VS Naipaul, a writer of many contradictions and obvious greatness
The author's 87th birth anniversary tomorrow
Sir VS Naipaul was born in Trinidad, on August 17 in 1932, the eldest son of a second-generation Indian. He was educated at Queen's Royal College, Trinidad, and, after winning a government scholarship, in England at University College, Oxford.
He worked briefly for the BBC as a writer and editor for the 'Caribbean Voices' programme. His first three books are comic portraits of Trinidadian society. The Mystic Masseur (1957) won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1958 and was adapted as a film with a screenplay by Caryl Phillips in 2001. Miguel Street (1959), a collection of short stories, won a Somerset Maugham Award. His acclaimed novel A House for Mr Biswas (1961), is based on his father's life in Trinidad. His first novel set in England, Mr Stone and the Knights Companion (1963), won the Hawthornden Prize.
Subsequent novels developed more political themes and he began to write about colonial and post-colonial societies in the process of decolonisation. These novels include The Mimic Men (1967), winner of the 1968 WH Smith Literary Award, In a Free State (1971), which won the Booker Prize for Fiction, Guerrillas (1975) and A Bend in the River (1979), set in Africa. The Enigma of Arrival (1987) is a personal account of his life in England. A Way in the World (1994), is a formally experimental narrative that combines fiction and non-fiction in a historical portrait of the Caribbean. Half a Life was published in 2001 and follows the adventures of Indian Willie Chandran in post-war Britain, a new life initiated by a chance encounter between his father and the novelist W. Somerset Maugham. Magic Seeds (2004) continues his story.
V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate who died at 85, had so many gifts as a writer - suppleness, wit, an unsparing eye for detail - that he could seemingly do whatever he wanted. What he did want, it became apparent, was to rarely please anyone but himself. The world's readers flocked to his many novels and books of reportage for "his fastidious scorn," as the critic Clive James wrote, "not for his large heart." In his obvious greatness, in the hard truths he dealt, Naipaul attracted and repelled.
He was a walking sack of contradictions, in some ways the archetypal writer of the shifting and migratory 20th century. His life was a series of journeys between old world and new. He was a cool and sometimes snappish mediator between continents. Indian by descent, Trinidadian by birth, Naipaul attended Oxford and lived in London, where he came to wear elegant suits and move in elite social circles. "When I talk about being an exile or a refugee I'm not just using a metaphor," he said. "I'm speaking literally."
His breakthrough book, after three comic works set in the Caribbean, was "A House for Mr. Biswas" (1961), a masterpiece composed when Naipaul was 29. It has lost none of its sweep and sly humor. It's about a character, based on Naipaul's father, who begins his life as a sign painter in Trinidad and Tobago and improbably rises to become a journalist. The first sign he paints reads, in words the industrious Naipaul seemed to take to heart: "IDLERS KEEP OUT BY ORDER."
The richest and most eminently re-readable books of Naipaul's fiction after "A House for Mr. Biswas" include "In a Free State," an intimate suite of stories concerned with colonialism and the vagaries of power. Set in Egypt, America, Africa and England, it won the Booker Prize in 1971. "Guerrillas"was called "probably the best novel of 1975" by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. It is Naipaul's most propulsive book.
Set in an unnamed Caribbean country where the air is thick with postcolonial British dominion, it offers a complex portrait of the manners and motives of third world revolutionaries. It is an uncanny meditation on displacement. You never quite know where the novel is heading. Its author would later say, "Plot is for those who already know the world; narrative is for those who want to discover it." His last great novel, set in postcolonial Central Africa, may have been "A Bend in the River" (1979).
He began in the 1960s to write about his travels amid the worlds of his fellow colonials. He wrote about India ("An Area of Darkness," "India: A Wounded Civilization"); Argentina, Trinidad and Congo; and Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia ("Among the Believers"). He toured America south of the Mason-Dixon line for an eye-opening book titled "A Turn in the South," in which he commented: "There is no landscape like the landscape of our childhood."
He was envied for his successes. "Oh for a black face," Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1963 to his friend Nancy Mitford after Naipaul had won another literary prize. Naipaul was aware of this sort of racism. He once rewrote the racist slogan "Keep Britain White." He was loathed by third world intellectuals and called, among other things, a "restorer of the comforting myths of the white race" (Chinua Achebe), "a despicable lackey of neocolonialism" (H.B. Singh) and a "cold and sneering prophet" (Eric Roach).
He made enemies as easily as sipping tea. He said: "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me." He had as many ardent defenders. Ian Buruma, the editor of The New York Review of Books, thought it was a mistake to view Naipaul as "a dark man mimicking the prejudices of the white imperialists." He wrote: "This view is not only superficial, it is wrong. Naipaul's rage is not the result of being unable to feel the native's plight; on the contrary, he is angry because he feels it so keenly."
The writer is a freelance contributor.