The Critics; PRIZE FIGHTER: Naipaul Has Been Showered with Honours, but His Humanity Has Taken a Beating
Byline: Craig Brown
The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography Of V. S. Naipaul byPatrick French Picador [pounds sterling] 20 [pounds sterling]18 inc p& p ( 0845 606 4213)
When V.S. Naipaul was a little boy, his father, who always dreamed of aliterary career, gave him an anthology of poetry. It w a s inscribed: 'ToVidyadhar, from his father. Today you have reached the span of 3 years, 10months and 15 days. And I make this present to you with this counsel inaddition. Live up to the estate of man, follow truth, be kind and gentle andtrust God.' The child of three, born into the minority Indian population inrural poverty in Trinidad, is now a grand old man of 76. He has been knightedand granted the Nobel Prize, he has been showered with honours and awards, hisworks have been acclaimed the world over. He has achieved infinitely more thanhis father ever hoped for. But at what cost? 'His achievement,' says hissuccinct biographer, as clear-eyed as a recording angel, 'was an act of will,in which every situation and relationship would be subordinated to hisambition.' Naipaul's life reads like a morality tale, its compass spinningincreasingly out of control as it nears its end. His father's hopes for hiskindness and gentleness have come to nothing. And can truth really survive in avacuum? Robert Louis Stevenson thought not. He believed: 'There are two dutiesincumbent upon any man who enters on the business of writing: truth to the factand a good spirit in the treatment.' As one finishes this extraordinarybiography, one is forced to conclude that if ever that good spirit existed, itdeparted long ago.
A writer's initials have never been more appropriate. At times it seems thatV.S. is against everyone and everything. Aged 17, he dismissed the works ofJane Austen as 'mere gossip'; since then his condemnations have spiralled closeto pantomime.
Hardy, James, Eliot, Conrad; in fact, most English novelists and all Frenchnovelists - and virtually everyone who has ever held a pen - have all beenbreezily written off.
At one point, he tried saving time by writing off entire populations in one go.
Tibetans are 'the dirtiest people in the world', Argentines 'vain andaggressive', Americans 'egomaniacs', Spaniards 'the most immoral people I haveyet known', Pakistanis 'dreadful people', the British lower classes 'anabsolute menace, animals eating far more than they deserve', and so on. Withmost of the global population squashed, he has now been forced to make do withpicking off the rag-tags: even poor old Zara
Phillips he recently dismissed as having 'a criminal face'.
If Naipaul were a red-faced columnist in The Sun, or a shock-jock on anout-of-theway radio station somewhere in Texas ('He's nasty, he's naughty, he'sV. S.
NAIPAUL!'), such daft pronouncements would be taken as standard. But he is nowvery nearly as grand as the dead authors he most envies. The word 'genius' popsup on all his paperbacks and his works are regularly described as visionary.They deal with the great issues of race, culture and modern civilisation, andare seen as beacons for truth.
He is, in the words of his undeceived biographer, 'one of the greatest writersof the 20th Century ... His public position as a novelist and chronicler wasinflexible at a time of intellectual relativism: he stood for highcivilisation, individual rights and the rule of law.'
Yet one has to be as flexible as a contortionist, and as bendy as anyrelativist, to blind oneself to the crassness of his offthe-cuffpronouncements. How can a man who stands for high civilisation, individualrights and the rule of law deliver so many low and vulgar punches, oftenagainst those least equipped to resist them? It reminds me of something thenovelist Nicholas Mosley once said about his father, the fascist leader SirOswald Mosley: 'With one hand he held up dreams of glory, and with the other helet the rat out of the gutter. …