Good Writers. Bad Men. Does It Matter?

Sam Schulman | Posted on 03/30/10

Does it matter that Larkin sneered in his letters and conversation (fearfully and fretfully, it seems to me) about foreigners and women, that Naipaul made selfish use of people from the beginning of his life, and no doubt continues to do so now? What does it matter that Dickens knew what it was like to be dependent and abandoned as a boy, but made sure that his wife would suffer the same fate?
“We have many goodish writers in this country, but few great ones, and V.S. Naipaul is a great writer.” – A.N. Wilson

Everyone knows one thing about the life of Charles Dickens: the trauma of his childhood stung him into bestsellerdom. The 12-year-old boy whose parents were imprisoned for debt and who toiled in Warren’s Blacking Factory is father to the man who wrote David Copperfield. But I was ashamed to learn only now, in Michael Slater’s new biography, Charles Dickens, that the autobiographical background of David Copperfield was completely unknown to Dickens’s huge contemporary fan base – hundreds of thousands of people who bought his novels in their serial form, subscribed to the magazines he published for twenty years, attended the marvelous public readings he gave of his own works, and bought his Christmas books for their friends. More than a year passed after Dickens’s death in 1870 at the age of 58 before the first volume of John Forster’s Life of Dickens was published, and the facts of Dickens’s childhood became known. Slater says that it is hard for us “to register just how sensational all this was to the vast majority of Dickens’s readers, so many of whom felt themselves to be on terms of personal friendship with him.” Hundreds of thousands learned for the first time that when Copperfield labored in Murdstone & Grimby’s warehouse, it was Dickens who wept, and that Dickens’s Micawberesque father was the cheerful resident of King’s Bench Prison.

That Dickens’s contemporary audience, still mourning his death, found this knowledge sensational is sensational. I could almost feel sorry for his readers, knowing what I know, as if their ignorance denied them some pleasure In his work. But that’s absurd. A vast public managed nevertheless to love Dickens, to feel kinship with him, and esteem him rightly, believing (as he did himself) that he was entitled to a grave in Westminster Abbey among his peers Milton, Shakespeare, and, since last week, Ted Hughes.

Of course Dickens concealed other private facts about his life, including one act so low that he never honored it with even a character in his novels. At the age of 45, he decided that his wife no longer deserved his love, and he made her leave their home–her youngest children were then 9 and 6. “To think of the poor matron after 22 years of marriage going away out of her house!” said Thackeray at the time. The chattering classes probably knew about it, but Dickens continued to write his books celebrating the healing of families, the love of young sweethearts and the creation of new homes – while his discarded wife tried to preserve her early letters from her husband in order to prove to the children he tried to estrange from her that there was indeed a time when her husband had loved her.

A great majority of us have done discreditable, even cruel things in our lives, even after we have ceased to be children. And the great majority of that majority find it in our hearts to forgive ourselves, and to think more about how we have been injured than the injuries we have made. But it seems to matter more when a writer or artist behaves badly. Why should it? If my dentist loves one of his daughters more than any of his other children, or a Boeing engineer is having an affair with her best friend’s husband, it is cruel. But their cruelties don’t impair the quality of my bridgework or disturb my tendency to sleep peacefully through take-offs and landings. Why does the bad character of a writer or artist matters so much more? And how does “mattering” work?

Big biographies of major authors tend to raise or lower their subjects in the esteem of their publics: Flannery O’Connor, up; John Cheever, not so much. But when there is a big revelation – especially a revelation of weakness or worse – there is a stimulus effect. The reputation of Philip Larkin has never recovered from his friend Andrew Motion’s biography, which pointed out repeatedly that he, Motion, though a pretty dreadful poet, is a far better human being than Larkin was. Readers knew about John Cheever’s alcoholism and his bisexual priapism from his journals, first published in the same magazine which published his beautiful short stories and from the complaining memoirs of his daughter before Brad Bailey’s Cheever biography of last year. The big shock of the year, however, was the “authorized biography” of V.S. Naipaul, by Patrick French: “The World Is What it is.”

French’s book shocked only partly because of the story it told, the real surprise was that Naipaul collaborated so completely with its telling. Readers like me expected the story of the grandson of self-proclaimed Brahmins who had come to Trinidad as indentured laborers in the 1870s; how the failure of his father and the fear of being trapped on a small island drove him to excel in school and win a rare scholarship to an English university; how young Naipaul then struggled to become a self-supporting literary man in 1950s racially super-conscious Britain. Knowing his novels, readers were more delighted than surprised to hear anecdotes of the life behind them – a colonial outsider with talent sufficient to outdo the natives, but with a racial and a caste identity that makes him feel at the same time superior and inferior to those who posses clear title to a world that he yearns for. After graduation from Oxford, he was on the phone with a prospective landlady with a flat to let in London. When she asked him if he was “colored,” he answered, “hopelessly!”

