The Tyranny of Footnotes


Arts & Culture

Although V. S. Naipaul is my favorite living writer, I resisted reading Patrick French’s critically acclaimed biography of Sir Vidia, published in 2008, until last month. The reviews alone presented a deeply unflattering picture: Naipaul as misogynist, racist, skinflint, serial adulterer, and Hindu nationalist. (And to think the biography was authorized!)

But I had read nearly all of Naipaul’s work and some of it, including his best novel, A Bend in the River (from whose opening line, “The world is what it is,” French takes his title), many times. So when I happened across the biography at my local library, I picked it up thinking it was as close to a new work of Naipaul’s as I was likely to see.

It’s a masterful effort, a nimble admixture of critical appreciation and salacious gossip. But there were no real surprises in the text; the reviews had limned the most revealing and unsettling episodes of Naipaul’s life.

There was, however, a surprise buried in French’s acknowledgments. Among the hundred-odd names, sandwiched between Derek Walcott (Naipaul’s fellow Trinidadian and rival of sorts) and Andrew Wylie (Naipaul’s agent), was one Kanye West.

Kanye West?

Now it’s true that the rapper-producer’s father is a former Black Panther, and Naipaul wrote an essay “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad.” And West’s late mother was an English professor. Was it possible that Naipaul and West shared a connection beyond their inflated egos?

I e-mailed French.

His coy response: “Hah, that’s a good question. You would really need to ask Kanye to get the definitive answer.”

Alas, West was not available for comment.

But a hint of French’s intentions came in his sign-off in the form of a challenge: “Did you spot my fake footnote?”

Back to the book. Note eighty from chapter twenty-three looked suspicious: a URL promising to reveal Anthony Powell’s mutton curry recipe. But while the Web address was off, a quick Google search did reveal Powell’s dish, which a relative of Powell’s had told French was “absolutely disgusting, but we had to pretend we liked it.”

I wrote again to French. Had I missed some Tupac reference?

In response, French forwarded me his essay, “Tinkerty-Tonk!” from the October 2006 issue of The Literary Review. In it French discusses literary hoaxes and his own experiences with dubious sources as a biographer. He admits that in his 2003 book, Tibet, Tibet, he “tried hoaxing himself” with a fake footnote. “Convinced that nobody ever reads them, I added a transparently bogus note in the hope that someone would spot it and question me,” he wrote. (Perhaps French was also nodding to Nabokov, who made great fictive use of footnotes in Pale Fire.)

The hoax citation: “Hungerwood, Dennis P, Early Tibetan Inscriptions on Hedge Sacrifice, Novzhgyet Teklat Insteur, Bishkek Dot, Vol 19, Spring 1977, pp117–139.” French writes that in the three years since the book was published, nobody noticed. And he reproduced it, slightly altered, in The World Is What It Is.

I admit that when French sent me looking, I paused at the citation, asking the question that French had asked in his essay: “How would a Tibetan sacrifice a hedge?” But the note came after a passage describing Columbus-era life in the New World, and I figured anything was possible. Besides, the citation was “bulky” and “cod-academic” (French’s words)—like so many other footnotes in academic literature. This, of course, was French’s point, a subtle dig at “the tyranny of footnotes in contemporary publishing.”

But with the acknowledgments French went too far, at least if you believe, as I do, that he was having a laugh. As the rapper no doubt would be happy to hear, the name Kanye West stands out.

Paul Wachter is the cofounder of the news aggregator and a contributor to several magazines.