Unbearable niceness from the misanthropic V.S. Naipaul
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, November 17, 2001)

The other day V.S. Naipaul gave a New York Times reporter a preview of the speech he will deliver in Stockholm when he receives the Nobel Prize for literature on Dec. 10. He made it sound pretty terrible. It seems he's going to seize this opportunity to make a significant and lofty statement.

The Nobel Prize is a wonderful thing, and abundantly deserved by Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. There are few writers who say so much so well; characters in his novels, including those in his latest, Half a Life, exist within the unique literary atmosphere that he created. But the speech at the Nobel dinner, with the Swedish king in attendance, can be a trap. When writers think about receiving the world's greatest prize while wearing white tie and tails, they go all pompous and silly.

Even William Faulkner turned into a blithering idiot. In 1950 he rattled on like an alderman, spraying out words whose every syllable insulted his shrewd, piercing books. "I believe that man will not merely endure: He will prevail," Faulkner declared. "He is immortal ... the writer's privilege is to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past." Ever since, that balderdash has been lovingly quoted, mostly by people who have never read one of Faulkner's novels.

Sir Vidiadhar told the reporter from The Times that he considers the desire to write books "the noblest impulse of all" and that in Stockholm he will say writing remains a mystery and intuition carries him through to the end. Sounds dangerously Faulknerian.

This noble-impulse babble directly violates his carefully created persona. Sir Vidiadhar is not famous for winning ways. His habit of scattering insults freely in all directions suggests that he sets out to be charmless. The majesty of his self-regard doesn't allow tolerance for human frailty, and he confronts the world with a permanent scowl.

Most people disappoint him. Entire continents, such as Africa, fail to meet his standards. This may be partly because all cultures are foreign to him and he has nothing to defend. Born in Trinidad, the descendant of immigrants from India, he's lived since the 1950s in England. While he long ago ceased to be a Trinidadian, and never became Indian, he has not turned into an Englishman.

For decades he's taken a bracingly forthright view of Islamic societies, remarkable in a time when most criticism of Islam has been pathetically timid. But while his non-fiction books are crammed with shrewd observations, they tend to lack even an attempt at empathy. In 1981 he wrote a thick book about Islam, Among the Believers, which contains not one paragraph suggesting why anyone would want to be a Muslim.

In 1980 he discussed his reputation on his native island: "My books aren't read in Trinidad now -- drum-beating is a higher activity, a more satisfying activity." Trinidadians, he said, "live purely physical lives which I find contemptible ... It makes them interesting only to chaps in universities who want to do compassionate studies about brutes." In literary matters he's equally blunt. He was at his sharpest when he called the fatwa against Salman Rushdie "an extreme form of literary criticism." Since Mr. Rushdie expected to be murdered at any minute, that wasn't altogether funny.

Yet there's something comic in Sir Vidiadhar's habit of carrying peevishness to spectacular lengths. When he denounces a whole conference of academics to their faces, it at least produces a good anecdote. At an international meeting in Kyoto in 1997, he announced that he had nothing to say and couldn't imagine why he had agreed to speak with such stupid people. Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents, by Paul Theroux, identified Sir Vidiadhar's self-absorbed and devious personality as the reason why the long Naipaul-Theroux friendship ended. Diana Athill, who edited many Naipaul books in England, wrote last year in her memoirs, Stet, that she found him painfully demanding, endlessly querulous. When finally he broke with her because she suggested the manuscript of Guerrillas could be improved, she was ecstatic: "It was as though the sun came out. I didn't have to like Vidia any more."

Once, three decades ago, I spent a few hours with him, among a dozen people invited to dinner by old friends of his in Toronto. He sat in a corner with guests on either side of him, like the Sun King at court. It was an evening of suffocating boredom. No matter what topic was introduced, he dismissed it with a wretched cliché. Television? "Stupidity for the masses." Americans? "Crass materialists." It was as if he had decided to be half alive; perhaps he thought that was all Toronto deserved. There was one lively moment when the host responded to the conversation by falling asleep in his chair, his cigar tumbling onto the Finnish wool rug in a hail of sparks.

Sir Vidiadhar has always been among the sacred monsters of modern culture, though sometimes it's hard to find the sacred part. It will be painful if he decides to turn noble, or even just pleasant, in Stockholm. The world tolerates a great deal in its Nobel Prize winners, but a likeable V.S. Naipaul might be too shocking to bear.

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