? How much longer could he believe she just had bad luck rather than that she was the architect of her own failure?

It would be years of rejections (from both publishers and women) before Gold achieved success with Carter Beats the Devil and he married the novelist Alice Sebold (they have since divorced). It would be years before he could revisit his fractured past with the clear eyes that he does in this superb memoir.

“I’m looking for my mother, or what remains of her,” he writes. “There is not going to be redemption here; nor am I going to indict her as a monster. There is another way to go for those of us who can no longer love our mothers.”

One needs to stay with him through his neuroses and compulsive emotional auditing which slow things down. When he finally reveals, at the end of the book, the faultlines he uncovers in his mother’s own life, it’s like a physical blow. @michelemagwood

Book details
I Will Be Complete by Glen David Gold
EAN: 9781473620179
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Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing a tour de force of biography writing and self-discovery, writes Karina M. Szczurek

Published in the Sunday Times

Doris Lessing, née Taylor, born in 1919. Photographed here in 1958. Picture: Getty Images.

 
Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing
*****
Lara Feigel, Bloomsbury, R540 (hardcover)

“There were too many weddings that summer,” writes Lara Feigel in the opening line of her brilliant and daring Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing. At the end of the first paragraph she promises herself that she “would work out why I minded it all so much”.

The resulting quest is a tour de force of biography writing and self-discovery. Literary scholars are often drawn to topics that are of interest and consequence for their own lives. Yet, even if that spark of private recognition is openly acknowledged, it is seldom explored in the official research.

The inclusion of intimate, personal reflections by the author when writing a biography of someone else is usually frowned upon. And it can be risqué. To do so anyway is heroic.

Feigel is a Reader in Modern Literature and Culture at King’s College London. In her most recent books, The Love-charm of Bombs and The Bitter Taste of Victory, she traced the public and private lives of writers and intellectuals during and after World War 2.

Published to great critical acclaim, they established Feigel as a cultural historian and literary critic of note. Both books are focused on the intersection of life and literature in history.

Free Woman follows in their footsteps, but this time Feigel herself becomes one of the book’s subjects. While exploring Lessing’s work and dedication to, in the words of one of her famous characters, “living as fully as I can”, Feigel searches for what the “right to live fully” would entail in her own life and writing.

“It seemed that Lessing was a writer to discover in your 30s; a writer who wrote about the lives of grown-up women with an honesty and fullness I had not found in any novelist before or since.”

We are mysteries, even to ourselves, and not many have had the ability to penetrate the silences shrouding our lives. In 1931, Virginia Woolf spoke about not having solved the problem of articulating “the truth about my own experience as a body… I doubt that any woman has solved it yet.”

Feigel’s attempt to do just that is fascinating. Facing her own sense of claustrophobia, frustration and lack of fulfilment as a woman, sexual being, wife and mother, Feigel seeks to understand what it means to be a truly “free woman” – most importantly, one “who is also happy”.

The journey she embarks on and the inner truths she discovers about herself through the lens of Lessing’s striking, often contradictory, life demand a lot of courage. And reading Feigel’s account is equally empowering. Outside of her writing, Lessing is remembered for two facts: that she abandoned two of her children and that she had an awkward affair with communism. Feigel goes into the details of both these relationships.

No matter what else can be said about Lessing, there is little doubt that she was bold. She was not afraid to reach for what she felt she required to live a meaningful life as a woman and writer.

“It seems true of all enduring novelists … that they illuminate our lives, and that we live differently as a result of reading them,” Feigel states. Confronting her own body – its realities, longings and failures – as well as the relationships in her life and the need to be her own person, Feigel is just as fearless in trying to define what is crucial in making her own existence worthwhile.

Free Woman is simultaneously an incisive book of scholarship and a brave, liberating memoir. It will not only bring further, highly deserved recognition for its author, but undoubtedly inspire many readers to turn to Lessing’s work, afresh or for the first time. @KarinaMSzczurek

Book details
Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel
EAN: 9781635570953
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