A reader, prompted by last week's commentary on whether great books can make you a better person, wrote in to ask a related question. Her favorite author is Charles Dickens; his books have been beacons for her. While she'd like to know more about him, she recalls reading long ago that Dickens behaved badly in his personal life. Should she investigate further, even though she worries that this will lead her to “doubt the impression I always had of Dickens: that he was a kind, sensitive soul who had suffered as a child”? As if hell-bent on providing further illustration of this dilemma, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul played the provocateur last week by announcing that he is a better writer than any woman who has ever lived. He offered a variety of reasons for this state of affairs, none of them worth repeating. While his remarks lacked intellectual content, his antics did inspire some thoughtful responses, many of which have pointed out that talented artists can be reprehensible people.
If Dickens sometimes behaved badly, Naipaul is unquestionably a bad man, notorious for his floridly abusive relationships and bigoted ideas. Does this diminish his work? Naipaul's fiction is not to everyone's taste, but the grace of his prose and the power of his early books, especially “A Bend in the River,” is hard to deny; I admired much of that novel even as I gritted my teeth over its blinkered depiction of Africans. “A House for Mr. Biswas” is a veritable touchstone for New Yorker critic James Wood, a tough crowd if there ever was one. For myself, I ended up feeling that Naipaul's prejudices (less glaring in his earlier books, but still evident and clearly fueled by cultural insecurity) bar him from the sort of insight that renders a novelist truly wise as opposed to merely smart. Other writers make for more ambiguous cases. T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite, Virginia Woolf a snob and Ezra Pound a flaming fascist, but I'm not ready to shrug off “The Waste Land,” “To the Lighthouse” or “The Cantos.”