Why we should read what he had to say
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
A MAJOR PROBLEM WITHIN high culture is that the people with the most interesting ideas and the most distinctive visions are often complicated, and sometimes downright unpleasant. If only, if only our most treasured and enjoyable artistic experiences were always delivered by the nicest and best behaved among us.
But that has never been the case, and in the modern world, where values of diversity, inclusion and fairness have gained the upper hand, some of our greatest creators have now been frankly revealed as no great believers in diversity, inclusion or fairness.
Individuals certainly have the right not to read or look at anything that offends them, and they retain that right under the changed conditions we now call ‘woke’. But for publishers, educators, critics and curators there is no way to opt out of the new regulatory framework that has taken hold of the public consumption of culture.
Tastemakers and gatekeepers are being forced to take positions about controversial figures, and now it has to matter to them whether Picasso’s personal shortcomings outweigh his artistic brilliance, or whether Roald Dahl’s books can still appear in their original form. Meanwhile, the rest of the public can only pine for a world in which Agatha Christie had never made passing references to ethnicity, and James Bond was left in peace to be a good old sexist.
Of course, despite the current ruffling of feathers, none of this is entirely new. Wagner has long stood in the dock for his virulent anti-Semitism, and Ezra Pound still has only a provisional pass to the Valhalla of poets for being an unabashed early adopter of proper fascism.
But if we step away from both the worst of racism and bigotry, and its mirror image of self-absorbed hypersensitivity, we can find plenty of important creative figures whose complex characters were inseparably entwined with the greatness of their works. One such is VS Naipaul, who has inadvertently been dragged back into the spotlight by the recent untimely death of his biographer, Patrick French.
French’s account of Naipaul’s life, The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography, was delivered in 2008, to be eagerly devoured for the intimate details it revealed of Naipaul’s complicated personal life. It filled a vacuum that Naipaul himself engineered by his unwillingness to play the public role of a literary celebrity. He neglected to provide an autobiography, and instead confined himself to oblique revelations of his personal history in hybrid works of fiction, such as The Enigma of Arrival (1987). He always stuck to the line that all he had to say was already in print. He was content to insist: “I am the sum of my books.”
It would be a mistake to think that Naipaul took up his pen to make friends. He felt compelled to write, to chronicle what he saw and how he felt about it. This was a vocation that took hold of him before he was a teenager. Much of the next ten years of his life was spent trying to find his material, but in the end it found him
Till 2008 this had proved a successful strategy. It had allowed him to spend as little time as possible on the promotion circuit, with its vacuous glad-handing and tedious questions, leaving him free to move on to new work rather than be forced to relive the old. A similar motivation had led him to grant French freedom to speak to whomever he wished and to say whatever he wanted, to produce an authorised biography over which he intended to hold no authority. French took him at his word, and the stories that emerged were often dark.
Naipaul wanted to be honest and raised no barriers. He provided candid admissions and made no attempt to portray himself as other than a writer with a writer’s obsessions and insecurities. He admitted there were visits to prostitutes. Much of what he revealed was already in the public domain, but the driven man who was hard to know and hard to live with emerged in a new, harsh light. Though much of the damaging material which appeared in the book had a whiff of score-settling about it, off French’s pages Naipaul suddenly appeared as a different character from off his own.
Naipaul felt betrayed—his word—and he absolutely denied that some of the grosser material was true. But these denials were all in private. True to form, he said not a word in public, for the rest of his life.
French’s version of Naipaul has remained influential, and the picture it paints of his dealings with women has earned him the disparagement of a substantial section of the public.
But French only added details to a negative portrait that many had long recognised. Sir Vidia’s prodigious output of non-fiction had already made him enemies across the post-colonial world, from the Caribbean to India to Africa, and among many Muslims, who denigrated his treatment of their faith. He had written freely and frankly about real societies all across the globe—many of which he visited specifically to write magazine articles—and his assessment of what he found was frequently less than flattering.
His first trip to India produced An Area of Darkness (1964), which was banned by the Indian government for its critical tone. Several books about the West Indies earned him a reputation for cultural snobbery. Then India: A Wounded Civilization (1977) prompted charges of anti-Muslim bias, redoubled after the publication of Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981).
By 2008 there were few people he had not offended somehow.
But it would be a mistake to think that Naipaul took up his pen to make friends. He felt compelled to write, to chronicle what he saw and how he felt about it. This was a vocation that took hold of him before he was a teenager. Much of the next ten years of his life was spent trying to find his material, but in the end it found him. He realised that it was lying close to hand, that his journey to England and Oxford was only a superficial transit, that he could write about where he had come from as easily as where he was. And, crucially, about what he really thought, but only if he did so with ruthless honesty. That is why his trek to literary achievement was never a journey into adulation and acceptance.
He was one of the first great authors to write as an outsider. Some, Kipling for instance, had written about outsiders, but Naipaul made a virtue of rootlessness and combined it with expressive brilliance and a kind of dispassionate eye that proved highly uncomfortable to many of the people to whom he turned his attention.
