“The lives of writers,” said V.S. Naipaul in 1994, “are a legitimate subject of inquiry, and the truth should not be skimped.” So let’s not skimp.
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, who died Saturday at his home in London six days before his 86th birthday, was “the greatest living writer in the English language.” So thought another V.S.—Pritchett—in 1980. His productivity was amazing: from his first book, a novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957), to his last, The Masques of Africa, a nonfiction work (2010), more than 30 volumes of fiction, essays, memoirs, and, for want of a more precise word, travel books.
He was also selfish, petty, snobbish, jealous of other writers, and utterly lacking in personal loyalty. In support of all this, there was the treatment of his first wife, Patricia Hale, who read and edited all his manuscripts. When she was undergoing treatment for the breast cancer that would kill her within two years, Hale found out that Naipaul had frequented prostitutes—and found out by reading an interview he gave to The New Yorker. “It could be said that I killed her,” he said later, “I feel a little bit that way.” (To be fair, Naipaul rededicated a reprint of his third novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, to her.)
After her death, the Nobel laureate was approached by Patrick French about a biography. Naipaul gave French Patricia’s diary, which was apparently unread by Naipaul himself. In French’s 2009 The World As it Is, he wrote that Hale’s diary “reveals more about the creation of [Naipaul's] subsequent books and her role in their creation, than any other source. It puts Patricia Naipaul on a par with other great, tragic, literary spouses such as Sonia Tolstoy, Jane Carlyle, and Leonard Woolf.”
Naipaul also gave French a collection of letters from his longtime mistress, Margaret Murray. One wonders what Murray’s reaction was on learning from French' book that some of her letters were unopened.
Regarding the breakup of the famous friendship between Naipaul and Paul Theroux, French says the American writer “failed to see that Naipaul had no loyalty to him.” Theroux might have gotten the message in 1997, after knowing Naipaul for 31 years, when he found books he had written and autographed to V.S. listed in an auction catalogue.
Theroux got off easy. When Salman Rushdie was under sentence of death from the Ayatollah Khomeini, Naipaul declined to join writers from all over the world in Rushdie’s defense. “I don’t know his books,” he said, “but I’ve been aware of his statements. I find them usually left-wing and trivial and antiquated.” Khomeini’s fatwa, he quipped, was “an extreme form of literary criticism.” He didn’t regret the criticism he received for taking Khomeini’s side because “I was not interested, and I remain completely indifferent to how people think of me, because I was serving this thing called literature.”
By literature, Naipaul meant mostly 19th century writers such as Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy—though not Stendhal (“repetitive, tedious”) or Flaubert (“the greatest disappointment” he experienced reading Madame Bovary) As for the 20th century, forget about it. He routinely dismissed writers of greater imaginative gifts, including Garcia Marquez, Proust (“tedious” and “self-indulging”), and Joyce (he referred to Ulysses contemptuously as “the Irish book”). E.M. Forster was “a sodomite” and “an odious fraud.”
The only post-19th century writers of whom he seemed to approve wholeheartedly were William Somerset Maugham and that consummate snob of 20th century English literature, Evelyn Waugh. (For his part, Waugh publicly praised some of Naipaul’s books, but in a 1963 letter to Nancy Mitford referred to him as “that clever little nigger Naipaul.”)
Though he was repeatedly praised as the successor to Joseph Conrad for being the interpreter of the emerging Third World, Naipaul insisted that Conrad “had no influence at all on me.” Oh yes, he did. If not for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Naipaul’s greatest novel, A Bend in the River (1979)—a book that turns Conrad inside out by showing the colonial experience from the perspective of the colonized—wouldn’t have been possible. In a famous essay on Conrad, Naipaul berated the Ukrainian-born novelist for an “imaginative deficiency as well as his philosophical need to stick as close as possible to the facts of every situation… he did not seek to discover; he sought only to explain.”
Surely this indictment can be made of Naipaul’s fiction as well. If Pritchett’s pronouncement of Naipaul’s greatness is sustained, it will surely be through the reputation of his nonfiction: the unsparing and unsentimental (and un-Marxist) views of the Third World, particularly of the Islamic world, in Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998), and his trilogy on India, An Area of Darkness (1964), India, A Wounded Civilization (1976) and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). His books on Latin America, The Loss of El Dorado (1969) and The Return of Eva Peron and the Killings in Trinidad (1980). And about his own homeland, Trinidad, The Middle Passage (1962)
In these books and several others, he went, both literally and figuratively, where no English-language writer had gone before him.
A passage from British journalist John Carey quoted in French’s biography described Naipaul’s method: “He wanders around, chatting with students and taxi-drivers, munching dried fruit and nuts, asking mild but pointed questions… Even when his conclusions are hostile, he never lacks sympathy.”
Naipaul’s unique literary sensibility, at once compassionate and austere, had no antecedents. In these books, he achieved something that no writer before him had, a remarkable empathy and sympathy with Third World people. His tone often seemed haughty and condescending—Edward Said called him “a kind of belated Kipling who carries with him a kind of half-stated but finally unexamined reverence for the colonial order”—but his vitriol was always reserved for institutions, not the individuals who lived under them.
Two passages from An Area of Darkness illustrate Naipaul’s method. “It is still through European eyes that India looks at her ruins and her art. Nearly every Indian who writes on Indian art feels bound to quote from the writing of European admirers.” His target is not Indian art, but India’s failure to see its own creative achievement from an Indian perspective.
Also, “To know Indians was to take a delight in people as people; every encounter was an adventure.”
Naipaul’s public position, wrote Patrick French, “as a novelist and chronicler was inflexible at a time of intellectual relativism: He stood for high civilization, individual rights, and the rule of law.” What Naipaul once wrote of Conrad may also be true of himself: “Perhaps it doesn’t matter what we say about Conrad; it is enough that he is discussed.”
We know, or should know, that great artists are not necessarily good people, and that it’s the work that’s important. As Ezra Pound put it, “Literature is news that stays news.” It’s difficult to reconcile the cold blooded monster of ego that was V.S. Naipaul with the writer who always showed, regardless of what one thought of his politics, a steadfast sense of justice and decency. The memory of Naipaul the man will fade, and time will tell whether his work will stay news.