A Bend in the River: Get Bent

On of my favorite books is A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul. It is a story set in at the junction of a native and expat community in an African rain forest country with a not very despotic leader (the “Big Man”) at a time when a civil war was about to arrive on the scene. I like the book because of the writing, because of the story, because one of the character is supposedly based on someone I vaguely know (that’s always fun) and because I was there …. living at the juncture of an expat and native community in a rain forested African country with a not-to-despotic leader named Mobutu Sese Seku. And I read a few of Naipaul’s other books and liked them to.

The, I go and find out he’s a dick.


I discovered this in a letter written, openly, by Diana Abu-Jaber, who is the author of Birds of Paradise: A Novel, and four other books, which I now see that I must read. Her letter includes this prose:

Dear V.S. Naipaul:

You recently remarked, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

I was sad to read this, to realize that you’re apparently unable to think beyond schoolyard rankings and peevish comparisons, that you’re incapable of recognizing grace and power from unexpected and unfamiliar places, such as a woman’s experience.

But what worries me more is your comment that that women write with “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world,” because, “inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

See what I mean? Utter dick.

The letter is here. I know you’ll want to read it. I won’t feel very good about recommending A Bend in the River in the future though I may still suggested it to some people. I’ll feel better about doing so, though, having told the author to go and get bent.

Comments

  1. #1 Complete Mistress of My House
    June 3, 2011

    I too thoroughly enjoyed A Bend In the River many years ago but found myself unable to wade through any other of his novels despite their glowing reviews. I wondered at the time what I was missing in A House for Mr. Biswas that so delighted other readers. Now I’m thinking it was an undertone of misogyny that was putting me off.

  2. #2 Ron Kephart
    June 3, 2011

    He lost me when he wrote somewhere (can’t recall exactly) something about his home country of Trinidad not having a real culture. Ironically though, he was very good at reproducing that very culture and language… Go figure.

  3. #3 ghoti
    June 3, 2011

    There’s a discussion of this at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic blog:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/06/the-damned-mob-of-scribbling-women/239882/#comment-217305475

    It features a comment by Hilzoy and has a follow-up post:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/06/pride-and-prejudice/239908/

    What do you do when the art is great, but the artist isn’t? No widespread agreement except that if the artist is still alive, try not to financially reward the author by buying a new copy.

  4. #4 Eric
    June 5, 2011

    How disappointing. I have the unread book on my shelf and occasionally make a mental note about when in my lineup of reads I’ll get to it. Now, I’m not sure if I will.

    One question this generates for me is, if he can make this kind of huge error in thinking, what else is he getting wrong?

  5. #5 pianoguy
    June 5, 2011

    Musicians are used to this, because we all have to come to terms with Richard Wagner. (And in fact, practically all the great composers were jerks in some way or other, just not in the world-historical way Wagner was.) Even so it’s always unnerving when the artist seems so inferior to the art.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    June 5, 2011

    Good point. Wagner wasn’t inferior to the art, he was just a monumentally fucked up jerk and really good at it. Here Naipaul is clearly inferior to his art: He does not see or notice what women writers do. That is lame.

    Considering that a large part of the value, or at least so I thought, of Naipaul is in providing us first-world slobs a tangible way of linking to some “Others” in an “other” place, this apparent misogyny is actually unforgivable. I’d sooner ignore misogyny or other badness in attitudes or lifeways of, say, a Tom Clancy or a Dan Brown as long as it wasn’t in their writing. Like I ignore Scientology in so many actors.

    Maybe he just has a brain tumor or something.

  7. #7 Jesse
    June 6, 2011

    Isn’t there an assumption that a great artist who does some meritorious things has to be so in every aspect?

    I mean, I can think of a lot of great scientists who were kind of dickish — think of how many female scientists were handed the short end of the stick not so long ago (Rosalind Franklin comes to mind, and she got stiffed at the hands of luminaries such as Watson and Crick).

