VS Naipaul, Nobel-winning author who mined colonialism’s ruins
Though he spent his literary career mining his origins, VS Naipaul fiercely resisted the idea of being tethered to a hyphen, or to a particular ethnic or religious identity.Updated: Aug 12, 2018, 10:12 IST
VS Naipaul, the Nobel laureate who documented the migrations of peoples, the unraveling of the British Empire, the ironies of exile and the clash between belief and unbelief in more than a dozen unsparing novels and as many works of nonfiction, died Saturday at his home in London. He was 85.
His family confirmed the death in a statement, The Associated Press reported.
In many ways embodying the contradictions of the postcolonial world, Naipaul was born of Indian ancestry in Trinidad, went to Oxford University on a scholarship and lived the rest of his life in England, where he forged one of the most illustrious literary careers of the last half century. He was knighted in 1990.
Compared in his lifetime to Conrad, Dickens and Tolstoy, he was also a lightning rod for criticism, particularly by those who read his portrayals of Third World disarray as apologies for colonialism.
Yet Naipaul exempted neither colonizer nor colonized from his scrutiny. He wrote of the arrogance and self-aggrandizement of the colonizers, yet exposed the self-deception and ethical ambiguities of the liberation movements that swept across Africa and the Caribbean in their wake. He brought to his work moral urgency and a novelist’s attentiveness to individual lives and triumphs.
Naipaul personified a sense of displacement. Having left behind the circumscribed world of Trinidad, he was never entirely rooted in England. In awarding him the Nobel Prize in literature in 2001, the Swedish Academy described him as “a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice.”
Yet his existential homelessness was as much willed as fated. Although he spent his literary career mining his origins, Naipaul fiercely resisted the idea of being tethered to a hyphen, or to a particular ethnic or religious identity. He once left a publisher when he saw himself listed in the catalog as a “West Indian novelist.” A Hindu, though not observant, Naipaul was a staunch defender of Western civilization. His guiding philosophy was universalism.
“What do they call it? Multi-culti? It’s all absurd, you know,” he said in 2004. “I think if a man picks himself up and comes to another country he must meet it halfway.” It was the kind of provocative statement that won him both enemies and admirers over the years.
An often difficult man with a fierce temper who dressed sedately in tweed jackets, Naipaul had a face of hawklike severity. “After one look from him, I could skip Yom Kippur,” Saul Bellow once joked. If displeased by questions, Naipaul would sometimes walk out on public appearances and hang up on journalists. Although he could be mischievous and had a deep sense of humor, he was prone to melancholy.
Naipaul practiced yoga until his back grew too weak, and often lamented that writing took a physical toll. He would spend months cogitating at home in London or more often in his book-filled cottage in the Wiltshire countryside, outside Salisbury, which he shared with his first wife and later his second, and with a black-and-white cat named Augustus.
He continued to write novels even after declaring the form a 19th-century relic, no longer able to capture the complexities of the contemporary world. Yet his fiction was always in conversation with his nonfiction; each new book built on the ones that came before. Naipaul wrote relatively slowly, sometimes only a paragraph a day, and was intensely protective of his work. Diana Athill, who edited 19 of his books at the London publisher Andre Deutsch between the 1950s and the ′70s, said editing Naipaul involved providing him with much reassurance.
“You didn’t actually ever have to do a single thing to any of his books,” Athill told The New Yorker in 1994. “But you did have to do a lot of attempting to cheer him up, because he would deliver a book and he would be happy when he delivered it, and then really soon he would go into a pit: ‘What is the point? What is the point of writing books? I’m never going to write another book.’”
An ancestry in India
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born on Aug. 17, 1932, in Chaguanas, Trinidad, where his paternal grandfather had emigrated from India in the 1880s as an indentured servant to work on the sugar plantations. His father, Seepersad, was a newspaper reporter for The Trinidad Guardian and an aspiring fiction writer who as a child was luckily allowed to go to school; his older brother was sent to work in the cane fields for 8 cents a day and his sister remained illiterate. His mother, Droapatie Capildeo, was from a large, prosperous family, and when Naipaul was 6 the family moved in with them in a big house in Port of Spain.
The second of seven children, he was particularly close to his older sister, Kamla. His younger and only brother, Shiva, who was also a novelist, died in 1985.
Educated in English schools in Trinidad, Naipaul said he owed his writing ambitions to his father, who read to him, among other things, from Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery.”