Patrick French’s version of Naipaul has remained influential, and the picture it paints of his dealings with women has earned him the disparagement of a substantial section of the public. But French only added details to a negative portrait that many had long recognised
I spent a lot of time talking with him in the last five or so years of his life, and I saw nothing of the caricature I had been led to expect. I had heard stories about his abrasiveness, particularly his haughtiness towards aspiring writers, but he proved to be genuinely interested in what I thought, and carefully made me lay out why I thought it. He especially enjoyed hearing tales of my childhood growing up in the rural north of England. He gave me nothing but encouragement, and I can only express gratitude for his kindness.
Of course, this is a decidedly partial view, at best a retrospective look at a personality forged through a long and tortuous career of introspection and unrelenting devotion to self-exploration, a lifestyle that was always intended to produce accurate self-expression rather than social status.
But having come to know the man, it seems ironic that I have been challenged to defend him from the stage at literary events, by audience members who fail to understand the difference between the literary personality, which writes books and creates a life to make the writing possible, and the social personality, which helps provide fuel for the whole literary endeavour. The truly great writer can muster and sustain detachment to do the work, but that fierceness of intellect is not necessary in anyone’s social life, and in my presence Naipaul displayed nothing more in the way of aggression than sharp wit. I am sure that people who called on Muhammad Ali did not endure knockout blows to the jaw, and Dennis Lillee did not throw fruit at his dinner guests.
Fans of literature who seem to have no understanding of writers will be with us for evermore, and their questions can never be answered satisfactorily. Naipaul, the vulnerable human, is there to be punched, if anyone so wishes.
He is probably best understood as one of those people who tend to say things like “I’m not rude, I just tell the truth.” I had an aunt like that, but it’s not hard to distinguish in an instant the kind of insights she produced from the kind that Naipaul did, in terms of the importance of the topic in question, the quality of the truth, and the elegance of the expression in which the purported insight is delivered. Naipaul chose serious topics and wrote beautifully about them, revealing things neither he nor we knew before. My aunt never did any of that.
Naipaul’s personal failings were bathetic rather than monstrous, and he admitted to most of them. He thought of himself as isolated, and never felt the need to resolve his peculiarities of position or temperament. His life choices directly facilitated his unique contribution to culture as surely as each society reflects its means of production.
Before 2008, public hostility towards him was based largely on alleged thought crimes, which can largely be traced to his upbringing and education in colonial Trinidad, but which also carried some of the resentment that his encounters with arrogant privilege had generated. In my hearing he only ever unloaded on two social groups—his tutors at Oxford and his publishers.
As a small tribute, I would also like to correct the record about some of his other alleged views.
First, he did not support Hindu nationalism. This belief arose from an occasion in 2004 when he asked to meet a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) delegation to find out what they thought. He never publicly endorsed their views, but some of his earlier writing, mourning the loss of the great civilisation of Vijayanagara, led some people (who should have known better) to accuse him of Hindu bigotry. This was simply to exploit his silence on the subject and was a frankly silly thing to think. Sir Vidia lived no kind of Hindu lifestyle and his tastes were not those of any ashram dweller or rishi. As ever, if you want to know what he thought, read the book.
Certainly his political views were on the right of politics. He had little time for ‘socialists’—a word he sprayed around showing little concern for its exact meaning. Generally, he used it to describe people who were both poor and acquisitive.
He denigrated colonial society in the West Indies because, in his opinion, nothing of quality was being produced there. He was not pro-colonial; he was anti-provincial.
In many ways, he was simply an elitist, unafraid of applying as high standards to others as he did to himself and his output. This was sometimes a harsh process. As degenerative disease began to undermine his memory, he would reproach himself, with genuine pain: “I’m sorry, I am not speaking well.” Others might simply have paused and said: “Where was I?”
There is no reason to expect that extraordinary works should not be the product of extraordinary people. Or, to state it in reverse, ordinary people generally do ordinary things. This is not a disgrace; we all need other people to do ordinary things for us, such as grow food, drive buses and deal with our insurance claims in call centres. A civilised society requires exactly this mutual provision of banal, useful services. But a society with aspirations to high culture requires a few people to do things that are not ordinary, and the extraordinary content they bring to us enriches our individual lives. This is as much a division of labour as Adam Smith’s famous pin factory, and without it none of us would understand each other nearly as well.
But there is a downside. Just as one byproduct of Adam Smith’s pin factory is drudgery, so the downside of cultural specialists is the indulgence we grant them to be the different ones, to be the people who stand away from our quotidian lives in order to gain the distance and clarity of vision to see us as we are. Cultural output is a form of truth, a distillation of our collective experiences. Part of that truth is that it takes extraordinary talent to show us our ordinariness, and the tragedy is that the kind of people who can break the laws of convention can break other laws just as easily, and can justify themselves in doing so.
Naipaul, let it be said, was much more extraordinary in his powers of observation and expression than he ever was extraordinary in his vices or failings. And we should read what he had to say.