I’ve just finished the book A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul, a writer I always find deeply troubling. Naipaul is a Nobel prize-winning author; his esteem in the literary community is nearly unmatched; his books on post-colonial societies are clear, sharp, and devastating. And yet — based on numerous articles I’ve read about him, and the accounts of teachers who have personally met him — Mr. Naipaul is a frightening, truly malevolent human being. This New Yorker profile, even written by a Naipaul admirer, describes Naipaul’s complete arrogance, hostility, and haughtiness; but if those were Naipaul’s only sins, he would be in fine company in the world of writers. Naipaul apparently physically and verbally abused his wife and other women for years, and seems to express a systematic misogyny in all of his books. He condones the physical punishment of women in A Bend in the River, and erotically charges a brutal beating scene. His recent comments, stating that women writers are always inferior, only confirm the misogyny endemic to his books.
So what is a devoted reader (and a writer) to do with characters like this? Can we love the books of writers we hate?
Because, even entering A Bend in the River with all this foreknowledge, I found myself engrossed. It is a powerful book about a fictional post-colonial African country, and with startling realism (to my poorly educated perspective) the turmoil following the departure of European rule. At the same time, the book was unmistakably racist and imperialist. It depicted the Africans as primitive and animalistic; the Indians, as their rightful, more sophisticated, keepers. It was cruel, vicious, and unable to see life from the perspective of the women or the children, the truly subjugated. It was life from the perspective of the rulers and the powerful. Should we care when these slaveholders begin to fall?
How does the personal life of an author fit into your appreciation of a work of art? I love the movie Chinatown and think it is a supreme work of art — but it’s directed by Roman Polanski, notorious for his statutory rape. Perhaps we need to take this problem on a case by case basis. It might depend on the nature of the author’s crimes.
Or perhaps the only truly just way to read books and critique art is to judge the art as entirely separate from the creator. That’s what the goal amid intellectuals tends to be. But I find this approach equally troubling; it leads to the worst kind of apologizing for an artist’s heinous acts. More often than not, it is violence against or hatred toward women that is forgiven. Philip Roth, for example, is an author that continues to confuse and anger me, because many of my writer friends claim him as their favorite author. I appreciate his stylistic mastery of prose, but I would never be able to claim such a deeply misogynistic writer as my favorite. Roth is a fiery technician, but he has failed to capture what is human about women; he has failed to see me as a person with no more impurity or depravity than a man. How can I appreciate art that lacks the compassion and communication that art is supposed to be about?