Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad “Vidia” Naipaul, TC (; born 17 August 1932), is a British writer of Indian descent and Nobel Laureate who was born in Trinidad. He is known for his comic early novels set in Trinidad and Tobago, his bleaker later novels of the wider world, and his autobiographical chronicles of life and travels. He has published more than thirty books, both of fiction and nonfiction, over some fifty years.
Naipaul was born on 17 August 1932 in Chaguanas in Trinidad. He was the second child of Droapatie (ne Capildeo) and Seepersad Naipaul. In the 1880s, his grandparents migrated from India to work as farm labourers. In the Indian immigrant community in Trinidad, Naipaul’s father became an English-language journalist, and in 1929 began contributing articles to the Trinidad Guardian. In 1932, the year Naipaul was born, his father joined the staff as the Chaguanas correspondent. In “A prologue to an autobiography” (1983), Naipaul describes how his father’s reverence for writers and for the writing life spawned his own dreams and aspirations to become a writer.
In 1939, when he was seven years old, Naipaul’s family moved to Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain, where Naipaul enrolled in the government-run Queen’s Royal College, a well-regarded school that was modelled after a British public school. Upon graduation, Naipaul won a Trinidad Government scholarship that allowed him to study at any institution of higher learning in the British Commonwealth; he chose Oxford.
Education in England
At Oxford, Naipaul’s early attempts at writing, he felt, were contrived. Lonely and unsure of his ability and calling, he became depressed. In April 1952, he took an impulsive trip to Spain, where he quickly spent all he had saved. He called his impulsive trip “a nervous breakdown.” Thirty years later, he called it “something like a mental illness.”
In 1952, before visiting Spain, Naipaul met Patricia Ann Hale, his future wife, at a college play. With Hale’s support, he began to recover and gradually to write. She became a partner in planning his career. Her family was hostile to the relationship; his was unenthusiastic. In June 1953, Naipaul and Hale graduated from Oxford.
In 1953, Naipaul’s father died. He worked at odd jobs and borrowed money from Hale and his family in Trinidad.
Life in London
Naipaul moved to London in 1954. In January 1955, he and Pat were married. In December 1954, Naipaul began appearing on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices once a week. Sitting in the BBC freelancers’ room in the old Langham Hotel, he wrote “Bogart”, the first story of Miguel Street. The story was inspired by a neighbour he knew as a child in Port of Spain. Naipaul wrote Miguel Street in five weeks. The New York Times said about Miguel Street: “The sketches are written lightly, so that tragedy is understated and comedy is overstated, yet the ring of truth always prevails.”
Early Trinidad novels
Diana Athill, an editor at the publishing company Andr Deutsch, read Miguel Street and liked it, but publisher Andr Deutsch thought a book of short stories by an unknown Caribbean writer unlikely to sell profitably in Britain. He encouraged Naipaul to write a novel. Naipaul quickly wrote The Mystic Masseur and it was published in 1955.
In 1956, Naipaul returned to Trinidad for a two-month stay with his family. Travelling by ship there, he sent humorous sketches of the ship’s West Indian passengers to Pat. These sketches became the inspiration for The Suffrage of Elvira, a comic novella about a rural election in Trinidad. In 1957, Naipaul became an editorial assistant at the Cement and Concrete Association (C&CA), his only full-time job. The C&CA was to be the setting for Naipaul’s later novel, Mr Stone and the Knight’s Companion. At this time the New Statesman‘s Kingsley Martin gave Naipaul a part-time job reviewing books, a job he did from 1957 to 1961.
The Mystic Masseur was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1958, and Miguel Street the Somerset Maugham Award in 1961, W. Somerset Maugham himself approving the first-ever selection of a non-European.
For his next novel, A House for Mr Biswas (1961), Naipaul took for inspiration childhood memories of his father (later he wrote that the novel “destroyed memory” in some respects). In the novel, title character Mohun Biswas takes a succession of vocations (apprentice to a Hindu priest, signboard painter; a grocery store proprietor, and reporter for The Trinidad Sentinel). What ambition and resourcefulness Mr Biswas has are inevitably undermined by his dependence on his powerful in-laws and the vagaries of the colonial society in which he lives.
The book consumed Naipaul. In 1983, he wrote:
The book took three years to write. It felt like a career; and there was a short period, towards the end of the writing, when I do believe I knew all or much of the book by heart. The labour ended; the book began to recede. And I found that I was unwilling to re-enter the world I had created, unwilling to expose myself again to the emotions that lay below the comedy. I became nervous of the book. I haven’t read it since I passed the proofs in May 1961.
Novels and travel writing
After completing A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul and Pat spent the next five months in British Guiana, Suriname, Martinique and Jamaica, where Naipaul took notes for The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies – British, French and Dutch in the West Indies and South America, his first travel book. He wrote, “The history of the islands can never be told satisfactorily. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.”
In 1962, Naipaul and Pat went to India, the land of Naipaul’s ancestors, where Naipaul wrote An Area of Darkness. For the first time in his life, he felt anonymous, even faceless. He was no longer identified, he felt, with a special ethnic group as he had been in Trinidad and England; it made him anxious. He was upset by what he saw as the resigned or evasive Indian reaction to poverty and suffering.
While in India, Naipaul wrote Mr Stone and the Knight’s Companion. He accepted an invitation to write a monthly “Letter from London” for the Illustrated Weekly of India.
Naipaul had spent an overwrought year in India. Back in London, after An Area of Darkness was completed, he felt creatively drained. He felt he had used up his Trinidad material. Neither India nor the writing of Mr Stone and the Knight’s Companion, his only attempt at a novel set in Britain with white British characters, had spurred new ideas for imaginative writing. His finances too were low, and Pat went back to teaching to supplement them. Naipaul’s books had received much critical acclaim, but they were not yet money makers. Socially, he was now breaking away from the Caribbean Voices circle, but no doors had opened to mainstream British society.
