Tag Archive for 'V.S. Naipaul'

The Naipaul test: Can you tell an author’s sex?

In response to Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul’s controversial comments that women writers are ‘sentimental’ and ‘unequal to me’, and that ‘I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not,’ The Guardian has fashioned a quiz:

1. “At once, though it was night and the way was lonely, she left the hut and walked to the next village, where there was a hedge of cactus. She brought back leaves of cactus, cut them into strips and hung a strip over every door, every window, every aperture through which an evil spirit might enter the hut. But the midwife said, ‘whatever you do, this boy will eat up his own mother and father.’”

  • Male
  • Female

2. “Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end? The sun has come up and I am sitting by a window that is foggy with the breath of a life gone by. I’m a sight this morning: two shorts, heavy pants, a scarf wrapped twice around my neck and tucked into a think sweater knitted by my daughter thirty birthdays ago. The thermostat in my room is set as high as it will go, and a smaller space heater sits directly behind me. It clicks and groans and spews hot air like a fairytale dragon, and still my body shivers with a cold that will never go away, a cold that has been eight years in the making.”

  • Male
  • Female



VS Naipaul finds no woman writer his literary match – not even Jane Austen

In The Guardian:

VS Naipaul, no stranger to literary spats and rows, has done it again. This time, the winner of the Nobel prize for literature has lashed out at female authors, saying there is no woman writer whom he considers his equal – and singling out Jane Austen for particular criticism.

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” More: Also read NPR

In Boston Globe: A house for Mr. Sexist

The 79-year-old curmudgeon and author of “A House for Mr. Biswas’’ mixed egotism with obtuseness, saying that no woman writer was his equal, and that he could infallibly spot feminine prose “within a paragraph or two’’ due to its “sentimentality’’ and its “narrow view of the world.’’ To make sure nobody was left thinking he disparaged only contemporary women writers, Naipaul scorned Jane Austen for her “sentimental sense of the world.’’ More:

Good writers. Bad men. Does it matter?

Why should it matter more when an artist or a writer behaves badly? Sam Schulman gets to the heart of the matter in In Character

“We have many goodish writers in this country, but few great ones, and V.S. Naipaul is a great writer.” – A.N. Wilson

Everyone knows one thing about the life of Charles Dickens:  the trauma of his childhood stung him into bestsellerdom.  The 12-year-old boy whose parents were imprisoned for debt and who toiled in Warren’s Blacking Factory is father to the man who wrote David Copperfield.  But I was ashamed to learn only now, in Michael Slater’s new biography, Charles Dickens, that the autobiographical background of David Copperfield was completely unknown to Dickens’s huge contemporary fan base – hundreds of thousands of people who bought his novels in their serial form, subscribed to the magazines he published for twenty years, attended the marvelous public readings he gave of his own works, and bought his Christmas books for their friends.  More than a year passed after Dickens’s death in 1870 at the age of 58 before the first volume of John Forster’s Life of Dickens was published, and the facts of Dickens’s childhood became known.   Slater says that it is hard for us “to register just how sensational all this was to the vast majority of Dickens’s readers, so many of whom felt themselves to be on terms of personal friendship with him.”  Hundreds of thousands learned for the first time that when Copperfield labored in Murdstone & Grimby’s warehouse, it was Dickens who wept, and that Dickens’s Micawberesque father was the cheerful resident of King’s Bench Prison.  more

Some say it’s poverty porn – but not many

Here in India, films about poverty used to cause great offence. But not Slumdog Millionaire. Ian Jack in The Guardian:

The first director is Louis Malle, whose documentary series, Phantom India, examined some indisputable truths about so much of Indian life. The second is Danny Boyle, whose Slumdog Millionaire, pictured below, takes some of the same truths, dramatises and exaggerates them inside a fantastical story – which slum boy is going to jump into an oozing latrine, even for the autograph of Amitabh Bachchan? – set to Bollywood melodies. Something has happened in the years between these films, to western as well as to Indian sensibilities. The reasons are complicated, but perhaps the main ones are that Indian society is a thousand times more confident, that the word “vulgar” has vanished from the critical lexicon, and that the world has grown very small.

