In the opening pages of “The World Is What It Is,” his prizewinning 2008 biography of author V.S. Naipaul, Patrick French tried to make sense of his subject’s colossal ambition, a striving for greatness that led Naipaul to abandon his homeland of Trinidad for the flourishing literary world of mid-century England.
“His ambition was linked to fear, as it often is in an author or creative artist: fear of failure, fear of not being able to write, fear of disappearance, fear of mental or physical breakdown, fear that people were trying to do him down, fear of being faced down, fear of losing face, fear of being found out.”
Mr. French, who died March 16 at 56, seemed to write without fear, embracing knotty, enigmatic subjects in his work as a biographer and historian. Beginning with his first book, a biography of British army officer Francis Younghusband that he wrote while still in his 20s, he was known for his nuanced, evenhanded studies of people who might be “abominable one year,” as he put it, but “oddly endearing the next.”
“He was clear-eyed and non-judgmental,” historian Maya Jasanoff wrote in an email, “able to capture challenging people in the fullness of their gifts and flaws, and navigate with remarkable insight and sensitivity the frontiers of inner and outer life.”
Mr. French’s literary debut, “Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer” (1994), chronicled the life of a colonialist who trekked across the Gobi Desert in his 20s, led a barbarous invasion of Tibet in the early 1900s and, after experiencing a spiritual revelation on a Tibetan hillside, attempted to popularize a new world religion and organize expeditions up Mount Everest.
To research the book, he retraced some of Younghusband’s steps across Asia and battled with librarians in Kolkata, trying to gain access to the lieutenant colonel’s diplomatic cables.
Travel author Pico Iyer called the biography “one of the stunning revelations of recent years,” adding in a Los Angeles Times review that Mr. French “followed his subject so fearlessly into the Himalayas, and so deeply into archives overlooked by everyone else, that he threw light, somehow, on some essential truth of Britain’s surprising encounters with the world at large.”
The book received the Somerset Maugham Award and the Royal Society of Literature’s Heinemann Award, and Mr. French drew further praise for his next two works of history, “Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division” (1997) and “Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land” (2003).
But he was best known for “The World Is What It Is: An Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul,” which took its title from the stark opening words of Naipaul’s novel “A Bend in the River” (1979). The biography won a National Book Critics Circle Award and traced the life of a novelist and travel writer whose elegant, incisive prose was matched by a prodigious talent for causing offense, whether by likening interviewers to monkeys or delivering sweeping condemnations of Islam, Africa and multiculturalism.
Mr. French, who had met the author just a few times before embarking on the project, was asked to write the book around the time Naipaul won the 2001 Nobel Prize in literature. He said he agreed to the project on two conditions: that Naipaul sit for extensive interviews, and that he grant access to restricted materials from his archives at the University of Tulsa, which included the author’s journals and those of his first wife, Pat.
Over the next five years, Naipaul allowed him to proceed without interference, and ultimately “requested no changes” to the completed manuscript. The result was “perhaps the most shockingly ‘authorized’ biography in the history of authorized biographies,” wrote New York magazine book critic Sam Anderson.
Spanning more than 600 pages, “The World Is What It Is” explored the relationship between Naipaul’s life and work, revealing that some of the author’s books were inspired by a sadomasochistic affair he had with Margaret Gooding, an Anglo-Argentine mother of three. “All the later books in a way to some extent depend on her,” Naipaul told Mr. French. “They stopped being dry.”
Reviewing the book for the New York Times, author and journalist George Packer wrote that it “is fully worthy of its subject, with all the dramatic pacing, the insight and the pathos of a first-rate novel.” He also called the biography “a portrait of the artist as a monster.”
During interviews at his home in the Wiltshire countryside, Naipaul could be astonishingly frank. He told Mr. French that during a fit of jealousy, he beat Gooding over the course of two days, to the point that “she couldn’t really appear in public.” Reflecting on Pat’s death in 1996, from breast cancer, he remarked: “It could be said that I had killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.”
Mr. French often let Naipaul’s statements stand alone, without commentary. “The aim of the biographer should not be to sit in judgment,” he argued, “but to expose the subject with ruthless clarity to the calm eye of the reader.”
Besides, he noted, there were limits to research and reporting. From his earlier books he had learned that there was no “key” to a life, no Rosebud that could explain away all the mysteries of a Charles Foster Kane or a Vidia Naipaul, who died a decade later, in 2018.
“People are too complicated and inconsistent for this to be true,” he wrote. “The best a biographer can hope for is to illuminate aspects of a life and seek to give glimpses of the subject, and that way tell a story.”
Patrick Rollo French — he gave himself a second middle name, Basil, at age 10 — was born in Aldershot, southwest of London, on May 28, 1966. His father was a British army major who fought in the Korean War, and his mother was a homemaker.
Mr. French grew up in the town of Warminster, attended Ampleforth College, a Catholic boarding school, and studied literature at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he went on to earn a master’s degree in English lit and a doctorate in South Asian studies.
His interest in the region stemmed in part from a visit the Dalai Lama made to his boarding school when Mr. French was 16. Within a few years, Mr. French had made his first trips to India and Tibet, where he learned about Younghusband and became increasingly interested in the origins of India’s independence movement.
He also got involved in politics, running unsuccessfully for the British Parliament in 1992, as a Green Party candidate, and leading a Free Tibet campaign that opposed Chinese control over the region.
Over time, he said, he began to feel that “the western idea of Tibet, particularly the views of Tibet campaigners, was becoming too detached from the reality of what Tibet was like.” To resolve his anxieties, he embarked on a long trip through the region, leading to “Tibet, Tibet.” The book featured interviews with ordinary Tibetans, including an elderly man who told him that the protests of Free Tibet activists “may make them feel good, but for us, it makes life worse. It makes the Chinese create more controls over us.”
Mr. French later moved to India, where he worked on projects like “India: A Portrait” (2011), an examination of the country’s modern era that he cheekily described as “an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people.” In 2017, he was appointed the inaugural dean of Ahmedabad University’s School of Arts and Sciences. He stepped down last year to focus on completing his authorized biography of another novelist and Nobel laureate, Doris Lessing, who died in 2013.
Mr. French’s death from multiple myeloma, at a hospital in London, was confirmed by his wife, Meru Gokhale, a former publisher at Penguin Random House India. They married in 2007, after his first marriage, to Abigail Ashton-Johnson, ended in divorce.
In addition to his wife, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Tenzin, Iris and Abraham French; and a son from his second, Krishna French.
According to Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, Mr. French was also working in recent years on a book about Queen Victoria and the expansion of the British Empire, which he frequently criticized. When he was offered the Order of the British Empire in 2003, he declined the royal honor — partly because of the title, he said, and partly because of a desire for authorial independence.
“My refusal was instinctive; as a writer I did not want to take an award from the state,” he wrote in an essay for the Sunday Times of London. He went on to add, with a reference to poet and fellow OBE critic Benjamin Zephaniah, that he “wanted to keep my distance from Downing Street and the great house of Babylon.”
A previous version of this obituary incorrectly referred to the subject of Patrick French’s book “Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer.” As noted elsewhere in the article, the subject’s name is Francis Younghusband, not Francis Youngblood. The article has been corrected.