Wednesday, 15 June 2011

V.S. Naipaul, Diana Athill and a Lot of Tosh

V.S. Naipaul, my most favourite writer, seems to be in the news these days for all the wrong reasons.

Naipaul hasn’t published a novel since Magic Seeds (which wasn’t received well), came out seven years ago.

Last year was published Masque of Africa, Naipaul’s first travelogue in a decade, this time on Africa (which, like some of the other vast continents he has visited in the past, Naipaul found appalling), and that was panned by the critics (although many of them seemed to be more interested in venting their bile about what an awful man Naipaul was than reviewing the supposed deficiencies in the book).

So how does Naipaul manage to muscle his way into limelight, albeit intermittently?

It works like this. Naipaul gives an interview. In the interview he makes statements that are very obviously politically incorrect and controversial. These statements are quoted (usually out of context) in newspapers, which then becomes a license for the outraged offended party to call him gross, delusional, narcissistic, overrated etcetera etcetera.

Last week, the Guardian quoted (selectively and out of context, needless to say) from an interview Naipaul gave to the Royal Geographic Society.

In the interview Naipaul replied to the question whether he considered any women writer his literary match with the answer ‘I don’t think so.’

In the same interview Naipaul claimed that he couldn’t possibly share Jane Austen’s ‘sentimental ambition, her sentimental view of the world.’

Naipaul further claimed that women writer were ‘quite different’. ‘I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph I know whether it is written by a man or a woman,’ he said. ‘It is,’ he added (just in case he hadn’t made himself clear), ‘unequal to me.’

Finally, without actually taking her name, Naipaul dismissed the writing of Diana Athill, his former editor at Andre Deutsch, as ‘feminist tosh’, adding (the Naipaul touch) ‘I don’t mean this in any unkind way.’

Athill, 93, responded thus: ‘It seems very odd. He doesn’t realise what a monkey he is making of himself.’ 

Athill went on to give her view as to why Naipaul might have dismissed her writing as ‘feminine tosh’. ‘I was a “sensitive editor” because I liked his work, I was admiring it. When I stopped admiring him so much I started being “feminine tosh”. I can't say it made me feel very bad. It just made me laugh ... I think one should just ignore it, take no notice really.’

Finally, Naipaul’s former editor had the following to say: ‘Naipaul has always been a testy man and seems to have got testier in old age. I don't think it is worth being taken seriously ... It's sad really because he's a very good writer. Why be such an irritable man?


I tried to find the original Royal Geographic interview on the net, but couldn’t find it, so I will have to go by what was published in the Guardian.

It is difficult to see what Naipaul was trying to achieve here other than attracting wholly negative publicity and hostile criticism towards him.

Is it possible that Naipaul made an off the cuff remark during the interview that was latched upon by the newspapers seeking a juicy story? That does not seem typical of a man who is known to rarely forget and never forgive (unless, nearing eighty, Sir Vidia has gone a bit soft in the head).

What has (understandably) raised the hackles of some women writers is Naipaul’s description of women’s writing as ‘sentimental’ and ‘narrow’. I must say that this seems like sweeping (and inaccurate) generalization to me. If I take a look at the novels I have read in the last eighteen months, there were many novels written by women writers (Monica Ali, Barbara Kingsglover, Hilary Mantel to name just three) that were anything but sentimental. I am currently reading Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat, and it has, so far, not struck me as sentimental (although I haven’t found it particularly gripping either). 

It is possible—I haven’t done a PhD on this, so I wouldn’t bet my mortgage on it—that women writers as a group are more likely to be more aware of the emotional aspects than male writers, and Naipaul was probably making that point in a manner that was not helpful.

It’s all down to semantics and implied connotations. Naipaul chose the word ‘sentimental’ to describe women’s writing. If we suppose that the word was chosen carefully, then the implication is that Naipaul thinks that women’s writing is swayed more by emotions rather than reason. Mind you, Naipaul is not saying it in so many words; however, the context in which the word was used has a pejorative connotation.

