In the middle of last year I was asked to review Naipaul’s new book, A Writer’s People. I found it a disappointing and at times even obnoxious book. He could not, it seems, mention another writer without putting him down (thus Philip Larkin was dismissed as a “minor poet”, and Derek Walcott accused of insinuating himself into the good books of the Americans). The subliminal and at times open message of this silly little book was: Once there was Mahatma Gandhi, who transcended the boundaries of caste, religion, and nation to become a Universal Being. After him came VS Naipaul, who did likewise. In between lay a barren desert of under-achievement.
Referring to his early novels and the brilliant non-fiction books of his middle period, Guha says that VS Naipaul did enough to count as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. But, he says, his more recent works are another matter altogether: "They are unmemorable; lacking in warmth and empathy, and in insight and understanding as well. The once great writer has become a pompous bore."
What explains it?
How to explain this discrepancy between the early/middle Naipaul and the late Naipaul? A publisher friend attributes it all to the Nobel. This greatly esteemed and cherished prize, he tells me, is the kiss of death for the creative writer. There has been a perceptible decline in the quality of the novels published by JM Coetzee after he won the Nobel Prize. Even Naipaul’s great contemporary and rival, Derek Walcott, has not published much good poetry after being dignified by the award. Naipaul’s later trajectory is of a piece with this trend, with the caveat that in his case it has been a descent not so much into banality as into vanity.