Monday, January 19, 2009

V.S. Naipaul and M.L. King

Here it is MLK Day and I'm not at the march just down the street; instead I'm obsessed with V.S. Naipaul.

Now, Martin Luther King is one of the people I admire most in all of human history. Never has boldness been put to better use than in the creation of the nonviolent civil rights movement.

But this past week I've been obsessively reading The World Is What It Is, the biography of Nobel laureate writer Naipaul by Patrick French. Never have I been more engrossed in a book.

First, Naipaul is the author of one of my two favorite books, Enigma of Arrival, and I'm a devoted admirer of almost all of his work. I agree with the assessment of many that Naipaul is the best living writer of English, and an extremely perceptive observer of the world. From what I've read, I also agree with the assessment of many that he has been a world-class jerk to quite a number of people.

In my view, these two outstanding facets of the man neither excuse nor diminish each other. His work "is what it is," no matter what he has done otherwise. At the same time, the fact that his books are extraordinary, that he exerts a brilliant charm, does not make it okay to mistreat people, to act in a manner that has often seemed mean and petty and prejudiced and fiercely elitist. (When I described some of the incidents to Husband Bob, he summed up his response in an off-the-cuff couplet: "Don't mess/With V.S.")

But, as so many have been, I'm fascinated by the combo. Some would call it bold to be as unapologetically self-centered as his authorized biography shows him. I don't see it that way.

But his work is bold; it fits no categories, which is an enormous risk for a writer who wants to be published. His language and insight are of such quality that he got past that obstacle.

By contrast, Martin Luther King's view of people was bold. He wanted--and brought closer--justice and opportunity for "all of God's children."

(If Naipaul, a Trinidadian Indian, making his way alone and poor in London had not faced so much prejudice himself, he might have emerged more accepting.)

Both people have achieved something extraordinary and enduring. Neither was/is a perfect individual.(King appears to have been a less than ideal husband.) Tremendous achievement doesn't take away the less admirable aspects of a person. But when I'm feeling less than admirable, I find the example of landmark-achievement-by-flawed-human a good one to keep in mind.

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