Poor VS Naipaul, he just sounds mad these days, doesn’t he? Strutting on the island of his own self-belief, surrounded by the seas of solipsism, he announces via the Evening Standard that all women’s writing is ‘unequal to me’. Astonishingly for someone so blinded by his own egotism, he declares that women have a ‘narrow view of the world’ and goes on: ‘inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.’ Bless him, he doesn’t get out much, does he?
Anyone who makes statements like these first has to demolish the mighty monolith that is Jane Austen, and he is quoted as saying that he ‘couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world’. Is this, would you say, a particularly intelligent reading of Jane Austen? I can detect no sentimentality in her world of rigidly enforced conduct and complex social mores, undercut by a savage irony and even a hint of malice. He’s like the man in the old joke about the Samurai sword: her sharp wit has severed his neck, but until he nods he thinks nothing has happened.
It’s not ridiculous or philistine to dislike her work – Mark Twain’s advice to anyone seeking to build a library was first to omit the novels of Jane Austen – but you had better read it carefully before you make sweeping comments about it. Naipaul shows all the signs of the intellectual despot who doesn’t need to think or study before he makes his comments, he just ‘knows’. How lonely he must feel up on his peak, with no one to look up to or admire. Sadly, his conceit is the hallmark of the lesser mind, not of the genius. There are all too many people in this world who don’t need evidence or logic to support the idea that they are superior to others.
Last night I led a reading group discussion at the South Bank Centre on The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. The lively debate on this brilliant and many-layered novel danced for an hour and a half and at every turn we found new things to criticise and admire. Her themes – the rise of McCarthyism in America, the position of the artist in society, the power and responsibility of the press, the rights of the individual to privacy and free speech, democracy versus demagoguery, and fundamentally what it is to write at all – are so far from the ‘sentimental, narrow view of the world’ that Naipaul diagnoses in women’s writing, that he might actually enjoy the book. If he could take his blinkers off for one second.
Of course, this might just be a brilliantly conceived stunt to give more prominence to the Orange Prize, the winner of which is announced next week. He has single-handedly demonstrated why the prize is still needed, which is more than the most ardent feminist could achieve. Or he could just be a sad, bitter old man whose best work is far behind him, who realises that he has to say obnoxious things just to get people thinking and writing about him again. It’s a rather tragic finale for the towering author of A House for Mr Biswas and A Bend in the River.