The Politics of Envy

That Howard Jacobson and V. S. Naipaul are non-members of the London literary establishment does them credit

My delight at Howard Jacobson nabbing the £50,000 Man Booker Prize last month was briefly tempered by the thought that I had failed to bet on The Finkler Question, despite excellent odds. Jacobson had started at 25-1 and was still 9-1 even on the night. What had deterred me and doubtless others was incredulity at the thought that a jury chaired by the poetically correct Sir Andrew Motion would plump for a novel which mercilessly dissects the pathology of left-wing Jewish anti-Zionism. As Robert Low explained in the October issue of Standpoint, the eponymous Finkler is a marvellous satirical vehicle, with his pressure group ASHamed, a lampoon of lobbyists against Israel such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians and JStreet. Needless to say, the London literary establishment glossed over such home truths in their tributes. For them, The Finkler Question was merely the first “comic novel” to win the prize. Wrong on two counts: Finkler is at heart deadly serious, and anyway Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils won the Booker in 1986.

What Amis père and Jacobson have in common besides a mordant wit, of course, is a readiness to offend liberal pieties. Another such is V. S. Naipaul, who won the Booker as long ago as 1971 with In a Free State, a devastating portrait of East Africa at a time when Asians were being expelled from Uganda. Naipaul had lived in Kampala in 1966. Now, more than four decades later, Naipaul has returned. A Masque of Africa (Picador, £20), his latest inquisition into human iniquity, is as unsentimental as ever. Today, those who once lionised Naipaul now want to lynch him. In the Times Literary Supplement last month, William Boyd compares Naipaul to Evelyn Waugh, which is fair enough, even though Boyd somewhat fatuously belittles both writers: “Waugh was a distinctively small man — so is Naipaul…”

What is not fair, however, is to compare Naipaul to a serial killer. Yet that is exactly what Boyd does. He drags in a character from The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil — Moosbrugger, a kind of Austrian Jack the Ripper. Moosbrugger is condemned to death for stabbing a prostitute 35 times, the results of which are described in detail. What interests Musil is getting inside the mind of a psychopath. What interests Boyd is getting even by dragging Naipaul down to his own mediocre level. So he calls Naipaul “the Moosbrugger of our time”. If Boyd had compared Naipaul, a Nobel laureate whom many consider the greatest living writer of English prose to, let us say, Peter Sutcliffe, Ian Brady or any real sex maniac, I suspect the Editor of the TLS would have cut it, on grounds of taste if not of libel. But because Boyd deploys a literary allusion, a murderer who exists only in the imagination of a great novelist, he knows he can get away with it. That does not make the slur on Naipaul’s reputation any less monstrous; in fact, its pretentiousness makes it worse. 

It does Jacobson and Naipaul both credit that they are proud of their non-membership of the London literary establishment. The writer’s task is to tell the truth and dodge the brickbats. No sooner had Jacobson won the Man Booker than a thuggish-looking Trotskyist writer of “weird fiction” called China Miéville was denouncing him on BBC2’s Newsnight Review. Meanwhile, today’s real Moosbruggers are patient, confident that their day will soon come. If and when it does, they will find plenty of collaborators in the literary salons of London.

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