Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Friday, August 29, 2003  

Today's UK Guardian carries an interview with novelist Martin Amis, who's been nominated for this year's Man Booker Prize for his new, much talked-about novel, Yellow Dog. (More on the Booker, incidentally, in another post, later.) Interviewer Emma Brockles makes the claim for Amis as the greatest living British novelist, yet notes that other, latter-half 20th century British writers may be considered greater in certain respects:

"[Ian] McEwan has won more awards; [Salman] Rushdie more notoriety, [Kazuo] Ishiguro greater success in Hollywood. [Iris] Murdoch was arguably brainier, [Muriel] Spark funnier."

All well and good, but what of the most recent British winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, the recipient of the David Cohen Prize as the greatest living British writer? What of VS Naipaul?

To reassure my dear readers, this post is not meant to be a paean to Naipaul. And I don't imagine for one minute that Emma Brockles meant her on-the-spot list to be definitive. Still, the ommission is telling, if not typical. Apart from a few who actively champion his genius, Naipaul is not celebrated in his adopted homeland. As the Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri has observed, "It is a myth that Naipaul is cherished by the English literary establishment; that honour, till recently, belonged to Rushdie; Naipaul, in my experience, has long been an embarrassment to it."

The reasons for Naipaul's status are many--the perceived pessimism of most of his work, his controversial, non-PC views on the post-colonial world, women, Islam, and other subjects, including Britain and some of her most cherished writers.

Even his Nobel win, which has occasioned the re-issue of his oeuvre, a couple of so-called "new" books that actually are just assemblages of previously published work, and at least one new critical study, while raising his profile, has done precious little to change the view that most have of him.

Naipaul has been pilloried and parodied for his "transformation" from Trinidad Indian to English squire, from VS Naipaul to the Sir VS Nye-Powell of Paul Theroux's memoir Sir Vidia's Shadow. He is labelled a rejectionist by some; a man who spurned the world that made him, and, out of a desire to be "accepted", embraced another. Others argue to the contrary that he simply, out of sheer free will and creative urge, re-invented himself, and, as evinced in his writing, has continued to do so through the decades, his response to the question of being in an impermanent world.

The fact is, Naipaul as we know him cannot be said to be simply one thing or another. Whether one sees his position as "a man without a country" as untenable or, considering his knighthood, his home in Wiltshire and all the rest of it as a case of Naipaul protesting too much, Naipaul the writer has never done anything calculated to win him favour with anyone, to position himself as being of or with any one group or ideology or movement. And he will continue to be the writer that everyone thinks other people are reading, or what is more likely, as he moves into the twilight of his career, a writer people hardly think of at all.

posted by Jonathan | 2:05 PM 0 comments


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