Everyone is calling him an attention-seeker and giving him all the attention. V.S.Naipaul got kissed by a Pakistani woman and in a rather Jane Austenesque ouch moment they were married. His ‘misogyny’ is a lived experience and not merely the words he spews out, although misogyny is quite the wrong word. His dismissive attitude would have no place for hating women and given that he is so well-respected it is unlikely that he would be professionally insecure.
More than what he has said about women writers is that someone thought it was important to ask him such a question at all. Which woman writer did he think of as his literary match? This was the query posed during an interview at Royal Geographic Society during the Hay Festival. Why did he need to have a female equivalent? It is surprising that when there are different ways in which men write we should have these ridiculous demarcations. I have serious issues with the blanket term “women writers”. Does anyone know the gender of silk worms when they wear a garment of fine silk?
The groove is okay when you are writing on a specific subject where the feminisation is an intrinsic part of the narrative from the author’s perspective. I do recall that I had said in an interview that no man would have written about Peshawar as I had done, obviously alluding to my gender. (An extract is here) It is inevitable, for the angle would be different.
This is not a hormonal reaction or an emotive one. It is a matter of empathy and identification.
In fact, when Naipaul accuses women of being sentimental, I’d say – and only to use the rattler to quieten the boys – that men are sentimentally attached to fixed ideas and even from the personal example I have given they would have trotted out the macho vision. It is fine to have a specific vision, and Naipaul cannot be faulted on this score – the linearity in his books on India and later Hinduism and Islam are fine examples of a person who knows only pride and prejudice that his prose has to bear the brunt of.
Ironical it is then that he comes down most heavily on Jane Austen saying that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”. He certainly has a major chip regarding sentimentality and his reading appears to ignore contemporary literature.
So here are two quotes and let us see how they fare on just one aspect – home:
“Abruptly, he decided that the calf was lost for good; that the calf was anyway able to look after itself and would somehow make its way back to its mother in Dhari's yard. In the meantime, the best thing for him to do would be to hide until the calf was found, or perhaps forgotten. It was getting late and he decided that the best place for him to hide would be at home.”
Austen had a cryptic reply well before his time:
“There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.”
His quote is from A House for Mr. Biswas, but what she says is much the same thing.
And here is something from Pride and Prejudice:
“Do not be afraid of my running into any excess, of my encroaching on your privilege of universal good will. You need not. There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.”
She could well be saying this of Naipaul, especially his newfound friendship with Paul Theroux, an old friend of 30 years, who he had a fallout with after which they both rubbished each other like squabbling men do – the terrain shifts from the ladies’ room to the literary room. This is glorified gossip.
Therefore, while I do not agree with what Naipaul said, I disagree equally with the critics. Literary journalist Alex Clark said:
“Is he really saying that writers such as Hilary Mantel, AS Byatt, Iris Murdoch are sentimental or write feminine tosh?”
If you are travelling on the women writer gravy cart – although it really is not necessary – then check your baggage first. Even if these writers are sentimental, what is the problem? Sentimentality is not some sort of curse and narrating an emotional episode could have an element of sentimentality. I am quite certain Sir Vidia is sentimental about his knighthood, and his writings are not quite free from expressing certain sentiments in an overly demagogic fashion. Sighing over frills is not quite different from doing so over flags.
There seems to be no let-up in his ‘arguments’:
“I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”
- He said it is because of women’s “narrow vision”. I assume, therefore, he thinks that all male writers do not possess such a limited vision. It is amazing that he reads a para or two and reaches such a conclusion. A narrow vision is to judge the quality of a five course meal by looking at the menu. I doubt, though, whether he’d be able to tell the difference between the flavours of goose and gander.
- When he says it is unequal to him, is it only on the basis of narrowness or on other factors – such as story, style, and connectivity with the reader? Does the possibility that women writers might not even seek to be his equals or of of any others, including other women, strike him at all?
It is fine if he wishes to live in his own world, but then he should not get out and tell us that his world is the world. His views are rather juvenile:
“My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”
Sir Vidia is not known for kindness and from him it would be a patronising gesture anyway. One has to admire his publisher and editor who went through the process of tasting his bitters.
What exactly constitutes “feminine tosh”? Is there a male equivalent of it and, if so, why is it not emphasised? Idiocy is not gender-based and can afflict anyone. More so, a knight with shining hammer.
(c) Farzana Versey
Images: 1. Naipaul with wife Nadira; 2. Austen's portrait by her sister Cassandra