V.S. Naipaul: academic success, literary journeyman, human failure

13 November, 2008

Another article on the appalling revelations of Naipaul’s recent biography.

I vaguely recall reading Naipaul’s book “In a free state” at university. It was one of several “post-colonial” novels we were required to study (the only other title I recall is “Waiting for the barbarians”), and none of them stood out as especially interesting. The large part of Naipaul’s book is set in Africa, which you’d think would give an opportunity for evocative scenic descriptions, vivid characters, and highly dramatic situations, but I only recall it being (like the other books) grey, artificial and uninteresting. But Naipaul was feted by academia because he wrote in a genre which was of high repute, due to theoretical trends that persist to this day – the idea that the story of a “non-Western”, non-European person was more authentic and more virtuous, and the story of this person being oppressed by the white, male, Western “dominant paradigm” even more so. Even better if the author was a genuine non-Westerner (but only if he was a well-spoken academic or a humble coolie; the other, scarier sort of foreigner was best praised from a distance well beyond their punching/shooting/bombing range). All this gave the professors a warm feeling inside, and the opportunity to write a lot of mutually-reinforcing papers on the subject. The matter of purely literary worth was of course a laughable anachronism.

As Joseph Bottum says, “Naipaul’s books never sold particularly well. He grew fat, instead, on literary institutions: the prizes, the lectureships, the grants, the scholarships, the artist-in-residence programs.” This is pretty much the same story as for other prodigies of the academy, but Naipaul was not as house-trained as the others, and his indiscreet revelations have culminated in his authorised biography, “The world is what it is”, by Patrick French. In it, we learn that Naipaul boasted publically of being “a great prostitute man”, while his wife was dying of cancer, this same wife to whom he was repeatedly and flagrantly unfaithful, and to whom he said “You are the only woman I know who has no skill”, and “You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station.”

We learn of his violent, sadistic relationship with a woman he met in South America, who had multiple abortions for him, wrote awful, pleading, self-abasing letters, and was eventually discarded for being “middle-aged, almost an old lady”. He told his wife about these escapades, and produced some photos for illustration.

He also seems to have adopted the White Man’s Burden*, disparaging dark-skinned Indians and frequently using the epithet “nigger”. How much of this attitude is revealed in his Third World travelogues is for others to discuss; I haven’t read them and certainly don’t plan to, but I recall reviews of his book on the Muslim world suggesting he had been rather narrow and uncharitable in his views. This suggestion was mollified, of course, by Naipaul’s tame status – he spoke with the unquestionable voice of the authentically non-Western, and besides, he was “one of us” (i.e. an enlightened academic), and his sharper comments could only be the result of some clever irony which we mere gweilos have failed to comprehend.

Now there arises the question of what this means for Naipaul’s future literary reputation. My own hope is that the revelation of his vile character will lead to a further revelation as to the minor status of his writings. After all, how perceptive can a man be (perception being the supreme quality needed by a writer), when he uncaringly indulges in Sadism, giving rein to his most brutish parts? With how much human understanding can we credit a man who repeatedly insults and humiliates his wife without remorse; and who, supposedly more aware than most of the racist humiliations visited by colonialists, makes free use of racial epithets? An artist in a more abstract vein, a painter or a composer, perhaps has little use for personal virtue, but from a writer may we not demand a modicum of self-awareness, let alone self-understanding?

Why has Naipaul revealed his scabrous soul like this? Bottum suggests several subtle and clever reasons, but prefers to exculpate his subject by saying that this is his final, cumulative creation, “one last literary construction”. But this is merely a pathetic fallacy: if this destruction of his own reputation is in fact Naipaul’s final creation, why didn’t he write his biography himself? Or is having someone else do the heavy lifting a brilliant post-Modern twist, another academically-approved sign of his mastery? I have my own theory as to why Naipaul has shamelessly soiled himself before us like this: he is a prick.

Naipaul is, I think, of a particular personality type I’ve encountered before. Fundamentally cruel and aggressive, he covers his shame with a thin intellectual veil, that of honesty, and authenticity. After all, aren’t people who aren’t aggressive being deceitful about their desires? When they are kind, or meek, aren’t they really concealing their true desires for cruelty and vengeance? And, in a way, aren’t their soft words and quiet rationality characteristics of the passive-aggressive personality**, which is worse than naked violence because of its dishonesty and manipulativeness?

This is the mind-set of Naipaul and his kind. The possibility that someone might restrain themself from violence because of a sense of empathy is unthinkable to him. And, lacking empathy or even an understanding of it, he reveals that he is in fact a psychopath. Close analysis will reveal his fictional characters to have the integrity of clockwork dolls. This is why his writing is so dull, despite the ostensibly interesting material. Indeed, from my reading, I believe that literary realism is frequently the resort of writers who would rather catalogue the world than understand it. Critical assertions that the highest literary fiction addresses the matter of “the way we live now” have abetted this and led to the superanemic state of “high” writing we currently see. Maybe, in fact, fantastical writing is the truer test of a writer’s quality; when the all-answering virtue of the Real is stripped away, then we see the writer in his stark-naked prose and judge him truly. May this fate befall the prick Naipaul, and all who follow him.

* Kipling’s poem “White Man’s Burden” has long been taken for an imperialist, racist tract, but to an intelligent mind it is obviously heavily ironic and in fact critical of the colonial enterprise.
** Passive-aggression is a widely misunderstood concept, too often applied to introverted, unconfrontational people by the aggressive sort described above, who are frustrated at not receiving like for like, or humiliated by being shown for the bullies they are. Please read the correct definition.


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