When Nobel laureate Sir VS Naipaul died on Saturday, the opinion sections of the world’s news and literary sites went into overdrive as arguments erupted about whether or not the Trinidadian born author’s notoriously reactionary politics should be separated from his undeniable skills as a prose stylist. Naipaul said terrible and undeniably offensive things about everyone from Indians to women, Muslims, other writers and friends over the course of a six-decade career that saw him acclaimed by even some of his detractors as perhaps the greatest prose writer of the 20th century.
Even Sir Salman Rushdie, a long-time opponent of Naipaul’s conservative attitudes, tweeted that, “We disagreed all our lives, about politics, about literature, and I feel as sad as if I just lost a beloved older brother. RIP Vidia.” Paul Theroux, his one time protégé, then bitterly estranged, then late in life re-embraced friend said that Naipaul, “ never wrote falsely. He was a scourge of anyone who used a cliché or an un-thought-out sentence. He was very scrupulous about his writing, very severe, too.”
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born on August 17, 1932 in the Trinidadian town of Chagaunas, the grandson of an indentured labourer and the son of an aspirant writer who made his living as a journalist for a local newspaper. Naipaul’s interest in literature was cultivated by his father Seepersad and would also inspire his younger brother Shiva to become a novelist. Determined from the age of ten as he later told the Paris Review, that he “wanted to be very famous…[and] also wanted to be a writer – to be famous for writing,” Naipaul admitted that “the absurdity of the ambition was that at the time I had no idea what I was going to write about.
The ambition came long before the material.” It was however an ambition that, coupled with a longing to escape the claustrophobic and overcrowded world of Trinidad, would see Naipaul win a scholarship to Oxford University where he studied English at University College. While there he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1952 but determined to “escape Trinidad” and “oppressed by the pettiness of colonial life,” Naipaul completed his degree and remained in England, believing that “in the larger world people would be appreciated for what they were – people would be found interesting for who they were.”
While searching for a subject for his first fictions, Naipaul worked for the BBC, editing a program on Carribean literature and married Patricia Hale who would be his long suffering wife and biggest supporter until her death from cancer in 1996. He later married Pakistani journalist Nadira Khannum who would remain with him for the rest of his life.
In spite of his determination to leave Trinidad and its parochial, small world – it was his early life on the island that provided the spark for Naipaul’s first published work – beginning with The Mystic Masseur (1955) and leading to his fourth and most universally and critically admired comic novel A House for Mr Biswas (1961), published when he was only 29-years-old. Naipaul then began to broaden his experience of the world through a series of non-fiction books that would see him travel the globe from the West Indies to India, America, Africa and the Middle East. These travels provided not only material for his non-fiction but also for future novels including his much celebrated and far more cynical view of postcolonial society, 1979’s A Bend in the River – set in a fictional post-independent African country.
Naipaul’s travels and observations of the post-colonial world in the later half of the 20th century while often admired for their technical brilliance were fiercely criticised by writers from the countries that he visited. Fellow Carribean Nobel Laureate Sir Derek Walcott wrote a poem calling him “V.S. Nightfall,” while Jamaican born reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson described him as “a living example of how art transcends the artist ‘cos he talks a lot of shit but still writes excellent books.”
Naipaul himself was only too pleased to bristle back at those who criticised him and continued to publish regularly throughout his life until 2010’s The Masque of Africa. He won most of the UK’s highest literary honours including the Booker Prize in 1971 for In a Free State, was knighted for his services to literature in 1990 and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.
As the New Yorker critic James Wood, observed, Naipaul’s greatest contributions to literature came from “a divideness [that] made the man something of a monster but fed his work: it is why he is a writer with conservative vision and radical eyesight.”
In the end it is the work that remains after the meanness of the man has passed and perhaps even his detractors will come to see that Naipaul was a complicated and difficult man, constantly searching for a sense of place in the world, which he never quite managed to find. That ever curious search, described in an obituary in the Guardian as “constructed [with] clear, irreducible sentences [and] single minded paragraphs… with a control of language… such that he could persuade you into belief even when his truths were only partly true,” is ultimately his greatest legacy.