Interest in the new biography of literary lion V. S. Naipaul continues. Patrick French’s The World Is What It Is was written with full cooperation from Naipaul, and that fact makes the horrific (and, we are led to believe, honest) accounts of his abusive personal relationships even more unsettling.
At one level I am not surprised that Naipaul’s private life is so despicably self-centered and sadistic. He is a masterful writer, to be sure. But there was always an odor lingering just beneath his prose that smelled like a heap of hate. Some have called that bottled up anger “colonial rage.” I’d say it is that plus overlay upon overlay of other issues.
Which brings up that old nagging issue that I have struggled with for years. It’s the Picasso problem: Great art made by people whose personal lives are treacherous, narcissistic and condemnable. And it is becoming even harder to separate the two as our world becomes even more Gawkered and celebrified. A private life? That’s a hard thing to have once you have achieved a certain level of fame.
Besides, isn’t there some snarky, lurking, reptilian comfort in being able to declare that a particular successful writer or artist is an asshole? Julian Schnabel, that master of self promotion, is easy. Just about every artist friend I have dislikes him AND his art. But what about the assholes who produce really great work? Where do you draw the line?
I don’t think I could read a Naipaul book now without having my experience colored by what I now know about his personal life–the heartless self-centeredness, the long standing abuse of his wife, his misuse of almost all the other women in his life. I haven’t read French’s well received book but the accounts described in the reviews are graphic and unforgettably brutal. This man is a cold monster who happens to be a literary genius.
Here are excerpts from two reviewers. First from Pico Iyer in Time:
The central question the book raises is how much inhumanity is justified in the cultivation of a talent–especially in an age when (as Naipaul is shrewd enough to realize) writers are judged on the basis of their personality more than their art. Even as he turned himself into a bespoke English gentleman, after all, while Pat became the obedient and self-denying Indian wife of legend, Naipaul’s strength lay not just in the clarity of his observations but in the passion–the grief and terror and rage–that trembled just beneath them.
This is from George Packer in the New York Times:
Naipaul’s code of accountability lies in facing the truth, but it’s a limited truth, with no sense of agency. He cannot begin to see himself as his biographer or reader sees him, for the pain of others always reverts back to his own. And yet this bottomless narcissism, together with the uncompromising intensity of his vision, holds the key to Naipaul’s literary power. He had the capacity in his writing to project himself into a great variety of people and situations, allowing him to imbue his work with the sympathy and humanity that he failed to extend to those closest to him in life.
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