Terence Blacker: Thank heavens for these two grumpy old men

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Something odd happens when two sacred monsters emit their famous roars at more or less the same time. Together, they seem not more impressive and frightening, but less. In fact, they are downright hilarious. So it has been with the Pinter and Naipaul Show that has been running this week. Both are great writers who earned their deserved reputations several decades ago. Neither has been conspicuously productive of late. Each has what is euphemistically known as "a short fuse".

Harold Pinter's campaign, speaking up on behalf of Slobodan Milosevic, is less startling than might first appear. Although Slobbo's track record may not seem to have immediate appeal to a defender of human rights, opposing his trial in the Hague offers Pinter the chance to have another pop at America and at Tony Blair, whom he loathes even more. The suggestion that Blair derived intimate satisfaction from the Nato campaign – "He loves to drop bombs. It gives him, I think, great excitement" – was also guaranteed to earn a few headlines, a significant bonus.

Just as Pinter's own great excitement derives from regularly provoking rage among both conservatives and liberals, so VS Naipaul enjoys goosing the literary establishment with his own brand of chippy, class-based snobbery. Over the past few years, he has barked his opposition to any kind of multicultural approach to criticism, has pronounced that the novel is dead and that "the only true novelists today are people like Edwina Curry, Jeffrey Archer, John le Carré, Ken Follett". All teaching of English literature in universities, he has suggested, should be dropped in favour of something worthwhile.

This week he turned on a couple of revered gays. EM Forster's knowledge of India hardly extended beyond "the garden boys whom he wished to seduce", he told the Literary Review, while Maynard Keynes exploited people at Cambridge: "He sodomised them and they were too frightened to do anything about it."

For those if us who do not meet, interview, publish, produce or in any way deal with these distinguished grumps, their behaviour is reassuring. Hooked on their own huffiness, Pinter and Naipaul are in the grip of that familiar psychosis, the Great Writer Syndrome. With their every enraged utterance, they remind us that those who write for a living can be every bit as egocentric and crotchety as any actor, politician or senior member of the royal family.

While most writers dance, with simpering smiles, to a tune played by PR agents, those in the grip of Great Writer Syndrome are heroically prepared to take up a stance of outrageous bloody-mindedness. Quite often, they have exerted a power for the good. Pinter has been brave and energetic in his defence of writers who have been imprisoned or persecuted. By showing that he was not going to be pushed around by the media, asking for a large appearance fee before agreeing to appear on TV, for example, Naipaul has done a huge favour for less determined authors.

But the side-effects of the syndrome are rarely attractive. Vanity is part of it – no one who will only appear in public wearing funereal black, as Harold Pinter does, can expect to be taken entirely seriously. There will be ingratitude, too – Naipaul reserves particular scorn for the "awfulness" of the late André Deutsch, the publisher who discovered him and launched his career, while Pinter's treatment of his adoring public is legendary. When one woman approached him at a function and told him that The Caretaker had had a greater effect on her than any other play she had ever seen, he replied "Why on earth do you think I should be interested in that?"

In an age of spin and public smoothness, we need these ferocious, impossible old men more than ever.