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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, June 3, 2011

Naipaul is more clueless than Emma, more sexist and colonialist than Sir Thomas

"In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the "greatest living writer of English prose", was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: "I don't think so." Of Austen he said he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world". He felt that women writers were "quite different". He said: "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." The author, who was
born in Trinidad, said this was because of women's "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world". "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too," he said."

Naipaul is _precisely_ the kind of arrogant, narcissistic "Portal" whom JA particularly targeted. He is a combination of Sir Thomas Bertram, Emma, and James Stanier Clarke, and he doesn't have a clue that she was laughing at men like him most of all. JA knew exactly how to lead such a man down the intellectual garden path.

And at first glance, it might seem particularly surprising that Naipaul, who is from the West Indies, should somehow fail to see, or at least be aware of, the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park. How could he be out of the loop on a topic that is now mainstream Austen criticism? I had the feeling that Naipaul was protesting a little too much about Austen's sentimentalism, and I guessed that Naipaul might be being a little disingenuous. And Google just told me my suspicion was well founded:

"...from time to time [Edward] Said criticises Naipaul as a writer who tells western power what it wants to hear about its former colonies."

There you have it. He has to dismiss JA in particular, because she's got his number, and he knows it, and he hates it. Like Sir Thomas, he would rather burn what exposes his own hypocrisy, than examine himself.

Cheers, ARNIE

Another insightful reaction to Naipaul's nonsense from a bright young woman whom I met when she attended my _Emma_ talk to the JASNA NYC chapter 13 months ago:

P.S. [added 9:45 pm EST June 3]

It turns out that this is not news that Naipaul thinks JA's writing is, basically, crap.

I had forgotten that two years ago, I came across an excellent article which summarized Naipaul's lifelong aversion to JA:

" ‘What trouble I have with Jane Austen!’ V.S. Naipaul’s blind spot." Gillian Dooley

To Dooley's exhaustive discussion of what she so aptly calls "Naipaul's Blind Spot", I can add the following detail:

Between father and son: family letters_ contains a letter written by
Naipaul to his sister when he was 17, in 1949:

“…I am actually reading once more. I decided to start preparing myself for next year by a thorough knowledge of the nineteenth century novel. …I …went on to Jane Austen. I had read so much in praise of her. I went to the library and got Emma. It has an introduction by Monica Dickens, which extolled the book as the finest Austen ever wrote. Frankly, the introduction proved better reading than the book itself. JA appears to be essentially a writer for women; if she had lived in our age, she would undoubtedly have been a leading contributor to the women’s papers. Her work really bored me. It is mere gossip. It could appeal to a female audience. The diction is fine, of course. But the work, besides being mere gossip, is slick and professional.”

In _Reading & writing: a personal account _ published in 2000, Naipaul
confirms that he has always had a negative view of JA:

“When Conrad met HG Wells…, Conrad said, ‘My dear Wells,…what is all this about JA? What is it all about?” That was how I had felt in my secondary school, and for many years afterward as well; but it had not occurred to me to say so. I wouldn’t have felt I had the right. I didn’t feel competent as a reader until I was twenty five. I had by that time spent seven years in England, four of them at Oxford, and I had a little of the social knowledge that was necessary for an understanding of English and European fiction…”

In my opinion, Naipaul reveals that however good a writer he might be in his own right, he is not close to being competent as a reader, and he shows it by the elementary gaffe of not understanding that _Emma_’s being the novel about “mere gossip” is about as insightful about the novel as Emma herself is about what goes on around her! As Dooley comments re his reactions to Northanger Abbey, this guy does not merely have a tin ear for irony, he is stone cold deaf to it! I can't imagine what sort of fiction such a person would write, but, regardless of whatever beauties of style his writing might have, my guess is that it would not have very much irony in it, and therefore would be of little interest to me.

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