Speaking Volumes: Some notes on Sir Vidia’s spleen

(Published in the Business Standard, June 7, 2011)

1. The fact that I possess a womb should disqualify me from commenting on V S Naipaul’s latest broadside. A writer who believes that no woman is his equal as a writer, that women suffer from a “sentimentality, a narrow vision of the world” and that women writers are “quite different” is not going to take the criticism of women readers seriously.

2. Which isn’t going to stop me or other owners of wombs anyway.

3. Not that Mr Naipaul’s criticisms should shock anyone, after all these years. A list of Sir Vidia’s targets over the decades includes Africans, Muslim invaders in India, infies (inferior people) of all colours and races, Indian women writers, his wives, his lovers, his friends, his editors, including the nonagenarian Diana Athill, the issuers of worthless degrees (Oxbridge), foolish people, people who do not serve him his vegetables in separate dishes, people who have not read his writings, people who have read but not understood his writings, people who have read and understood his writings but have also read writers he disapproves of, which is most writers, regardless of whether they own wombs or not.

4. So the best way to approach this fracas is to repeat the apocryphal line Ved Mehta is supposed to have said after Mr Naipaul had a spat with the German ambassador’s wife in Neemrana: “You’ll never guess what that terrible old man has gone and done now.” The spat, now forgotten, was over Mr Naipaul’s dismissal of a certain woman intellectual, to which the German ambassador’s wife is supposed to have said: “We all know what your views on women are, Sir Vidia, we don’t have to take them seriously,” which put the Nobel laureate in a towering rage.

5. There’s a very old pattern at work here; the wide, and widening, gap between Mr Naipaul the public figure and Naipaul the writer. The bulk of the pronouncements made by Mr Naipaul the public figure are rubbish — cantankerous, peevish statements meant to provoke anger and irritation. Some commentators suggested that this was a version of the West Indian tradition of picong — the swift trading of insults and banter as a kind of conversational game — but the truth is that it’s just spleen. The few interviews given by Mr Naipaul the writer, most notably his Paris Review interview, in 1998, are illuminated with insight and wisdom, despite all the bigotry and the petulance of the public man.

6. Read this sentence by Mr Naipaul: “I think the world is what you enter when you think – when you become educated, when you question – because you can be in the big world and be utterly provincial.” And then this sentence by Jane Austen, whom he slammed for her “sentimental ambitions”: “The literary world is inspiring, but it is not all there is. I let my daily life be my raw material, even if paintings, fiction and sonatas are the fire in my forge.” They led such different lives; Mr Naipaul wrested for himself the freedom to travel, to learn and to explore. Ms Austen, trammelled by the twin lack of independence and income, wrote her novels from the observation of the limited world around here, but she shares with Mr Naipaul several things: the sense of humour, the detached accuracy and the lack of sentimentality. They had a similar, excoriating wit, though Ms Austen’s was caustic, Mr Naipaul’s splenetic.

7. There is little need to address Mr Naipaul’s central grouse, with its implication that women cannot write, or that women writers are by definition sentimental. It displays his lack of reading — could anyone who had read Hilary Mantel, Lionel Shriver, Marilyne Robinson, Margaret Atwood, Mary Shelley, Susan Sontag and company actually believe this? You could, of course, if you were a fossil, a relic from another age.

8. I could go back to Mr Naipaul’s work — not the disappointing late novels that show the waning vigour and drooping powers of a played-out novelist, or the feeble African travelogue, but the humour and sharp acuity that marked books like A House for Mr Biswas, or The Mimic Men, or A Bend in the River. Books from the time when Mr Naipaul’s ability to see things clearly had not been overtaken by his arrogance and his choler. But instead, I find myself reaching for Pride and Prejudice. The novel’s comedy is restorative, and nothing could be more appropriate to the present situation than the title.