I have read all but one of Naipaul’s novels, none of which has struck me as sentimental; his later novels, in particular, are devoid of sentiments altogether.  That makes me think that Naipaul does not view sentimentality (or excess of it) in a novel as a good thing. He believes women writers (as a group) overdo sentimentality in their work, which he doesn't; ergo, no woman writer is his equal.  Everyone is entitled to his views; but when you are a well-known figure of some standing in the literary world and express views that are so obviously non-PC (and likely to be viewed as incorrect by many), you have to expect flak; and that’s what has happened here. You also run the risk of being labeled cranky, eccentric (or a kook, as Jenifer Egan described him in her interview—I had to look up a dictionary to find out its meaning), sexist, irascible, and pompous.

Naipaul does not help the matter by refusing to elaborate further once he has fired his salvo. The Pulitzer winning American writer Jenifer Egan reacted strongly to Naipaul’s comment (although judging from the report of Egan’s reaction, it wasn’t clear to me whether she had actually read Naipaul’s interview; it seemed that she was, in a telephonic interview, told about the comments published in the Guardian, and she gave her response). 

When requested to give his reaction to Egan’s comment, Naipaul’s spokesperson said, ‘Sir Vidia said what he needed to say and is not interested in further dialogue on this matter.’

You see what is happening here? Naipaul made comments (probably) calculated to inflame emotions; and when the predictable happened, he haughtily declared that he was not interested in a debate, evincing that he considered it beneath him to engage in a dialogue or a debate on the matter with the other person.  Not a strategy that will win you many friends. But perhaps Naipaul does not care about these things.

I do share, however, Naipaul’s dislike (if that is the correct word) of Jane Austen. I don’t know what ambitions Jane Austen had when she wrote those dreadful novels. Naipaul thinks she had sentimental ambitions; I think she had ambitions to render the reader catatonic with ennui. Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s most famous novel, is not oozing in sentimentality in my humble opinion; it is still a crap novel—more dreary than Norfolk county council meetings and more irritating than an Alex Ferguson interview. Also, Naipaul is not the only one who does not hold Austen in high regard: Jeremy Clarkson, that great wit in British journalism, does not waste any opportunity to tell the world his low opinion of Austen (that makes at least three people in the British Isles who think Jane Austen is overrated: myself, Naipaul, and Clarkson).

Are women writers 'quite different' from men writers as Naipaul claims? It is a view; not a very fashionable view these days, but a view that has been expressed, from time to time, by other authors, including women authors. Some time back I read a novel entitled Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. This novel, written by the British novelist Winifred Watson had become very popular when it was first published in the 1930s (and was recently made into a Hollywood film). The novel was recently reissued by the Persephone Books, and included a biography of its author. Winifred Watson firmly believed that women read women's novels and men read men's novels. (This of course does not mean that men can't write novels that women will read and vice versa, but does suggest that Watson felt that men and women appreciate different things when they read novels.)

I also found Naipaul’s comments about Diana Athill, and Athill’s response interesting.

In his interview Naipaul describes Athill’s writing as a ‘feminist tosh’. I do not know which book of Athill Naipaul had in his mind when he said that—Athill has published one novel (which I haven’t read) and a few memoirs (of which I have read three: Stet, Somewhere Towards the End, and After A Funeral). 

Note that Naipaul is not making an attack on Athill’s character; he is passing his judgment on Athill’s writing, which, in his view, is ‘feminist nonsense’.

What is Athill’s response? She says (according to her comment attributed her in the Guardian) that she finds Naipaul’s ‘attack’ ‘laughable’. She declares that ‘no notice’ should be taken of it; it was not worth taking seriously. After saying all this Athill goes on to offer her insight into why Naipaul has made this remark about her writing. We are told that it all goes back to the 1970s when she was Naipaul’s editor at Andre Deutsch and expressed her reservations about Naipaul’s novel Guerrillas. Naipaul, if Athill is to be believed, did not take kindly to her criticism; he withdrew his novel from Andre Deutsch, and never worked with her again.

