V.S. Naipaul's Woman Problem: Prostitutes, Lady Novelists, and other "Feminine Tosh"
Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, 78 years old, still wants love. And he cried out for it, last night, at London's Royal Geographic Society. More precisely, he opined that he considers no woman writer his equal. None. Not a one.
Jane Austen, you say? She in particular he spits upon for "her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world." He also claims that he can tell "within a paragraph or two" whether a piece of writing is "by a woman or not." Not quite "Name That Tune" but still a neato party trick. Women's writing is "unequal"--mostly, you know, because of the "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world."
This isn't our fault, though. It's because, "inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too." And he dismisses the writing of his own publisher as "feminine tosh." But don't worry, Lady Publisher! He doesn't "mean this in any unkind way."
Anyhoo. Isn't this all adorable? So refreshingly old school and out-of-touch. No wonder he's introduced at tony literary events as prickly, unapologetic and controversial. And that's by people who like him! Delightful. And also, very, very sad. (I know. Whipsawing emotions. Can't help it. Female hormones.)
The Indian-descended, Trinidadian-born Naipaul has spent his whole long career throwing himself at the towering crenellated wall of Western culture, from the moment he washed up at its gate at age 18, a scholarship student from the backwaters of the Empire to Oxford University.
His novel Half a Life, published in 2001, the year he finally, finally won the Nobel Prize he'd coveted for so long, describes the protagonist, an immigrant from 3rd world to 1st and back, as "half a person, living a borrowed life." Naipaul himself has long negotiated between the 3rd and 1st worlds, writing first from memories of his Trinidadian childhood, then journeying from London and his cottage in the English countryside to his native West Indies, ancestral India, the continent of Africa and various Islamic countries. In impressive, award-winning tome after tome, he has visited and he has judged, finding these cultures wanting, "dark" and "primitive." It's not just the racism that zings, it's the self-hatred and a particularly poignant form of cultural Stockholm syndrome.
Thanks to Patrick French's 2008 authorized biography and a volume of letters published the following year, we now know that with equal energy but less success, Naipaul has thrown himself his whole life at women. His decades-long patronage of prostitutes ("I became a great prostitute man" -- whatever that means) and sexual and romantic failings, particularly painful in his early years, are well documented.
Simply put, he has never, until possibly (but probably not) very recently, had a healthy and equal love relationship with a partner of the opposite gender. He has never, in other words, been "complete master of a house"--and that comes over in his writing, too. His failure at love is the great unspoken topic, flaw and key of his oeuvre.
Although he is best known today for the subtlety of his prose and the unsubtlety of his prejudices, it was the autobiographical novel A House for Mr. Biswas, published when he was 29 years old, that made his reputation. Biswas and its nearly unknown, long-out-of-print follow-up, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion, are works of incredible tenderness and feeling, both at times nearly unbearable in their raw, exquisite sentimentality. More so than, say, Jane Austen, who never loses her detachment and irony.
In a letter home to his parents during the early, homesick years in England, when he felt unseen, humiliated and belittled as an unknown immigrant from nowhere--a "darky," a "wog"--Naipaul wrote, "A man isn't a block of wood. Some people, alas, feel more and think more than others, and they suffer." The great tragedy of Naipaul has been his inability to forgive others--and himself--for the pain of those first rejections.
The rankling inequality--remembered, real, imagined and otherwise--is the female's immense power over Naipaul, an echo of the west's immense power over the third world. Why would a knighted Nobel Laureate flap his trap and make himself the object of ridicule? This time, and all the times before? Maybe because, petrified in his post-Colonial-traumatic defensive posture, Naipaul has never been able to satisfy his unquenchable, unachievable and obsessive yearning for "all this feminine tosh." And he still, so very desperately, wants to.