Patrick French has just published an unflinchingly honest biography of Nobel prize-winning writer VS Naipaul, who comes across as unpleasant and stuffed with conceit. That, I guess, is true of many other authors, too. But Naipaul is exceptionally malevolent, a man without grace or humanity, sadistic to those who have dared to love him. So why do we tolerate such behaviour in writers?So asks the exceptionally humane Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Evening Standard. Perhaps, we can answer, because vetting every single author's life and opinions before we read them would deprive us of some serious aesthetic bliss, and because, as Alibhai-Brown's column alone demonstrates, it throws up many questions. We also like a good laugh.
The first question is: how can the reader know the biography is "unflinchingly honest"? Does a focus on the distressing anecdotes of a individual's life equal honesty, or could it be an avid interest in extreme suffering is a pathological fear of life's uncertainty?
In her second paragraph Alibhai-Brown tells us Naipaul's first wife "was devoted until she died horribly of cancer". Perhaps it was Naipaul's fault it was horrible. No doubt. But can one die nicely of cancer? "It could be said that I killed her" Naipaul said. "Too late, sir" says our ever-punctual commentator. Only, isn't Naipaul's admittance as unflinchingly honest as his biographer? Is then Patrick French someone we should tolerate?
Once Alibhai-Brown has spent herself on the juicy gossip, she recalls wistfully the days she read and loved Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas. As she doesn't say, we can only guess why she loved his work at that time. Was he a nicer chap? "Since [Mr Biswas]" she complains "his books have got increasingly bigoted and nasty; he was moved more by hate than love, and an ugliness repeatedly broke through his beautifully written prose." We have to ask again: is it ugly hate or unflinching honesty? When I found out Naipaul was married, it was after I'd read and enjoyed the overtly autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival which does not (if a twenty-year-old memory serves) mention any other presence in the narrator's Wiltshire cottage. Does this demonstrate a protective love or contemptuous indifference? Such is the ambiguity of writing.
Alibhai-Brown is happy to bypass any doubt by revealing she shares more than a hyphen with Charles Sainte-Beuve: "The man and the writer are not as easily separated as critics would have us believe". Well, critics bar the dead Frenchman and Nigel Beale! Should we think otherwise, our intrepid journalist informs us that writers "don't have to be saints but they do have to have empathy and live as civilised beings within the rules that apply to us all". She's so appalled at the Nobel Prize winner that she says "I certainly will not buy another book by this egomaniac. The literary cabal can protest all it wants but Naipaul deserves the contempt many of us now feel for him." And if that wasn't hilarious enough, she asks:
What would we do if we found Richard Branson beat his mistress and drove his wife to death? Or if the BBC's director general spoke of his addiction to paid sex?Let me guess: offer them loads of cash to write drivel in moronic London newspapers?