This happened, if it happened (i.e. Naipaul’s reason for severing ties with Andre Deutsch and jettisoning Diana Athill), more than 35 years ago.

In giving her response to Naipaul’s ‘laughable attack’, which was not worth taking ‘seriously’, Athill felt the need to disinter this dreg. ‘When I stopped admiring him so much,’ Athill remarked, ‘I started writing “feminist tosh” [according to Naipaul].’

What this suggests to me is that Athill is unable to get past the idea that the only reason Naipaul has described her work as ‘feminist tosh’ is his grudge against her for daring to criticize his novel several decades ago.

You can’t help feeling that despite her loud protestations to the contrary, Naipaul’s dismissive remark has hurt Athill.

Athill thinks it is sad that Naipaul is being such an irritable man (even in his old age, presumably). I think it is equally (if not more) sad that someone at the age of 93, when very few years are left on this earth, is still unable to look beyond petty personal dustups that happened years ago. A really mature response might have been to simply acknowledge what Naipaul said and even accept that he might have had literary reasons for not taking her writing seriously, instead of whining about some incident that happened in another century. True serenity of mind, it seems, is not an easy thing to achieve in a lifetime.

(As an aside, in her memoir, Stet,—which, I should point out, I thoroughly enjoyed, not least because it had a gossipy feel to it—published almost a decade ago, Athill devotes a chapter to Naipaul. The picture Athill paints of the Nobel Laureate—although he wasn’t that when the memoir was first published— is not endearing. She describes Naipaul as haughty, prickly, difficult, and having enough demons to fill up Buckingham Palace. She indicates that she found his company oppressive; she hints that he treated his wife (his first wife, Patricia) with contempt; and finally, she tells the story of Naipaul’s departure from Andre Deutch and records her reaction: ‘It was as though the sun came out [after Naipaul left]. I didn’t have to like Vidia any more.’ This, one might say, is very personal criticism; and Naipaul, as far as I am aware, never responded to it. At least not with personal mudslinging. That is not his style. He has, instead, more than ten years after Stet was first published, made a ‘passing remark’ about Athill’s writing that has hit the target.

As a further aside, in all three memoirs of Athill that I have read (two of which—Stet and Somewhere Towards the End—I have liked), I have noted (with a degree of admiration) Athill’s unassuming style of writing in which she somehow manages to be a quiet, almost self-deprecating, heroine of her stories—the ultimate conceit of a writer, you might say. This is particularly evident in the third book of Athill which I read recently.  In this memoir, After A Funeral, Athill recounts the story of her doomed relationship with the Egyptian writer Waugih Ghali, which ended with Ghali committing suicide in Athill’s flat. Athill tries hard—too hard, you suspect—to project herself as an open minded, generous and tolerant woman. Ghali—who was dead for eighteen years when the book first came out— based on Athill’s account, comes across as a cross between Caligula and Margaret Thatcher. As I read the book I found myself becoming increasingly irritated, as yet another incident of the caddish, ungrateful behavior of the unreliable Ghali (who is referred to throughout the book by his nickname ‘Didi’) was recounted, to which Saint Diana responded with supreme forbearance. And it was done very cunningly. Scratch the patina of pseudo-honesty and faux-introspective insight, and you find that awful things were written about a man who could not defend himself because he was dead.

When Naipaul described Athill’s writing as ‘tosh’ he might have been very harsh, unfair, even, but, having read three of Athill’s books, I can’t say he didn’t have a point.)

As I have said this on this blog before, the trouble with Naipaul is that he says as he sees things and does not care for niceties or political correctness. This is not to say that I find myself in agreement with everything he says, great fan though I am of his writing. But he is nothing less than totally honest (at least that is how he comes across to me—both in his fiction and non-fiction writing).

And that is a quality I admire a lot in a writer.