Thursday, April 03, 2008

“I'll buy no more books by this monster”

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?


  1. Maybe this Naipaul flap will take some heat off of Amis...

  2. hmmm. Stephen. I can't speak on behalf of Sainte-Beauve, but as far as I'm concerned, there's quite a difference between researching the life of an author in hopes of obtaining new possible insights into their work, and dismissing the work because of the untoward behavior, or moral turpitude of its author. I'm quite a fan of the Marquis de Sade's writing for example. And although I haven't read it, I'm keen to read, and hopefully enjoy or at least appreciate, Celine's Journey to the End of the Night

  3. Anonymous10:27 am

    "I certainly will not buy another book by this egomaniac."

    I love that sort of declaration. It should always be accompanied, however, by details of when exactly the speaker did last buy a book by this egomaniac. I suspect that would show this bold decision to be a perpetuation of her existing habit rather than a difficult act of self-denial.

  4. Nigel:

    "I'm quite a fan of the Marquis de Sade's writing for example."

    Not to conflate the substance of your blog postings/comments with your life as the author of said postings and comments, but I'm starting to wonder if you haven't got a selection of whips and thumbscrews in your closet...

  5. Certainly a possibility that could yield some interesting insight into said postings/comments, if indeed it were 'true'. I just hope you don't dismiss what I write because of any suspicions you may have about my private activities...In this particular instance however, I can categorically deny any connection between reading enthusiasms and closet contents (I'm more partial to knives and hot wax, both kept in the kitchen :).

  6. Monster - is it the the case that most writers are in fact monsters. After all for them all that really exists is the creation of text. One thinks of T S Eliot, Joe Orton, De Sade, Old Man Amis.. just a few that come to mind

  7. Anonymous8:39 pm

    Well said. I'm in favour of learning more about an author and his/her circumstances (and, to the extent that we can learn such things, their personality) where it improves my understanding of the work. Indeed, some texts no longer make much sense without a strong grounding in their context. But ultimately I would still prefer to judge a work for what it is, not for my distaste for an author's politics or personal habits.

    Unless, of course, said politics and personal habits completely overwhelm the text and make it impossible to engage with in any other way. (Put another way, life's too short for _Mein Kampf_, unless I was a historian of WWII). But even then there's often something fascinating about deconstructing the way those things operate in the text, so...

  8. Anonymous6:14 pm

    Astute commentary, like it. DRivel tends to just pour out, but I believe, because it is not ignored as the fare of the rags, but digested, it's good to to reply sometimes.
    It has occurred to me that much good drivel is bound to political correctness, and spouted by world policewomen (and policemen). Of course, Naipul's wife could do no wrong, because she's a woman, and any hint of disharmony or toughness even, is a male crime. So she's right not to explore in that direction.
    It's a great shame that this critic is not able to establish Gunatanamo for nasty bigots of the pen, and doubly punished for not divorcing, but providing, according to indian custom.



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