His first years in England in the 1950s were full of panic and anxiety. In 1952, while at University College, Oxford, he had a mental breakdown.
“Before I became secure as a writer, it was a long, unbroken period of melancholy,” he told The New Yorker in 1994.
From 1954 to 1956, he edited a radio program on literature for the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Caribbean Service. His voice was perfect for the airwaves — rich and mellowed by tobacco. His crisp English accent had a slight Caribbean twist, and he often repeated phrases for emphasis. “I speak 130 words a minute,” he told The New York Times in 2005. “I know this precisely from my radio days.”
It was in 1954, while toiling in the old Edwardian-Victorian hotel that housed the BBC freelancer’s office, that Naipaul began writing fiction, conjuring up memories of his childhood in Port of Spain “on an old BBC typewriter, and on smooth, ‘non-rustle’ BBC script paper,” as he recounted nearly 30 years later in an essay, “Prologue to an Autobiography.”
“To become a writer, that noble thing, I had thought it necessary to leave,” he wrote elsewhere. “Actually to write, it was necessary to go back. It was the beginning of self-knowledge.”
His first novel, “The Mystic Masseur” (1957), about Ganesh Ramsumair, a failed schoolteacher who becomes a masseur and later guru and politician in Trinidad, was well received.
Ferociously prolific, Naipaul published a book every year or two for much of his career. His breakthrough was his joyous, deeply autobiographical fourth novel, “A House for Mr. Biswas” (1961). Set in Trinidad, it is the story of a middle-aged journalist’s efforts to free himself of his dependence on his wife’s wealthier, domineering family and lay claim to his own corner of the world.
Written when he was not yet 30, the book cemented Naipaul’s standing among the most important writers of his generation; writing in The Times in 1971, Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist and later a fellow Nobel laureate, called it “magnificent.” It was eventually published by the Modern Library of 20th-century classics.
In 1955 Naipaul married Patricia Hale, an Englishwoman he had met at Oxford. The two were extremely close — she read all his work in progress — but their relationship was puzzling to outsiders, many of whom saw her as self-effacing and subservient. Although she often traveled with Naipaul, Hale is mentioned only once in his books, and not by name. The couple never had children.
His childlessness, he told The New Yorker in 1994, “really comes from a detestation of the squalling background of children that I grew up with in my extended family.” He also confessed that he had been “a great prostitute man” in the early years of his marriage and acknowledged that in the 1970s he had fallen in love with an Anglo-Argentine woman who became his longtime mistress. After Hale died of cancer in 1996, Naipaul dedicated a new edition of “A House for Mr. Biswas” to her memory.
‘To explore the world’
Naipaul began writing nonfiction in the 1960s. “I thought nonfiction gave one a sense to explore the world, the other world, the world one didn’t know fully,” he said in 2005. “I thought if I didn’t have this resource of nonfiction I would have dried up perhaps. I’d have come to the end of my material.”
For his first nonfiction book, “The Middle Passage” (1962), Naipaul returned to the West Indies. He charted inter-island racial tensions in Trinidad; analyzed the cultural “mimicry” he saw as central to colonial identity; questioned how the region, then on the brink of self-rule, would govern itself; and observed that the smaller Caribbean islands “in the name of tourism, are selling themselves into a new slavery.”
Some found his portrayal distasteful. Derek Walcott, the Caribbean-born poet and winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in literature, called him “V.S. Nightfall” in a poem, and said his prose was scarred by his “repulsion towards Negroes” and the “self-disfiguring sneer that is praised for its probity.” Yet Walcott was pleased when Naipaul won the Nobel Prize. “It will mean something for the region,” he told The Guardian.
In 1964 Naipaul published the first of three travelogues about India, “An Area of Darkness.” He found that despite his Indian origins, he did not belong there at all.
“No other country was more fitted to welcome a conqueror; no other conqueror was more welcome than the British,” he wrote. “While dominating India they expressed their contempt for it, and projected England; and Indians were forced into a nationalism which in the beginning was like a mimicry of the British.”
Naipaul began to travel in Africa in the 1970s. His collection “In a Free State,” from 1971, about a gay English civil servant and a “compound wife” who take a road trip through an unnamed African country that closely resembles Idi Amin’s Uganda, won the Booker Prize that year.
“No one else around today, not even Nabokov, seems able to employ prose fiction so deeply as the very voice of exile,” the critic Alfred Kazin wrote in The New York Review of Books.