India has always had a difficult relationship with its easily observable poverty. Thirty years ago, the government’s PR departments would express a sullen disappointment that foreign writers were so “obsessed” by it. Its depiction abroad was seen, with just a little justice, as a plot against national ambition.


Nobel Naipaul and his many enemies

Patrick French’s biography of V.S. Naipaul (The World is What it Is, 554 pp, Alfred A. Knopf, $30, ) hits American shores. In New York Times, Dwight Garner gives it his approval, calling it ’one of the sprightliest, most gripping, most intellectually curious and, well, funniest biographies of a living writer’.

naipaul3Books about literary friendships (James and Wharton, Kerouac and Ginsberg, Melville and Hawthorne) drop into bookstores with numbing regularity. Books about literary revenge are more rare and thus more interesting.

In 1998 Paul Theroux published “Sir Vidia’s Shadow,” a memoir about the crumbling of his long friendship with V. S. Naipaul, the great Trinidad-born novelist. Mr. Theroux’s book was a potent, carefully mixed cocktail, served ice cold. It laid bare Mr. Naipaul’s racism, misogyny, vanity, stinginess and (most distressingly) his emotional cruelty to Patricia, his first wife.

Now, 10 years later, comes “The World Is What It Is,” Patrick French’s authorized biography of Mr. Naipaul. It’s a handsome volume, jacketed in silver and black, with a disarming cover photograph of Mr. Naipaul stooping, with a gap-toothed grin, to tie a loose shoelace.


The lessons of the master

In the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma on Patrick French‘s “The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul“:

The public image of V.S. Naipaul, distilled from interviews with the writer and anecdotes passed on by people who have met him, is of an angry man, quick to take offense, capable of extraordinary and gratuitous acts of rudeness, obsessed with his status as a great writer, willfully shocking in his views, and incapable of suffering fools, or anyone really, including those nearest to him, gladly. This, by the way, is not the Naipaul I knew. I found him amusing, courteous, even a little diffident. But I could see flashes of the other Naipaul, the man who loves to outrage. The source of this love is one of the fascinating themes running through the biography.

Some people who have felt Naipaul’s verbal lashes see him as a bigot who turned on his own Caribbean background by taking on the worst prejudices of the Indian Brahmin and the British colonial Blimp.[2] Although bitterness about the way black politicians in Trinidad went after the Indian minority in the 1950s certainly affected Naipaul’s views of his native island, and his harsh comments on African cultural and political life suggest a less than friendly attitude toward black people, Naipaul is too complex a figure to be dismissed as a racist. For in fact he has written about Africans, as well as Asians, with more intimacy and sympathy than many hand-wringing leftists who take a more abstract view of humanity.


My beautiful London

His films and novels are filled with raucous sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. This Spring, the 53-year-old Hanif Kureishi received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. Not bad going for a London suburban lad, writes Rachel Donadio in the New York Times Magazine [via 3QuarksDaily]

One of the most revealing insights into Britain’s recent social history comes early in “My Son the Fanatic,” Hanif Kureishi’s tender and darkly prescient 1997 film. It’s morning in an unnamed city in northern England, and Parvez, a secular Pakistani immigrant taxi driver brilliantly portrayed by Om Puri, watches Farid, his increasingly devout college-age son, sell his electric guitar. “Where is that going?” Parvez asks Farid as the buyer drives off. “You used to love making a terrible noise with these instruments!” Farid, played by Akbar Kurtha, looks at his father with irritation. “You always said there were more important things than ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ ” he says impatiently in his thick northern English accent. “You couldn’t have been more right.”

This seemingly casual exchange cuts to the heart of almost everything that has animated Kureishi in nearly three decades as a playwright, screenwriter, novelist and essayist. This is, after all, the man who co-edited “The Faber Book of Pop” and whose films and novels — including “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “The Buddha of Suburbia” — are filled with raucous sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. But this is also the man who had the presence of mind to poke around in English mosques in the late ’80s and early ’90s, sensing that something might be stirring there, as indeed it was. Kureishi’s novel “The Black Album,” set in 1989 and named after a Prince album, explored the growing discontent, disenfranchisement and radicalism of some young British Muslims.


