In 1975, Diana Athill damaged her career by telling a literary star the truth. VS Naipaul’s had just given her his 13th book, Guerrillas, a polemical potboiler of a novel that was a departure from the pensive, thoughtful fiction that he was critically acclaimed for. Where in novels such as A House For Mr. Biswas and story collections like A Flag In The Island and In A Free State, Naipaul had written fine, complex, and beautifully written stories in a variation of tragic comic personas-Guerrillas served only to deliver a harsh political message about “black radicals and the white women who love them”. It was a popular one: given the burgeoning rightward shift in American and English literary circles, there was an audience clamoring writers who socked it to black militants and white feminists; and Naipaul’s skin color gave it an aura of impeachability.
The problem, however, laid with those readers less interested in right wing racial and sexual pamphlets and more in the aesthetics of a novel. Athill told him as such, and as a result, Naipaul left her as an editor, and seemingly to the dustbin of history; to a narrative in which Naipaul reigns as the greatest writer of English prose since Conrad and those in his way mere roadblocks in his journey.
Well, that was the story until this (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jun/02/vs-naipaul-jane-austen-women-writer) With it, VS Naipaul laid waste to his aura of critical invincibility and gave the world a sample of what has been turning the stomachs of careful readers stomach for nearly two generations.The critical blow back toward Naipaul in recent years serves as a healthy response to his outrages, and the end of his time as an uncritically adored conservative hero.
Naipaul had lobbied grenades that had damaged his once invincible reputation before. His remarks about E.M forester being a “homosexual exploiter” were not only homophobic, but sub literate (given Forester painstaking efforts to hide his sexuality). His novels sympathetic to the Indian caste system (2001’s Half a Life, and 2004’s Magic Seeds) all but eroded his reputation as an ethical conservative. Patrick French’s biography of him-detailing James brown esque appetite for beating up women- all but eroded his reputation for being ethical. But they all were seen by the general public as minor skirmishes within the academy; chinks and flaws in the general narrative of Naipaul as a noble, honest, and articulate truth teller in the developing world.
It was impossible to erase this from his resume, however.
“In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.
He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”
The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.
He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”
This is worse than Hemingway (who revered Janet Flanner and Isak Dinesen, and once obsessively copied Gertrude Stein). This is Worse than Roth (who was one of the earliest fans of Louise Erdrich.) Hell this is worse than Norman Mailer (Who, though famous for his own “women can’t write” essay in advertisements for myself, later became a fan of Toni Morrison). No, this is Evelyn Waugh territory: a craven, essentialist, and dare I say primitive declaration of power and Privilege that has nothing to do with art and everything to do with the class strata that has haunted the written word since the Guelph’s exiled Dante.
For a second, however, let’s put Naipaul’s theory on Austen to a controlled experiment. Rereading Sense and Sensibility, I was struck by how readers know so much about her characters, but not her( and how I was comfortable with that). One is entitled to their opinion on literature, but one cannot deny that her characters are with us as much as the weather. The bittersweet relationship dynamic between Marianne and Elinor Dash wood. The stubborn give and take between Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy. The subtle, yet dramatic awakening of Emma Woodhouse’s conscience and soul. One can disagree with the notion of Austen’s work being a dramatic step in the evolution of the novel, but if one is going to make an ethical argument in that matter, they must deal with what she created on the page, and not her as a person.
What do we know of Naipaul’s recent work that isn’t tied to Naipaul the man? What, in the past 40 years, has he created on the page that isn’t tied to his right wing political ideas? More importantly, when’s was the last time you heard one of his defender’s actually reference any of his works of literature? Of course one must deplore rapists, murders, and monsters of any color, and Naipaul’s travel journals have painstakingly referenced the ones who have existed in the third world. But the rapists, murders and monstrous minorities that have existed in his fictions were the ones of his imagination; and one does not achieve the grace of literary austerity by plopping them on the page.
Or at least one shouldn’t have before this outburst. For if it was his brutal dismissal of Athill that helped him achieve worldwide recognition, it is his brutal dismissal of Athill that has helped usher him out of polite literary company. There will come a time in the distant, distant future where scholars will look at Biswas and the short stories, and see that Naipaul was once a formidable writer of fiction; vulnerable, pensive, ill at ease in his place in the numerous worlds he inhabited yet brave enough to create characters that examined their relationships in them. But not now. Naipaul’s outburst does more than show that he hasn’t been that writer for over a generation, and his violent relationship with women in general( and Athill in particular) has been vital to his rise and fall as a writer. The whole story, of his and his editors parallel crossings of fortune‘s, almost has the feel of a great novel.