The Genius of the Artist

“Talent, Proust says. I would say luck and much labor.” With these words novelist Sir V. S. Naipaul concluded his Nobel Valedictory Lecture in 2001. I remember being struck by this unusual choice of words the first time I read the speech he entitled “Two Worlds”. I thought how extraordinary it was that someone who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature would credit this accomplishment to mere chance, if you will, and the age-old adage of “hard work.” That’s quite a remarkable display of abasement, especially from an Oxford graduate. Granted, Mr. Naipaul was reared among humble surroundings in his native Trinidad, but that notwithstanding: he had just been placed in the same pantheon of such incomparable writers as Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Surely, having his work judged to be of the same caliber as these timeless novelists couldn’t be attributed merely to luck.

Or could it? Not every recipient of the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature is a household name. I should point out that Mr. Naipaul now finds himself among the ranks of such forgotten writers as Selma Lagerloff, Theodore Momsen, and Christolph von Eucken. Not to mention it’s very first recipient in 1901: Sully Prodhomme. The runner up that year went on to become much more well known. His name was Leo Tolstoy.

Just as strange, Naipaul’s greatest literary influence and author to whom he is most frequently identified with never won the Nobel Prize in Literature, either. You may also recognize his name: Joseph Conrad.

Many other famous writers who are widely read today were never honored with a Nobel Prize. Perhaps the most conspicuous being James Joyce who authored Ulysses, a novel some would call the most influential publication of the Twentieth Century. Additionally, the very well known Marcel Proust whom Naipaul chose to cite in his “Two Worlds” speech never received recognition from the Nobel academy; this in spite of his ten-volume epic masterpiece Remembrances of Things Past.

While I’m sure literature students would describe the works of these writers as somewhat “difficult to comprehend” I suspect very few would deny these men possessed great talent. With that in mind I thought that perhaps there was something to Naipaul’s thoughts on luck after all.

But what is luck? The Oxford American Dictionary defines it as: good fortune; success due to chance. I think that anyone who has read Naipaul’s seminal work–A House for Mr. Biswas–, would be hard pressed to call the quality of that finished product “success due to chance.” Aside from the critics’ requisite comparisons to Conrad, this 1960 masterpiece has also drawn numerous comparisons to Charles Dickens. When one looks at the way Naipaul described the plight of the poor I supposed one can understand the parallels, but it’s hard to imagine any physical setting farther removed from Victorian England that mid-twentieth century Trinidad.

On the other hand, how then do we define talent? I consulted the same source—in homage to Mr. Naipaul’s alma mater of course–and found the following definition: “a special aptitude or faculty.” During the course of his lecture, Naipaul made references at both the beginning and conclusion of his speech to passages from Proust’s work of literary criticism Against Sainte-Beuve. The first one reads:

The beautiful things we shall write if we have talent are inside us, indistinct, like the memory of a melody that delights us though we are unable to recapture its outline. Those who are obsessed by men who are gifted…Talent is like a sort of memory which will enable them finally to bring this indistinct music closer to them, to hear it clearly, to note it down….

It seemed to me that this example of Proustian eloquence could aptly apply to any number of Naipaul’s works, but for the sake of consistency I will specifically refer to A House for Mr. Biswas. There is no denying that it meets Proust’s criteria as coming from “inside.” The detail in the descriptions of events in the life of a young boy and his subsequent journey into adulthood are either semi-autobiographical or the result of a monumental imaginative ability. The fact that the protagonist is a poor man of Indian ancestry and just happens to aspire to a career as a writer unmistakably found their source from inside Mr. Naipaul’s consciousness and recollection of his early years. The depth and poignancy contained in this story of a man on an unwavering quest to own a home of his own are unmistakably the work of a very talented writer. Some, including myself, would argue a work of genius.

How then are we to define genius? Most of you are probably assuming I’d elaborate on James Joyce’s statement about how “a man of genius makes no mistakes, they are all volitional and are portals to discovery,” but I thought I’d take a different route. The definition that I like the best comes from the wise learned philosopher—who also played bass guitar on the old O-Jays records—Anthony Jackson. He explained that there are three components of genius. The first two would conform nicely with Mr. Naipaul’s so-called luck. Mr. Jackson said that the primary element of genius is an original style on the part of the artist. The second component of genius involves possessing the technical ability to execute that unique style. In my view it is the third segment of genius that is by far the most important. It is also significantly different from the others for a reason of singular importance: the first two can be innate. The third component of genius is persistence. It is the persistence to push, or more appropriately, to force your ideas onto an intractable world that says, “just what do you think you’re doing?”

President Calvin Coolidge had a famous quote about never giving up that went as follows:
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than the unsuccessful person with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Was Proust right when he said that talent is what makes for great writing? Was Napaul correct that luck and hard-work are what will make for successful writers? The innate factor of talent is always fixed. Either we possess it or we do not. Events are to a large extent capricious and will inevitably be left to chance. Awards and so-called honors will be distributed with the same degree of scientific precision that goes into predicting the weather. It is the persistence and determination to force your ideas onto a world that may not at first be receptive to them that will make all the difference. Talent, Proust says, Luck and Much Labour, Naipaul says, I say both so long as persistence supercedes all.