VS Naipaul—The Writer, the Man

The beauty of his craft was often overshadowed by the controversies he ran into and the views he held about his peers and the world. Never one to spare his own kind, this is what he had to say

| Updated: August 13, 2018 1:52:15 am

Sir VS Naipaul at the Literature Live festival at NCPA, Mumbai. (Express photo by Vasant Prabhu)

On fellow greats

EM Forster: “People like EM Forster make a pretence of making poetry of the three religions. It’s false. It’s a pretence. It’s utter rubbish. It (A Passage to India) has only one real scene, and that’s the foolish little tea party at the beginning. I don’t think there is another
real scene.”
Ernest Hemingway: “Hemingway was so busy being an American that he didn’t know where he was.”

Henry James: “The worst writer in the world.”

Wole Soyinka: After hearing the news of his Nobel Prize win in 1986: “Has he written anything?”

On women writers

He famously said this about his publisher in a 2011 interview at the Royal Geographic Society: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”

He had this to say about Jane Austen, in the same interview: “I couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world…
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… because of a woman’s inherent sentimentality, the narrow view of the world… And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

On places

-If ever you wish to meet intellectual frauds in quantity, go to Paris.
-Trinidad may seem complex, but to anyone who knows it, it is a simple, colonial, philistine society.
-In England I am not English, in India I am not Indian. I am chained to the 1,000 square miles that is Trinidad; but I will evade that fate yet.
-Africa is not a fun place, you know. A fun place is somewhere that lifts the spirits, that cossets the senses. I don’t think that can be said of the Africa I  travelled in.
-In England people are very proud of being very stupid.
-I went to India and met some people who had been involved in this guerrilla business, middle-class people who were rather vain and foolish. There was no revolutionary grandeur to it. Nothing.

More of what he said

-There are two ways of talking. One is the easy way, where you talk lightly, and the other one is the considered way. The considered way is what I have put my name to.
-I’m the kind of writer that people think other people are reading.
-If a writer doesn’t generate hostility, he is dead.
-I always knew who I was and where I had come from. I was not looking for a home in other people’s lands.
-The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

War of words

-Friendship and rift with Paul Theroux

They met in Kampala, Uganda, in 1966, when Theroux, a travel writer, was teaching at the university. Naipaul took the American under his wing and though much of their association at the time was fuelled by Theroux’s hero worship of the older writer, it was a friendship that would last 31 years.

But it was to come to an end in 1996, when Theroux discovered that Naipaul had offered personally signed copies of Theroux’s books up for auction.
In 1998, the American published Sir Vidia’s Shadow, an account of their personal and professional relationship, and described Naipaul as a “mushy soul afflicted with a cruel streak”. The feud lasted 15 years and came to an end when at the 2011 Hay Literature Festival, UK, writer Ian McEwan encouraged them to shake hands and bury the hatchet.

“VS Nightfall” and “The Mongoose”

Fellow Caribbean Nobel Prize winner, the late Derek Walcott, had no time for Naipaul’s praise or criticism. In 2007, the Trinidad-born writer described Walcott as “a man whose talent has been all but strangled by his colonial setting”. In the same essay, Naipaul praised Walcott’s craft,
writing: “Here, in the most unexpected, purest way, we had a poet, someone of startling vision and muscular expression.”

So, the next year, Walcott read out “The Mongoose”, a rhyming diatribe taking pot-shots at Naipaul, at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica. Having already named his literary enemy “VS Nightfall” in an older poem, Walcott proceeded to read out his new offering which began thus: I must have been bitten/I must avoid infection/Or else I will be as dead/As Naipaul’s fiction.

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