Naipaul’s novel “A Bend in the River” (1979) centers on an Indian from East Africa in an unnamed, newly independent African nation that resembles Zaire under the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Naipaul had written about Mobutu in his 1975 essay “A New King for the Congo,” in which he compared the contemporary place to the one Conrad had described in “Heart of Darkness.”
“Seventy years later, at this bend in the river, something like Conrad’s fantasy came to pass,” Naipaul wrote. “But the man with ‘the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith and no fear’ was black, and not white; and he had been maddened not by contact with wilderness and primitivism, but with the civilization established by those pioneers.”
In a 1974 essay that marked a breakthrough in his own understanding of himself as a writer, Naipaul wrote of his debt to the Ukrainian-born Conrad, who had also willed himself to be an artist in England and also traveled to the far corners of the colonized world. “I found that Conrad — 60 years before, in a time of a great peace — had been everywhere before me,” he wrote. But in an interview with The Times in 2005, Naipaul revised this judgment. While conceding that Conrad was “great,” he insisted that he “had no influence on me.”
“Actually, I think ‘A Bend in the River’ is much, much better than Conrad,” Naipaul said.
Naipaul’s writing about Africa drew criticism from many who were unsettled by his portraits of Africans. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe called him “a new purveyor of the old comforting myths” of the white West.
He was also criticized for his unflattering portrayals of women. In “A Bend in the River,” the protagonist spits on the naked body of his Belgian lover. In his 1975 novel “Guerrillas,” the English girlfriend of an exiled South African resistance hero acts on her fantasies of native sexual power to disastrous effect.
Always attuned to the tides of history, Naipaul began to travel in non-Arab Islamic countries around the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. He visited Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia in the late 1970s, when they were witnessing a rise in political power and Islamic fundamentalism. His first travelogue, “Among the Believers,” was published in 1981. A sequel, “Beyond Belief,” followed in 1998.
He started his inquiry, he later explained, by asking simple questions: To what extent had “people who lock themselves away in belief shut themselves away from the active, busy world?” “To what extent without knowing it” were they “parasitic on that world”? And why did they have “no thinkers to point out to them where their thoughts and their passion had led them?”
The books are grounded in Naipaul’s belief that Islamic societies lead to tyranny, which he essentially attributed to a flaw in Islam, that it “offered no political or practical solution.”
“It offered only the faith,” he wrote.
These books were harshly criticized. The critic and Palestinian rights advocate Edward Said argued Naipaul had interviewed only those who would confirm his pre-established thesis about flaws in Islam while playing down local political situations that might better explain the rise in Islamic fundamentalism.
Naipaul also wrote perceptively about the United States. “A Turn in the South” (1989) is a travelogue about the Deep South, and in an essay on the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, “The Air-Conditioned Bubble,” he dissected American political pieties. “The fundamentalism that the Republicans had embraced went beyond religion,” he wrote. “It simplified the world in general; it rolled together many different kinds of anxieties — schools, drugs, race, buggery, Russia, to give just a few; and it offered the simplest, the vaguest solution: Americanism, the assertion of the American self.”
Naipaul increasingly lamented the limitations of fiction. The novel had reached its peak in the 19th century, he said, and Modernism was dead. Instead, he thought nonfiction better captured the complexities of the world. He said he wrote his novel “Half a Life” (2001) only to fulfill a publisher’s contract.
In 1996, two months after the death of his first wife, Naipaul married Nadira Khannum Alvi, a divorced Pakistani journalist more than 20 years his junior. She survives him. He had met her at the home of the U.S. consul-general in Lahore, Pakistan. In 2003 Naipaul adopted Nadira’s daughter, Maleeha, who was then 25.
A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
The writer Paul Theroux, who was one of Naipaul’s closest friends, had a falling out with Naipaul not long after the marriage to Alvi. In his book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow” (1998), Theroux documented the arc of their complicated literary friendship, which began in Uganda in 1966 and ended abruptly in 1997 after Theroux saw books he had written and inscribed to his mentor listed for sale in an auction catalog. He depicts Naipaul as a great inspiration as a writer, but also petty, cruel and needy. The two men later reconciled.
For all his pessimism, Naipaul was confident that what he called “Our Universal Civilization” would prevail. In a 1992 lecture, he said his optimism derived from his belief in the idea of the pursuit of happiness, which lay “at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery.”
“It is an elastic idea; it fits all men,” he said. “It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”