12 comments

  1. What's your take on TNC and Hilzoy, who say that, despite Naipaul's views, it would be a "mistake" not to read him because he's a "gorgeous, gorgeous writer"? (And, interestingly, TNC uses Austen's book title for his post.)Now, I haven't read Naipaul's fiction. But there are many, many highly-regarded writers whom I haven't read, and I will only get to read a tiny fraction of those in my lifetime. So Naipaul's crude misogyny only serves to discourage me from trying him out at all. I'm sure I'm not alone.

  2. I'm sure I'm not alone.No Rahul, you're not. Having also had the privilege of dining with Sir Vidia many years ago in Delhi (long story), my memory of that event (and his mention of it in "Wounded Civilization") also serves to discourage me.

  3. Sir Vidia (it is hilarious that people call him that) is going to be in a towering rage at you for daring to draw similarities between him and the insignificant Austen. I did think Hilary Mantel was sentimental – she softens Cromwell, portraying him in a way that was unimaginable – and I think that was the novel's great success. And I agree with the commenters above. I have tried to read Naipul's novels a couple of times before but couldn't get past chapter one. I always felt I should persevere. Now, though, not so much. I think it would be impossible to read them without the author's general misogyny intruding. Kind of like how I find it impossible to watch anything with Tom Cruise in it after the standing on Oprah's couch and raving debacle.

  4. u can earn by writing about him .he can not.I feel sorry that Sir Vidia cannot earn by writing about himself.The Bride, ah, but watch Cruise in "Risky Business", one of his earliest films, 20+ years before the couch. I just loved the style in that film.And now back to your regular Sir Vidia programming.

  5. Tom Cruise jumping on a couch — now that's an analogy Sir Vidia will love.By the way, is anyone reminded of Christopher Hitchens' claim that women are incapable of humour? But at least he didn't claim (or not explicitly) that he himself is funnier than all of them.

  6. Dilip, will try Risky Business if I can get my hands on it but I fear the worst. Even the drool-worthy Top Gun volleyball scene inspires nothing more than a meh from me now. Part of it is the disconcerting realisation of how Tom's nose has changed, and not for the better. At least, one can say this for Sir Vidia, he hasn't had a nose job even if his nose seems permanently out of joint. OK sorry, that was stretching it, just wanted to come back to the topic at hand.

  7. Dilip: At least read Bend in the River. It's probably not a good idea to judge author's books, especially fiction, by author's pronouncements. Nilanjana: This is one of the best pieces I have read on the saga. Most others are too predictable in their rage, to be worth spending time reading them.

  8. Agreed, Naipaul is not someone who believes in speaking with political correctness and many a time he says things just to stir up a fight. But the fact is there is hardly anyone who comes close to him in terms of world view and insight. Fiction and plotting is not his strong point but who can deny his razor sharp prose? And by the way, he is bang on on Muslim invaders, however much your political correctness in viewing world history makes you believe otherwise. In a way, proves Naipaul's point that women's grasp of history is tenuous at best.

  9. Fiction and plotting is not his strong point…Not what most Naipaul fans will say, but never mind.proves Naipaul's point that women's grasp of history is tenuous at best.No doubt a point made and quoted by people whose grasp of reality is tenuous at best.asuph: I'm sure it's excellent writing. It's just that Naipaul's pronouncements (to go with that personal experience I mentioned earlier) make me less than eager to read his stuff.Bride: The early scene in "Risky Business" of Cruise dancing to "Old Time Rock and Roll" is alone worth the price of admission.

  10. Kipling and Neitzsche were both better writers than Naipaul and their grasp of world history was about as good as his. Mind you, the old man was spot on in his lyrical yet accurate description of the joys of administering enemas to elderly tomcats, the one time we conversed at length. On that subject, he could go toe-to-toe in debate with everyone including lawrence Durrell's kid brother. Other subjects not so much. Worked much too hard to find facts to fit to preconceptions amd reverted to spitting his false teeth all over the shop if he couldn't find any. My guess is he'll be right up there with Rudyard circa 2050, as and when the conversation turns to old, dead fogeys, who could turn an elegant phrase.

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