Under my byline

Literary heroes as real-life heroes?

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 30 March 2008

A debate

The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul
Patrick French
Picador
pp 400

Well-known author Patrick French has written an authorised biography titled The World Is What It Is of writer V S Naipaul, which is full of searingly honest personal details about Naipaul. The book, which is yet to be released, has stirred controversy and debate among the chattering classes. Naipaul’s almost brutal treatment of his first wife Patricia and then his mistress Margaret Gooding has led many to ask the question: Should literary heroes bear the burden of being heroes in real life as well? Or does excellence in one field preclude the necessity of showing any humanity in one’s personal life?

(The question was posed by a colleague, Archana Jahagirdar, and answered by her in the affirmative. I chose the opposite position, below.)

The literary hero is an exotic rarity, no matter what the papers say. Selling a hundred million copies doesn’t cut it — the true hero changes the way we look at words and language, and does more with them than we thought possible. He gives words to impulse, speaks with the voice of history, contributes to the collective imagination, enriches the intellectual republic. And so on and so forth. It’s a tall order.

It is also very hard work. Patrick French shows how V S Naipaul — without doubt a literary hero — neglected and undermined his first wife Patricia, even while she lay dying. But Diana Athill, for many years Naipaul’s editor at his publisher André Deutsch, first knew him as a stern and remarkably productive young man. Of her belated discovery that Naipaul was in fact married, she writes “I had taken it for granted that he lived in industrious loneliness.”

Athill goes on to say that, while Naipaul’s indifference and dismissiveness towards his wife was certainly brutal, Patricia herself struck her as “negative and depressing, someone who enjoyed being squashed”. In such a sexless, loveless (for him) marriage, Naipaul too “probably deserved commiseration”.

By his own admission, ambition drove Naipaul, especially in those early years. “Men who are nothing,” he wrote, “who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in [the world].” But the other side of ambition is fear, as French observes, “fear of failure, fear of not being able to write, fear of disappearance, fear of mental or physical breakdown, fear that people were trying to do him down, fear of being faced down, fear of losing face, fear of being found out”.

And behind it all was Naipaul’s lack of belonging — he didn’t belong in his Trinidadian family, in England, or in India. This “triple exile” left him at home nowhere but in his own mind, in his writing, according to Athill “a great gift but all he had”. No wonder he was difficult and demanding.

Literary and intellectual giants especially receive great deference and inspire timidity. After a few years of this, it’s hardly to be held against Naipaul that he became selfish and self-important. We create our own heroes, in effect, and then they outgrow our estimation.

Much has also been made of Naipaul’s rude and provocative comments on other people and cultures. If you look at them closely, however, they seem deliberately designed to annoy. Moreover, many of these offending statements are quite true; some are actually prescient. Truth is a good defence for rudeness, among literary heroes at least. One can readily see Naipaul chuckling his famous chuckle at others’ fury and dismay, even when it results in harsh revelations about his own life. Just don’t belittle his work…

Perhaps we shouldn’t be looking to writers — or artists of any stripe — for heroes. They are great because their monstrous talent has consumed their lives; it has to feed on something, after all.

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