V. S. Naipaul treats academics with disdain - and he doesn't think much of arts students either. He tells Andrew Robinson why those who can't deal with the complexities of science shouldn't be allowed to go to university.
Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul has always tended to irritate and provoke academics, particularly those who study and teach literature, politics, history, sociology and anthropology. Speaking of his time at Oxford, where he studied English from 1950-53 after leaving his native Trinidad on a government scholarship, he caused a stir a few years ago by remarking: "I didn't go to Oxford to be at Oxford. I went there to get free time. But it was wretched. I was too well prepared. I was far more intelligent than most of the people in my college or on my course."
So Naipaul, who turns 70 next week, was genuinely surprised to win the Nobel prize in literature last year. "I thought that what I wrote about, my angle on things, was not liked by people in the academic world. I thought that to win the prize was out of the question."
Many academics have tried to dismiss Naipaul as an amateur airing reactionary prejudices. But no one can ignore a mind of such power and range. He has written some two dozen books of fiction and non-fiction, all in print, covering almost all parts of the post-colonial world from the Caribbean, South America and the American South to Africa and the Islamic world. He also holds honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, London and Columbia universities and, besides having the Nobel, he has won practically every other major literary prize in the English-speaking world (and a knighthood). In the words of the Nobel judges, the prize was given to Naipaul "for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories".
Such is his reputation and the quality of his prose that academics in related fields simply must read at least some of Naipaul's work and take a view on it. The only feasible response for those who do not share his angle of vision is ambivalence, rather than outright dismissal. Thus, for Edward Said, who has also written on imperialism and the Islamic world, Naipaul is "a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust for the world that produced him, though that doesn't exclude people thinking he's a gifted writer".
Of Said, Naipaul says coolly: "Who is he?" He is well aware who Said is, but his general rule is to avoid naming those for whom he has little respect. When he was asked last year at a reading of his work in New York University's creative writing program: "Why do you have no time to read Salman Rushdie?", he replied, "I don't think I should have to answer that. I'm not in a confessional." Today he says: "Let those academics alone. They are not important at the end of the day. They ruin a lot of the minds of the young, but the world has its own dynamic, its own drift; and academics don't matter."
Not even scientists? "Scientists matter. Not the arts courses. The reading of Horace or Stendhal or whoever, one can do in one's spare time. People should read in their own time. I would like to see all those arts courses closed down. Wouldn't there be a great saving? And a stiffer, more rigorous sixth form would deal with what we are now getting at the universities. A lot of the debasing of radio and television has to do with people who got those pointless degrees and are now in positions where they can influence society. That's part of the damage of these university courses. I think universities should be for science and mathematics."
He adds that he felt this even when he was at Oxford. "I think that is what can save places like Oxford and Cambridge - if they became purely science universities, instead of giving these foolish degrees: half classics, half this, half that. And I think that to get a more educated society, we perhaps need a more scientific society."
Naipaul says it is his "great regret" that he didn't study science. He would particularly have loved to have done more mathematics. "I think I would probably even have been a better man if I had known or studied science profoundly."
But despite his professed interest in science, he admits that he has not read many of the major science writers, such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking. "I've missed all of that," he says, adding that he feels it is "too late" to start now.
Naipaul attributes his controversial views on the study of science and literature to moving away from his home in Trinidad and seeing more of the world. His views on school education are also likely to draw a strong response. He says: "I think if you wish to improve education in England, one should rethink the idea of compulsory education. Education should be only for those who wish it, so the schools become once again places of learning."
As for higher education, he appears at the opposite end of the spectrum to Tony Blair and his 50 per cent participation target. For Naipaul, those who can't cope with the complexities of science simply shouldn't be allowed to go to university. He says: "If you don't have an English course, and some jolly classics and politics course - they can't go to university; it would be too hard for them. Of course there can be institutes for the study of Shakespeare, and history, but you don't have to have all these universities, pumping out these petty ideas to minds that have not been trained, really, but are just getting by."
In all his works, Naipaul has treated academics, particularly those in the English literature field, with disdain. He dismisses literature professors as having little to offer him. He is not that much more impressed by historians. In The Enigma of Arrival he writes, for instance, that "the historian seeks to abstract principles from human events". He says he was referring to historians such as Alfred Cobban whose history of France he calls "unreadable".
"It's only for students; it's not meant for people like me. It's this rubbish kind of writing. That's not writing, that's not history. And I'm very unhappy about this study of history when it is now copied by a country like India. There's this great sense in India of needing to catch up with what is being done in the world outside. Now they are trying to write this kind of academic history, to keep up with the jargon. There's no human interest, no interest in the people, only interest in the movement - a most abstract interest."
In The Enigma of Arrival , Naipaul describes his research on the history of Trinidad for The Loss of El Dorado as being totally different from the kind of overly abstract way of dealing with history that he attribute to the likes of Cobban. He writes: "My approach was the other; for the two years I lived among the documents, I sought to reconstruct the human story as best I could." But he is not necessarily advocating the wholesale abandonment of theory in history. He says he accepts that both a human and more overarching approach are necessary, adding: "I think my El Dorado probably had a bit of the other too."
Despite his views on education, however, Naipaul does have many admirers in the academic world, including among the humanities. The historian J. H. Plumb, for example, wrote of The Loss of El Dorado : "It is history by a sensitive and highly intelligent novelist and as remote from professional history as one can imagine. And yet it often presents truths about society that are both more profound and more moving".
Among the Believers , written in the wake of the Iranian revolution of 1979, was prophetic about the rage of fundamentalist Islam. A Million Mutinies Now , published in 1990, was prescient about the sea-change in India of the past decade, even if everyone does not share Naipaul's welcome for the "million mutinies" against past traditions. In both cases, Naipaul's intuitions and indefatigable on-the-spot research were well ahead of the academic reaction. As for the professional study of literature, there are many who would say that Naipaul's diagnosis is today being proved uncomfortably accurate. Naipaul may be savage in his criticisms of academic desiccation, and hardly practical in his solutions to the current malaise in the study of the humanities on both sides of the Atlantic. But no one should make the mistake of imagining that he speaks from mere prejudice. At least this once, the Nobel prize was given to a writer who will always be read - and not just by academics - for his intelligence and insight and for the clarity and elegance of his style.
Andrew Robinson is literary editor of The THES .