VS Naipaul’s notorious conceit has drained away – and the man who remains is hard to read: Ian Jack

A writer’s personality can colour your sense of his work – but at a literary festival in India last week, the sad problem was almost the opposite: The Guardian

VSNaipaulFew books have meant more to me than some of those written by VS Naipaul, although the more I knew (or thought I knew) about the author, the less straightforward my admiration of his books became. One school of thought says this is foolish: a writer and his work need to be seen in separate compartments, so that the work can’t be contaminated by the author’s reputation as a wife-beating drunk, child molester or antisemite. Naipaul is none of these, but his perplexing frankness has hurt many people close to him and revealed a breathtaking, almost comic, arrogance that this reader at least finds hard to forget. In the age when writers were read and not seen or heard, we would have known much less about these characteristics. Which reader of Biggles knew the true life and habits of captain WE Johns, or even how he looked? Today, however, writers are often more visible than their books, which makes the argument for a work-life division harder to sustain. At literary festivals, we see a person rather than a printed page. It can have unexpected effects.

At last week’s festival in Jaipur, Lady Naipaul twice pushed her husband on to the stage in a wheelchair. The first time, at the close of an event that had celebrated his finest novel, A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul said only a sentence, thanking the writers who’d praised the book for their generosity. But two or three days later he was on stage for an hour, talking to his friend Farrukh Dhondy in front of an audience that filled a large lawn. Somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 people were sitting and standing; others walked behind or through the crowd, hoping to be detained by some excitement, and, finding none, or not enough, moved on.

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