Letter to the editor

V.S. Naipaul’s ex-mistress, Margaret Gooding dashes off a letter to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement:

Sir, – I have just read a review in your paper of The World Is What It Is by Patrick French (May 23). It is incorrect that Gillon Aitken was sent to tell me about Vidia’s marriage. I found out from the newspapers.

Buenos Aires, Ayacucho 1867, Argentina.

Rhyme and punishment

The greatest living poet and the greatest living writer in English (and each has a Nobel Prize to show for it) have made no secret of the fact that they absolutely loathe each other. Now St Lucia-based poet Derek Walcott fires his latest barb at bete noire, V.S. Naipaul in a stingingly funny poem, The Mongoose which premiered at a literary festival in Jamaica recently. (‘I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/Or else I will be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.’) Daniel Trilling has the story in The Observer

Well into their seventies and with a Nobel Prize apiece, they are the elder statesmen of world literature: one is acclaimed as the greatest living English-language poet, whose best-known work is a narrative epic, Omeros, based on Homer’s Odyssey; the other is a similarly fêted novelist and travel writer.

But last week the St Lucia poet Derek Walcott used his talent in the pursuit of less lofty ideals as he reignited a simmering row with VS Naipaul by unveiling a stinging attack on the author – in verse.

Walcott’s new poem, The Mongoose, is a fast-paced, savagely humorous demolition of Naipaul’s work and personality that begins with the opening salvo: ‘I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.’ It was premiered at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica.

Telling the audience, ‘I think you’ll recognise Mr Naipaul … I’m going to be nasty’, Walcott launched into The Mongoose amid a hubbub of surprised gasps and nervous laughter from the crowd.


Looking for Naipaul

Joseph Lelyveld reviews V.S. Naipaul’s A Writer’s People, in the New York Review of Books [via Powell's Books]

Thirty-two years ago, V.S. Naipaul went to India for this paper to write about the collapse of its post-independence experiment in democracy. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, had declared an emergency and suspended the constitution. Naipaul took this to be a major turning point, and possibly a salutary one, for a sick culture in need of shock therapy. One of his articles explored the notion that Indians experience the world in ways drastically different from those of most Westerners: that Indians were typically more self-absorbed, less observant, more instinctive; in other words, that they were ill-adapted, in their basic consciousness, to the modern world. “India: A Defect of Vision” is what he called that essay.

Naipaul’s latest volume is a set of variations and meditations on that theme. One of its chapters is called “Looking and Not Seeing: The Indian Way,” but this time, in his characteristic preoccupation with what his subtitle terms “ways of looking and feeling,” he journeys far beyond the subcontinent. A Writer’s People is amazingly concise, as Naipaul can be, but also wide-ranging and tightly packed, a kind of literary Rubik’s Cube, made up of small, exquisitely beveled pieces, with no obvious points of contact, that he manages to fit together effortlessly. At one moment, we go from Nehru’s thoughts about Gandhi to the author’s mother and her experience on her first visit to their ancestral village. A few pages later, we’re into Flaubert and the embrace of concrete French realities that made possible the glorious, seemingly transparent second chapter of Madame Bovary, which then is contrasted to the overblown failure of Salammbo. By a natural progression that brings us to Polybius, only a couple of steps away from Virgil and, leaving the Aeneid aside, his poem “Moretum,” which Naipaul celebrates for its grasp of the physical details of life in this world. Then we’re back on the Gangetic Plain in 1925, observing the young Aldous Huxley observing Gandhi at a political gathering.


Theroux on Naipaul

In the Sunday Times, Paul Theroux on his one-time mentor

Ten years ago I published Sir Vidia’s Shadow, depicting V S Naipaul as a grouch, a skinflint, tantrum-prone, with race on the brain. He was then, and continued to be, an excellent candidate for anger management classes, sensitivity training, psychotherapy, marriage guidance, grief counselling and driving lessons – none of which he pursued.

Now comes Patrick French’s authorised biography of the man, The World Is What It Is, which makes all these points and many more. It seems that I didn’t know the half of all the horrors.

