Patrick French, renowned biographer of VS Naipaul and India, dies aged 56

 (Patrick French)
(Patrick French)

Writer and historian Patrick French, known for his award-winning 2008 authorised biography on VS Naipaul, has died from cancer aged 56.

News of his death was announced by his wife Meru Gokhale, a former publisher at the Penguin Press Group.

“At 8.10am this morning my beloved husband Patrick French passed away in London after a brave battle with cancer,” she said.

“He was an exceptional father, friend, husband, teacher and mentor to many. His kindness and love will stay with us forever. He went in peace, without suffering.”

Born in England in 1966, French studied literature at Edinburgh University. He won a number of prestigious writing awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, and the Somerset Maugham Award.

He was widely respected for his writing on India, including his chronicling of the nation’s struggle for liberation from British rule in his 1998 work, Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division.

He frequently received praise for books and journalism that demonstrated his intensive research process and engaging writing style, along with his ability to tackle complex subject matters. Among his most prominent works were The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of VS Naipaul, and 2011’s India: A Portrait, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.

“Like Naipaul, French has an abiding interest in India. Like him, he talks to many people from all walks of life and listens to their stories,” The Independent’s review of French’s Naipaul biography read. “But unlike him, he shows empathy for what they have to say. More importantly, he does not mock them.

“Like Naipaul, he reads the country’s history closely; unlike him, he doesn’t bear the burden of post-colonial resentment or a sense of betrayal towards the country of his ancestors that failed to meet his expectations. India, for him, is not an area of darkness, nor a wounded civilisation. There are a million mutinies, but the portrait French offers is more complex.”

VS Naipaul in 1968 (Getty)
VS Naipaul in 1968 (Getty)

French’s biography was all the more extraordinary because it included the revelation that, in 1972, Naipaul began a long and tumultuous affair with Margaret Gooding, an Anglo-Argentine woman to whom he admitted engaging in his sexual fantasies of “cruelty and domination”. Naipaul said in interviews with French that he was “very violent with her for two days with my hand... Her face was bad. She couldn’t really appear in public.”

It also included diary entries by Patricia Hale, who Naipaul met at Oxford in 1952 and with whom he shared a similarly fraught relatonship. A New Yorker journalist noted the excerpts by Hale in French’s book were particularly painful to read. She died of breast cancer in 1996: “It could be said that I had killed her,” Naipaul told French. “It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.”

Many of those paying tribute to French upon the news of his death shared high praise for his work while also describing him as an “unfailingly generous” person.

“Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Patrick French,” tweeted historian and Gandhi biographer Ramachandra Guha. “He was a wonderful writer, whose books on Francis Younghusband and VS Naipaul are classics of modern biographical writing. He was also a very fine human being, unfailingly generous to friends and strangers alike.”

Journalist and talk show host Vir Sanghvi said French wrote about India with “empathy, understanding and a deep insight based on research”.

“Most people will remember him for his biography of VS Naipaul,” he said. “But I will always remember the insights he offered into our freedom movement.”

Author William Dalrymple said he had “loved and admired” French “since we were both 13, and who was the best man at my wedding.“

Dalrymple, who often appeared on the same stage as French at literature festivals in India and around the world, added: “He was funny and clever and charming, always full of enthusiasm and energy. He was also the greatest biographer of our generation.”

“The last time I met Patrick French, he spoke excitedly about his upcoming authorised biography of Doris Lessing,” BBC journalist Soutik Biswas tweeted. “Lessing’s work, he said, ‘united mind, body and feeling.’ French was a masterful biographer: the Naipaul book is an amazing tour de force. His passing is a huge loss.”

French is survived by his wife, Meru Gokhale, and his four children.