Reading Naipaul in the 21st century

  • How do we understand his troubled legacy if we cannot separate the art from the artist?
- Amish Raj Mulmi

Aug 24, 2018-

One of my favourite VS Naipaul anecdotes comes from the time he was writing India: A Million Mutinies Now, the third of his ‘India’ trilogy. A crime reporter was asked to introduce Naipaul to a few Bombay gangsters, as he wanted to feature them in his book. The reporter took him to a safehouse, “a new apartment house...well furnished in an Indian bourgeois, furniture-shop way”, where several gang members lived.

Now, according to the reporter, Naipaul had assumed they were going to meet Muslim criminals, while in the book, Naipaul writes that he misunderstood what the reporter had said. In any case, the criminals were all Hindus. The journalist later recalled in his memoir, “[Naipaul] had to hastily change his line of questioning once he realized he was actually dealing with Hindu gangsters.” Naipaul himself admitted, “I had begun to talk to them as though they were Muslims, and had then found out that they were Hindus, with their own ways of communal feeling.”

Man and memory

This curious little anecdote provides much insight into the sort of man Naipaul was, and our --the reader, the critic, the student of post-colonial literature--reading into his personality. As much as we appreciated and honoured his art and writing, we could not remain untouched by his personal biases, his disparaging remarks against Islam, Africa, India, and women writers. Naipaul remained an enigma, despite the revealing biography by Patrick French which uncorked many worms from his past, such as the callous treatment he meted out to his first wife Patricia, his sadistic affair with Margaret Gooding, and his ultimate admission: “She [Patricia] suffered. It could be said that I had killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.”

How will history remember Sir VidiadharSurajprasad Naipaul? Will we remember him as a descendant of indentured plantation workers who chronicled the post-colonial experience across the world? Will it be for his superb prose that broke down the anxieties and the angst of newly independent countries, with characters whose many flaws paralleled their nations’ quests? Or will we remember him for his Anglophilic conservatism? Will his legacy remain the self-centric gaze with which he conducted himself in his relationships: the disturbing truths about his marriage with Pat, and the abuse of Margaret?

Which of these Naipauls is the true Naipaul? Who among them is the person we will recall when we read the writer? Western readers claimed him as one of their own, someone who laid bare the inherent weaknesses of the third world while he recounted with fury their struggles with modernism and their loss of history. Those he wrote about, however, were not pleased. His India trilogy remains, for many readers, a scathing attack on a newly independent nation gathering its feet. His excuse for the Babri Masjid demolition as “an act of historical balancing” endeared him to the Hindu Right. There was the 2001 interview in which he railed against Indian writing--“The thing about being an Indian, and it remains true of Indian writing now, is that it seems to work without history, in a vacuum. Indian writers don't know why their country is in such a mess.”--which led him into a public spat with several other Indian writers.Then came the interruption of two women-writerat a public forum with the words, “Banality irritates me. My life is short. I can't listen to banality. This thing about colonialism, this thing about gender oppression, the very word oppression wearies me.”

Such conflicting legacies leave behind their own share of conflicts. How, then, should we read Naipaul in the 21st century?

The art or the artist

In Nanette, her critically acclaimed Netflix special, the Australian stand-up comic Hannah Gadsby tears into Pablo Picasso for indulging in an affair with an underage girl. She breaks down his views on women--“You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents,” the artist had once said--and concludes that Picasso suffered from the “mental illness of misogyny”.

Gadsby’s questioning of Picasso is also a reorientation of the age-old question of whether we can separate the art from the artist. That Picasso is now presented as a ‘passionate, virile, tormented genius’ is testament to the power the artist holds over those who consume his art, who hold the artist in awe. For them, his expression, through his art, is sufficient, the only lens to view the world through his eyes. But is that enough? Should those who consume art not learn about an artist’s personal life, about how he would behave in a room full of people, about how his character traits inform his art?

In Gadsby’s view, we cannot. I tend to agree. Art cannot be separated from the artist, because art itself is a representation of the emotions, of the thoughts, and of the person the artist is. So Naipaul’s writing was as much informed by the person he was as by his striking observations into post-colonial society, and by his dominant male gaze at the women in his life. Take his novel Guerrillas, where the portrayal of his female protagonist Jane troubled many when the book was first published. “Sure, women like Jane exist, but women are changing and leaving behind the qualities they are supposed to have: the passivity, the masochism, the mindlessness,” an irate reader’s letter is quoted in his biography.

Naipaul’s ‘battered and disturbed’ affair with Margaret, which lasted for more than two decades, was ‘intensely sexual, and sexually aggressive.’ French wrote, ‘[Margaret] liked to be his slave and his victim, and he was snared by her… Many of the gruesome sexual depictions in his subsequent novels were…drawn from his life with Margaret.’ Naipaul could be a violent man. “I was very violent with her for two days… Her face was bad,” he admitted to his biographer after discovering Margaret came to Europe with an Argentine banker. Despite the violence, Margaret refused to leave him.

When we read Guerrillas today with the knowledge that it was written at the peak of their relationship, we are left to wonder, how much of that violent passionmade its way into the book?

What is canon?

One can excuse Naipaul’s opinions on Islam, Africa, India and other writers as a personal choice, but his behavior towards the two women in his life is more difficult to wish away. It is up to us to correct Naipaul’s ‘empire’, as the philosopher Roland Barthes called an author’s [or artist’s] influence on society through their body of work (although Barthes argued for separating the artist from their art). We may read A House for MrBiswas and see in it the semi-autobiographical struggles of Naipaul’s own father. It’s only fair that we read the novel now with the knowledge of his misogyny and loathing of other writers and places. His works may be canon in understanding the post-colonial experience, but that does not absolve the conflict they have generated.

And in any case, no writer should be ‘canon’, or a ‘must-read’. One reads what one wants to, what one prefers. The idea of a ‘canon’ isn’t something that should be pursued with vehemence. There is no ‘must-see’ film, art or visual in this world, just as there isn’t a ‘must-read’ book. There are simply no gatekeepers to culture. So a new reader, if they feel that way, need not read Naipaul based on his misogynistic past. And even if they do, they should read him keeping his many faults in mind, and not just his body of work itself.

To me, finally, Naipaul leaves a mixed legacy. When I first read him back in high school, he appeared a god, someone whose craft overshadowed others writing in a similar vein. Then, as I grew older, the god became human, as his later works began to regurgitate themes similar to his older ones, as if he was not accustomed to the new ways of looking at the world, as if the world had paused for him. For a man who once wrote, “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it”, Naipaul seemingly forgot that the world becomes what it is through a process of change, and did not change with it. 

Published: 24-08-2018 07:48

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