When the lawyers were shown the type-script of my own book, they were all over me. “Look at this – ‘violent, unstable, depressive’ – Naipaul could prove malice!” And the trump card of the QC, with his lists of deletions and revisions: “Do you know what it will cost you if he sues you?”


Previously in AW:

That Naipaul book

Patrick French’s authorised biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is (Picador, Rs 595, 555 pp) gets early notices, most of them favourable. The Economist calls the book ‘penetrating’ and ‘unflinching’.

Patrick French takes the title of his life of V.S. Naipaul from the first sentence of “A Bend in the River”, one of the 2001 Nobel laureate’s best-known books: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” It is the kind of statement that makes liberal-minded readers recoil, almost instinctively. Each part of it is a provocation. But it encapsulates the man, his fear of the void, his contempt for the loser. And it is a reason for reading this penetrating, wide-ranging and unflinching biography.


Also, read other book reviews:

And, previously on AW:

Two lives, two memoirs

Posted by Namita Bhandare:

My column in Mint looks at two very different memoirs (L.K Advani’s life-story and V.S. Naipaul’s authorised biography) and why we’re going to remember them for very different reasons

The two books rocking the headlines are, by sheer coincidence, memoirs. The first has been making headlines even before its launch. The World Is What It Is, is Patrick French’s biography of Nobel Prize winning writer V.S. Naipaul. The other is L.K. Advani’s 986-page life story My Country, My Life, only recently launched and a headliner for otherreasons.
The two lives intersect, if only briefly. Naipaul was a Hindutva poster boy through the 1990s. In 1993 he told Times of India editor Dileep Padgaonkar, in an interview that finds mention in Advani’s book, that he reacted to the Ayodhya incident “not as badly as the others did”.
French’s book is remarkable for several reasons (disclosure: he is related to this columnist by marriage). The fact that he was given unprecedented access to a writer who has single-handedly popularized the word “curmudgeon” is, in itself, a minor miracle. The way French tells it, he was approached to write the biography (“I was hesitant; I was finishing another book”). He agreed on one condition — interviews with Naipaul and access to his archives along with permission to quote from them. Astonishingly, Naipaul agreed.

Sex, truth and Vidia

[Updated on  March 25]

Patrick French was given unprecedented access to V.S. Naipaul and his sealed archive to write his biography. In this extract published in The Telegraph, UK, French examines Sir Vidia’s tortured first marriage and the 24-year love affair that fuelled his genius:

bookjacket.jpgWhen Vidia met her in February 1952, Patricia Hale was a slim, small undergraduate with a kind, pretty face. She was a member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, and he first glimpsed her holding a stack of programmes on the final night of his college play, Jan de Hartog’s Skipper Next to God. Vidia had designed the poster and helped to organise the publicity. They chatted, and he invited her to tea. Pat was 17 days older than Vidia, reading history at a women’s college, St Hugh’s. Like him, she came from a poor background and had reached Oxford University on intellectual merit, in her case on a state scholarship. Over tea, they talked some more, and a tentative romance began. In March, Pat went home for the vacation. Her parents and sister lived in a decrepit two-bedroom flat above a municipal bank in Kingstanding, a drab suburb of the city of Birmingham. Her father worked in a local firm of solicitors as a managing clerk.

(“The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul” by Patrick French; published by Picador)


And in Outlook, another excerpt, this one on Naipaul’s insistence that Patrick French write a completely honest biography:

When slavery was formally abolished across the British empire in 1834, cheap labour was still needed for the West Indian sugar plantations, and V.S. Naipaul’s destitute forebears were shipped from northern India to the Caribbean as bonded labourers; it was slavery by another name, slavery with an expiry date. Vidia Naipaul, born in rural poverty in colonial Trinidad in 1932, would rise from this unpromising setting to become one of the great writers of the 20th century.


Also in Outlook, on Naipaul and India:

By 1962, Nehru was old and ailing, and the glitter of freedom and the Congress party’s revolution was fading. For all his five-year plans, India was still painfully poor. The national mood of fatigue coincided with the arrival on India’s shores of its doubly displaced son Vidia Naipaul, whose approach to his ancestral land had been decided years before. Aged barely 17, he had written to his sister Kamla, then studying at Benares Hindu University: “I am glad you told off those damned inefficient, scheming Indians.


