The writer VS Naipaul, who explored questions of place and identity for more than half a century, has died aged 85.
Lady Naipaul confirmed that her husband had died peacefully in London. “He was a giant in all that he achieved and he died surrounded by those he loved having lived a life which was full of wonderful creativity and endeavour,” she said. The author Sir Salman Rushdie paid tribute to Naipaul, writing: “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.”
Turning from the comedy that began his career, Naipaul cast a steely eye on the shards of empire in a series of novels and travelogues. Unflattering portraits of the West Indies, India, Africa and the Islamic faith brought both hostility and acclaim. Critics accused him of holding people of the developing world in contempt even as his diamantine prose won him a series of awards including the Booker prize in 1971, a knighthood in 1989 and the Nobel prize for literature in 2001.
Naipaul was born in 1932 to a family that had arrived in Trinidad from India in the 1880s, part of what he once called “an immigrant Asian community in a small plantation island in the New World”. It was a community where he never felt at home, in 2008 recalling his childhood as “pretty awful” and his family as “terrible … very large, with too many people. There was no beauty. It was full of malice.” A government scholarship offered him a chance to escape, an immigrant once more as he travelled to Oxford in 1950 to study English.
Having dreamed of a literary career since the age of 10, he hoped to “find out his material and miraculously become a writer” while studying for his “worthless degree”, but instead found only “solitude and despair”, as he told the Paris Review in 1998. “I was far too well prepared for it. I was far more intelligent than most of the people in my college or in my course.”
Meanwhile Naipaul struggled to convert his ambitions into anything concrete, abandoning two novels as he graduated and began working at the BBC World Service, editing and presenting on the weekly Caribbean Voices slot. Sitting in the freelancers’ room at the broadcaster’s Langham House, a memory of a neighbour in Port of Spain rose up, and he began writing a story: “Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, ‘What happening there, Bogart?’” He sat there at the typewriter as a story of a man living on a run-down street seemed to write itself, not daring to leave the room until he had finished. The next day he wrote another, and then another until in six weeks he had an entire collection of colourful stories.
Unwilling to take a chance on short stories from an unknown writer, André Deutsch encouraged him to write a novel, The Mystic Masseur, which was published in 1957. But even as his debut novel won the Jonathan Llewellyn Rhys prize, Naipaul was already turning his back on the light comedy that characterised his first three books. Casting around in desperation for a subject, he began telling the story of a man modelled on his father Seepersad, a journalist and aspiring writer who suffered a breakdown in 1933 and died 20 years later. A House for Mr Biswas charts the setbacks and indignities suffered by a man born to Indian parents in rural Trinidad, his struggles with his wife’s overbearing family and his search for a place he can call his own.
Reviewing it for the Observer in 1961, Colin MacInnes marvelled at how Naipaul achieved the “splendid contradiction” of a work that was sad, at times horrific and terrifying, but “also funny, even hilarious”, and hailed a voice that “even when scornful or ironical, can be as tender, just, kind, delicate, filled with unassuming pity”.
For Amitav Ghosh, writing in 2001, it was the last time Naipaul would “look at life outside the west on its own terms”.
“After this,” Ghosh argued, “the richly textured islands of his early work would disappear, to be replaced by a series of largely interchangeable caricatures of societies depicted as ‘half-made’ in comparison with Europe.”
Having exhausted the experience of his upbringing, Naipaul felt the need to move on. Invited in 1960 by the government of Trinidad and Tobago to visit the islands at their expense, Naipaul spent five months travelling through the West Indies and published an account of his voyage two years later. But The Middle Passage was not the hymn to a vibrant country on the cusp of independence that prime minister Eric Williams might have expected. Naipaul set the tone in an opening line that described his departure on the boat-train from Waterloo with “such a crowd of immigrant-type West Indians” that he was “glad … [to be] travelling first class”. He journeys through Trinidad, British Guiana, Surinam, Jamaica and Martinique, but is wearied by what he finds, seeing every day “the same things – unemployment, ugliness, overpopulation, race”.
“History is built around achievement and creation,” he writes, “and nothing was created in the West Indies.”
Critics in New York and London hailed Naipaul’s “ironical exposition and resigned analysis”, saluting a tone that they described as “critical but humane”, his “inevitable indignation” tempered with “an admirable sense of comedy”. But while the St Lucian poet Derek Walcott found Naipaul’s writing brilliant, he was doubtful about the results of an account seen through “Victorian spectacles”.
“Everything is made to seem touching and ridiculous,” he wrote. “The people he encounters have an antic, desperate pathos. More often they are vulgar and we can imagine Mr Naipaul recoiling in terror from their exuberance.”
For the next four decades Naipaul explored the legacy of colonialism, gathering a series of awards as he shifted between fiction and non-fiction. He won the WH Smith award in 1968 with a novel of a West Indian politician exiled in London, The Mimic Men, and the Booker prize in 1971 with a dark symphony of alienation, In a Free State. Awarding him the Nobel prize for literature in 2001, the Swedish Academy praised him for “having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories”.
Meanwhile he offered gloomy portraits of India, Africa and Islam in a series of travelogues including 1964’s An Area of Darkness, 1980’s A Congo Diary and 1981’s Among the Believers. For critics such as Edward Said, Naipaul became “a witness for the western prosecution”, making the case that “we ‘non-whites’ are the cause of all our problems”. Not only was he “not interested in the third world at all”, Said argued, but his accounts were “ignorant, illiterate, and cliche-ridden … Naipaul’s account of the Islamic, Latin American, African, Indian and Caribbean worlds totally ignores a massive infusion of critical scholarship about those regions in favour of the tritest, cheapest and the easiest of colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies”.
Naipaul was never afraid of controversy, comparing the “calamitous effect” of Islam to colonialism in 2001 and suggesting a decade later that “within a paragraph or two” he could tell if a piece of writing “is by a woman or not”. A dispute with Paul Theroux that began in 1996 lasted for 15 years before Ian McEwan brokered a rapprochement at the Hay festival. Naipaul’s long-running feud with Walcott proved less tractable, reaching its nadir with the poet’s 2008 attack on his fellow Nobel laureate: “I have been bitten, I must avoid infection / Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.”
His reputation suffered after announcing to the New Yorker in 1994 that he had been “a great prostitute man” during his marriage to Patricia Hale, and declined further in 2008 after admitting to his biographer Patrick French a long-running affair with Margaret Gooding in which he was “very violent”.
But Naipaul professed to be unconcerned by criticism of his work, as he explained to the Observer in 2008. “When I read those things, I am immensely amused,” he said. “They don’t wound me at all.”