    And can you honestly name a great rock musician who isn’t a self-important jerk at some point? It seems to be a requirement. There’s an early interview with Dylan and a London correspondent for Time that illustrates the point. John Lennon — man, what a jerk sometimes.

    Albert Einstein wasn’t all that nice to women either. However progressive he was about some things his history with wives wasn’t all that great. He had no relationship, as I understand it, with his kids.

    I love Harlan Ellison’s work. But he is a curmudgeon of the first order. So what? Arthur C. Clarke has written things that are great, and also skirted perilously close to a VS Naipaul like misogyny. Orson Scott Card went from humanist to crazy land in just two books. (I always tell people to read Pastwatch and compare it to his other work).

    The list goes on. People do what they do. It doesn’t have to make any sense, and being part of an oppressed group is no guarantee you will have a whit of sympathy for another oppressed group.

  8. #8 prasad
    June 7, 2011

    I’m not going to bother defending Naipaul on the woman thing, but:

    ‘considering that a large part of the value, or at least so I thought, of Naipaul is in providing us first-world slobs a tangible way of linking to some “Others” in an “other” place’

    I disagree entirely. The value of Naipaul is that he says things brown people often don’t say because when hiding behind a convenient multiculturalism. Take this passage in ‘A Bend in the River':

    They! When we wanted to speak politically, when we wanted to abuse or praise politically, we said “the Americans,” “the Europeans,” “the white people,” “the Belgians.” When we wanted to speak of the doers and makers and the inventors, we all – whatever our race – said “they.” We separated these men from their groups and countries and in this way attached them to ourselves. “They’re making cars that will run on water.” “They’re making television sets as small as a matchbox.” The “they” we spoke of in this way were very far away, so far away as to be hardly white. They were impartial, up in the clouds, like good gods. We waited for their blessings, and showed off those blessings – as I had shown off my cheap binoculars and my fancy camera to Ferdinand – as though we had been responsible for them – V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River

    *That* is what he’s about. Plenty of the more nationalist third-worlders (and I can speak from experience of Indians) never ever really think they need to bite the bullet about the West or its cultures. Imperialism-racism talk is all that’s supposed to be produced. Naipaul’s ‘value’, if I may characterize it, is in getting third world literati steeped in their Said to self-inspect and occasionally feel like crap.

    A comment upstream excoriates Naipaul for dissing the culture of Trinidad. Someone’s got to do it, he’d respond. That there’s no way of saying with a straight face (unless you devolve right to ‘all cultures are equally valuable’) that it’s a particularly distinguished culture. He’s also dissed (repeatedly) Indian and various Middle Eastern cultures. The dissing is the point, really.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    June 7, 2011

    prasad, you make some good point. But, when Bend came out, what was the literature on the Congo? (for that matter,what is it now?) Name the books … let’s say fiction … the average literati up until very recently had read having to do with the entire region.

    Regarding Naipaul’s dickishness, I do agree (i.e., with Jesse) that it is counterproductive at best to judge the work too much in light of the artist. One could always Godwin the argument: Is there a valid reason to use a Hitler oil painting as, say, the backdrop of your new marketing campaign because the image painted happens to be what you are looking for? No, of course not, but hardly anybody is hitler.

    But this is a little like being annoyed about watching a film with John Travolta because he’s an actor who is a Scientologist, vs. being annoyed about watching a film with John Travolta because he has been known to insist that other actors he work with be Scientologists.

    Whatever Naipaul is up to in his writing, he’s a writer who has come out and said that only males can be good writers and females not (I oversimplify). That is a special subset of asshole.

  10. #10 Doug Alder
    June 8, 2011

    I’m going to have to disagree with you about ignoring Scientology movie stars. Watching movies/shows they are in makes them and the idiots that cast them richer thereby increasing their influence. If everyone stopped going to movies starring these twits do you think they get any more publicity (aside from negative) – publicity that gives them the ability to suck moore unsuspecting people into Scientology’s evil claws? Ooooh I can be just like John Travolta by joining Scientology. Sorry Greg – such people should be given a good old fashioned Amish style shunning.

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