A final excerpt from Outlook, on Naipaul and his three women:

As he approached the age of retirement, V.S. Naipaul felt compelled to go on writing. By early 1995, unable to find the spark for a work of fiction, Vidia decided to loop back on himself once more and write a reprise of Among the Believers, his prescient early study of Islamic extremism. In a new global political climate, he would return to Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan to look at the future of Islamist ideology through the fate of the places and personalities he had encountered in 1979. Once again, he would make a forceful rejection of the late 20th century academic convention that all cultures, peoples and belief systems are different but equal.


Pride and prejudice

From The Guardian, UK:


When, in October 2001, the telephone rang in VS Naipaul’s remote Wiltshire home, it was his wife who picked up, as usual. The writer himself never answers. Horace Engdahl, head of the Swedish Academy, was on the line with some long-awaited information. The Nobel prize committee had awarded its literature prize to ‘Mr Naipaul’. Could he, please, communicate this honour to the great writer? But no, the 98th Nobel literature laureate could not come to the phone. He was busy, writing, and did not wish to be disturbed.

Everyone agrees that VS Naipaul is fully alive to his own importance. A mirror to his work, his life is emblematic of an extraordinary half century, the postwar years. Let it not be said that he does not know this. ‘My story is a kind of cultural history,’ he remarks, in part of an overture to a long conversation. Nevertheless, he will not be reading Patrick French’s forthcoming authorised biography, The World Is What it Is. ‘I asked Patrick to do it, but I haven’t read a word,’ he emphasises, brushing past rumours of discord over the manuscript. ‘I don’t intend to read the book.’


A severe bend in the river

Does the greatly esteemed and cherished Nobel Prize provide the kiss of death for writers, VS Naipaul in particular? Ramachandra Guha, historian and author of India After Gandhi, in The Hindustan Times:

Like some other writers of my generation, I have a deeply ambivalent attitude towards the work of VS Naipaul. I was moved and charmed by his early stories of social life in the Caribbean. I admired the understated style of his non-fiction. I marvelled at his readiness to challenge the pieties of political correctness, as in his book, Among the Believers, a prescient analysis of the pathologies of Islamic fundamentalism. On the other hand, I was irritated by his ill-judged comments on Indian politics (as in his seeming endorsement of Hindu fundamentalism). And I was seriously put off by his vanity and pettiness, as in his disparaging remarks about his contemporaries and the simultaneous suggestion that he was the only living writer worth considering.

In the middle of last year I was asked to review Naipaul’s new book, A Writer’s People. I found it a disappointing and at times even obnoxious book. He could not, it seems, mention another writer without putting him down (thus Philip Larkin was dismissed as a “minor poet”, and Derek Walcott accused of insinuating himself into the good books of the Americans). The subliminal and at times open message of this silly little book was: Once there was Mahatma Gandhi, who transcended the boundaries of caste, religion, and nation to become a Universal Being. After him came VS Naipaul, who did likewise. In between lay a barren desert of under-achievement.


Paul Theroux: out of the shadows

In the Hindustan Times, Shreevatsa Nevatia interviews Paul Theroux and asks him, inevitably, about his famous fall-out with Sir Vidia Naipaul

Forty-one years after they first met, 11 years after a deep friendship spawned by that meeting ended in acrimony, nine years after he wrote about the relationship and its death in his memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, what does writer Paul Theroux have to say about his one-time mentor Sir VS Naipaul?

“When I came out with Sir Vidia’s Shadow, people called it cruel. ‘A Judas betrayal,’ they said. But the thing is that I have great affection for Naipaul. He is a kind of interesting monster; difficult in a rewarding way.”

Theroux, who looks much younger than his 66 years, has this past week been in Mumbai, hopping from one lecture hall to another. But be it at the Kala Ghoda Festival or speaking to students at SNDT Women’s University or during an exclusive chat with HT, the questions about his three-decade-long friendship with Naipaul kept coming back: as far as his readers were concerned, Sir Vidia’s shadow had not yet been banished to the penumbra of Theroux’s life.