We are not surprised to see a lot of evidence for his attitude of superiority to the third-world places he visits – India is filthy, his native West Indies are trapped in a contest between groups of former slaves and near-slaves to imitate their former masters. Patrick French is at the ready with the testimony of one left-of-center reader after another to prove Naipual’s sympathy with the poor and oppressed despite his reactionary tone: Irving Howe, Joe Klein, Karl Miller and Harold Pinter.

But his romantic life! Naipaul reluctantly marries Patricia Brent, his undergraduate girlfriend, and has a long, cold, selfish marriage with her. Almost as soon as he meets her, he forced her to give up her undergraduate acting: she contents herself by imagining the children they are going to have, but never do. He finds what feeble pleasure he can by purchasing sex outside his marriage – he has no “faculty” for seduction – but at the age of 40, discovers passion for the first time with an Anglo-Argentine woman called Margaret Murray.

For the next 20 years, he remains married to Pat, while he and his mistress share occasional Elinor-Glyn-style sauna-baths of exotic travel combined with the infliction of pain upon one another and upon the wife left at home. At the age of 50, the Naipauls separated, but when the writer needed the wife – as he did to help him dictate the entire text of his masterpiece, “The Bend in the River” – she came. The day after he dictated the last page of the book to Pat, he decided to move to America with Margaret. But she too is abandoned in time, and someone else, a younger Pakistani woman whom he had known for a few weeks, becomes the “second Lady Naipaul,” and has the privilege of helping a sobbing Naipaul scatter Pat’s ashes in a wood after she dies of cancer.

For me, the effect of reading French’s book – controlled, as it was, by Naipaul himself – was unexpectedly to stop me from being able to read him. When French’s book was published, I had been reading the better part of Naipual’s travel books for the first time. And what I learned from French about Naipaul’s private life, and how it impinged on, yet been expunged from his writing, took the pleasure away from me. What mattered to me was not his estrangement from his wife, or how he treated his wife and the Indians he met on their long stay in India, but to find out too much about his artifice. I could no longer enjoy in ignorance what as a reader I thought was my right in his work. What I had just read before the biography was the magnificently funny and vivid Kashmir section of “An Area of Darkness,” in which the writer sojourns (by himself!) in a Kashmiri Fawlty Towers on the shimmering lake, with all its humor, mystery and complexity. It now seemed meager compared to the reality that went into its making, which included Naipaul’s – and Pat’s – entire story up to 1962, his 31st year, when he first went to India, the land of his ancestors.

Knowing the truth about how he had made it – the way that he had partially to abandon mother, sisters, country, in order to make his career as a writer, how he had to determine that in order to succeed at the literary ambition that had defeated his father that he had to overcome his father – it made it impossible to go on with his autobiographical novels as well. Patrick French had taken me backstage and showed me the machinery, and I could not recapture the illusion. And more: it annoyed me to learn I had not been an attentive enough reader to realize that something undisclosed that was going on in Naipaul’s real life. Should I not have known? It was little comfort to know that I was not alone. Hilary Spurling, the distinguished biographer of a number of artists and writers, told French that Naipaul’s “strange character and stranger career, coupled with rumors about his triangular private life, mystified people who knew him almost as much as people who didn’t.”

Still the question remains. What does it matter that Larkin sneered in his letters and conversation (fearfully and fretfully, it seems to me) about foreigners and women, that Naipaul made selfish use of people from the beginning of his life, and no doubt continues to do so now? What does it matter that Dickens knew what it was like to be dependent and abandoned as a boy, but made sure that his wife would suffer the same fate? It is this. The weakness of character of Dickens, Larkin and Naipaul comes from the same source that drives their art (in contrast to Cheever’s alcoholism and priapism does not). What drove the three writers to punish – to hurt quite a few people who were close to Dickens and (if French and Naipaul are right) virtually everyone who came within reach of Naipaul – drove them to their desk every day. Without Naipaul’s ruthlessness about using others as means not ends, there would be no Naipaul. And Dickens? He gave an interview in 1862 to a young Russian journalist named Fyodor Dostoevsky which Slater guesses Dickens thought would never see the light of day:

“He told me that all the good simple people in his novels [like Little Nell] are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to live, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.”

This self-knowledge does not excuse Dickens – or Naipaul – for how they seem to have treated others. But if we can’t be good – and it seems that we can’t – then it’s not a bad thing to try to make something out of what is missing in us, or at least to see how others do it. And if we readers are complicitous – well, that’s not a bad thing either. So I intend to read Naipaul’s “Mimic Men” next, as an exercise in shedding my own more superfluous illusions.