There's an odd incident in A House for Mr Biswas, by general consent V S Naipaul's masterpiece, which seems to set the pattern for the writer's career. Anand, Mr Biswas's son, has been set a composition at school with the title "A Day by the Seaside". This is Port of Spain, Trinidad, in the 1940s, and though Anand is poor and Indian, he is expected to write about the sort of day that middle-class English people might have. The teacher even writes down acceptable phrases: "feverish preparations – eager anticipation – laden hampers – wind blowing through open car". Instead, Anand describes a day he really had, going down to swim at the docks and nearly drowning. "I opened my mouth to cry for help. Water filled it. I thought I was going to die and I closed my eyes because I did not want to look at the water." The teacher awards him 12 marks out of 10.
Anand is Naipaul himself, and what the incident reveals is a reluctance to settle for sentimental clichés, and an uncluttered, literal view of the world expressed in stark prose. Naipaul's refusal to soften the edges has won him some wealth, a knighthood, the Booker Prize and, in 2001, the Nobel Prize for Literature; but it has also got him a reputation for prickliness and arrogance. Paul Theroux, a friend with whom Naipaul fell out, put the case for the prosecution brilliantly but unreliably in his book Sir Vidia's Shadow (Vidia, short for Vidiadhar, being how he is known), and a number of reviewers of Naipaul's most recent work have been piqued by his haughty dismissal of other writers, his perceived condescension to non-Western cultures. At one point in last night's fine Arena film, The Strange Luck of V S Naipaul, Adam Low, the writer, director and narrator, mentioned a documentary he had made in 1982 about Naipaul's younger brother, Shiva. He had chosen Shiva rather than Vidia largely because he was worried Vidia would make things too difficult. You could see what he meant: at a press conference, Naipaul's impatience with what a silly question slowly blossomed into anger and disdain. (Rather slyly, Low didn't let on what the question was, so we couldn't judge how proportionate or otherwise Naipaul's reaction was.)
The Strange Luck of V S Naipaul showed a different side. "I mustn't sound curmudgeonly," he said early on, and then laughed, as if perfectly aware that there wasn't much hope of that. Throughout, his tone to the camera was warm, occasionally tinged with self-reproach, as when he spoke of his first wife, Pat. Their relationship was, he said, "dry", without passion, which he found instead through visits to prostitutes and a 20-year affair. Recalling Pat's death from cancer, he said he believed she had forgiven him. Though he is seen as lofty, Olympian, when he spoke about his first visit to India in the 1960s, what he recalled was the distress he felt at seeing people living in extreme poverty – he couldn't "establish a distance" between himself and them. "I really am a very gentle person," he said at one point, and "I feel myself it's not in my power to damage other people and other things – those other people can damage me, that's what I feel."
But Low didn't whitewash. That last remark about his powerlessness to damage is humble, perhaps, but also devastating, infantile. Who but children believe that only their own feelings can be hurt? The softness was offset by a kind of solipsism. Diana Athill, his first (and, he claimed, best) editor, said that for a long time she had no idea of Pat's existence – Vidia always said "I", never "we". And his grief-stricken demeanour when talking of the first Lady Naipaul's death was undermined by the present Lady Naipaul, who described how he proposed to her when Pat was still alive: Pat died in the January, her replacement moved in in the February. Lady Naipaul is a natural star, though, a kind of Indian version of Penelope Keith playing Margo Leadbetter, managing to maintain a grand theatricality of tone and gesture while peeling the vegetables. And Low's film had a measured pace and a lack of self-consciousness about bookishness and the idea of great literature that was both old-fashioned and utterly refreshing.
Cotton Wool Kids was a by-the-numbers documentary about how we coddle children too much today – precious little investigation, lots of parents and children telling the cameras what they wanted to hear (ie, we're all terrified of paedophiles and kidnappers) in order to prop up preordained conclusions, all underlined with nursery-rhyme tunes played in a minor key (wooo, spooky). The low point was a segment about a mother supposedly determined to get her child implanted with a traceable microchip: it's not, in fact, a practical option but a proposal put forward by the self-promoting cyberneticist Kevin Warwick, which as yet hasn't progressed beyond the press release. The silliness of the programme was a shame, because there is a point to be made here: we do protect our children too much. Instead, we should be sending them down to the docks to risk drowning – or where are our great writers going to come from?
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