That changed when Naipaul was introduced to Antonia Fraser, at the time the wife of conservative politician Hugh Fraser. Fraser introduced Naipaul to her social circle of upper-class British politicians, writers, and performing artists. In this circle was the wealthy second Baron Glenconner, father of novelist Emma Tennant and owner of estates in Trinidad, who arranged for an unsecured loan of 7,200 for Naipaul. Naipaul and Pat bought a three-floor house on Stockwell Park Crescent.
In late 1964, Naipaul was asked to write an original script for an American movie. He spent the next few months in Trinidad writing the story, a novella named “A Flag on the Island”, later published in the collection A Flag on the Island. The finished version was not to the director’s liking and the movie was never made. The story is set in 1964, in a Caribbean island that is not named. The main character is an American named Frankie who affects the mannerisms of Frank Sinatra. Frankie has links to the island from having served there during World War II. He revisits reluctantly when his ship anchors during a hurricane. Naipaul wilfully makes the pace of the book feverish, the narrative haphazard, the characters loud, the protagonist fickle or deceptive, and the dialogue confusing. Balancing the present time is Frankie’s less disordered, though comfortless, memory of 20 years before. Then he had become a part of a community on the island. He had tried to help his poor friends by giving away the ample US Army supplies he had. Not everyone was happy about receiving help and not everyone benefited. Frankie was left chastened about finding tidy solutions to the island’s social problems. This theme, indirectly developed in the story, is one to which Naipaul would return again.
Not long after finishing A Flag on the Island, Naipaul began work on the novel The Mimic Men, though for almost a year he did not make significant progress. At the end of this period, he was offered a Writer-in-Residence fellowship at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. There, in early 1966, he began to rewrite his material, and went on to complete the novel quickly. The finished novel broke new ground for him. Unlike his Caribbean work, it was not comic. It did not unfold chronologically. Its language was allusive and ironic, its overall structure whimsical. It had strands of both fiction and non-fiction, a precursor of other Naipaul novels. It was intermittently dense, even obscure, but it also had beautiful passages, especially descriptive ones of the fictional tropical island of Isabella. The subject of sex appeared explicitly for the first time in Naipaul’s work. The plot, to the extent there is one, centres on a protagonist, Ralph Singh, an East Indian–West Indian politician from Isabella. Singh is in exile in London and attempting to write his political memoirs. Earlier, in the immediate aftermath of decolonization in a number of British colonies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Singh had shared political power with a more powerful African-Caribbean politician. Soon, the memoirs take on a more personal aspect. There are flashbacks to the formative and defining periods of Singh’s life. In many of these, during crucial moments, whether during his childhood, married life, or political career, he appears to abandon engagement and enterprise. These, he rationalizes later, belong only to fully made European societies. When The Mimic Men was published, it received generally positive critical notice. In particular, Caribbean politicians, such as Michael Manley and Eric Williams weighed in, the latter writing: “V. S. Naipaul’s description of West Indians as ‘mimic men’ is harsh but true …”
Back in London in October 1966, Naipaul received an invitation from the American publisher Little, Brown and Company to write a book on Port-of-Spain. The book took two years to write, its scope widening with time. The Loss of El Dorado eventually became a narrative history of Trinidad based on primary sources. Pat spent many months in the archives of the British Library reading those sources. In the end, the finished product was not to the liking of Little, Brown, who were expecting a guidebook.Alfred A. Knopf agreed to publish it instead in the United States, as did Andr Deutsch later in Britain.
The Loss of El Dorado is an attempt to ferret out an older, deeper history of Trinidad, one preceding its commonly taught history as a British-run plantation economy of slaves and indentured workers. Central to Naipaul’s history are two stories: the search for El Dorado, a Spanish obsession, in turn pursued by the British, and the British attempt to spark from their new colony of Trinidad, even as it was itself becoming mired in slavery, a revolution of lofty ideals in South America. Sir Walter Raleigh and Francisco Miranda would become the human faces of these stories. Although slavery is eventually abolished, the sought for social order slips away in the face of uncertainties created by changeable populations, languages, and governments and by the cruelties inflicted by the island’s inhabitants on each other.
Before Naipaul began writing The Loss of El Dorado, he had been unhappy with the political climate in Britain. He had been especially unhappy with the increasing public animosity, in the mid-1960s, towards Asian immigrants from Britain’s ex-colonies. During the writing of the book, he and Pat sold their house in London, and led a transient life, successively renting or borrowing use of the homes of friends. After the book was completed, they travelled to Trinidad and Canada with a view to finding a location in which to settle. Naipaul had hoped to write a blockbuster, one relieving him of future money anxieties. As it turned out, The Loss of El Dorado sold only 3,000 copies in the US, where major sales were expected; Naipaul also missed England more than he had calculated. It was thus in a depleted state, both financial and emotional, that he returned to Britain.
Earlier, during their time in Africa, Naipaul and Pat had travelled to Kenya, staying for month in Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast. They had travelled in rural Uganda to Kisoro District on the south-western border with Rwanda and the Congo. Naipaul showed interest in the great culture, history and traditions of the Baganda people. When Uganda’s prime minister Milton Obote deposed, militarily, the President of Uganda, who was also the Kabaka of Buganda, Naipaul was critical of the British press for not condemning the action enough. Naipaul also travelled to Tanzania with a young American he had met in Kampala, Paul Theroux. It was upon this African experience that Naipaul would draw during the writing of his next book, In a Free State.
In the title novella, “In a Free State”, two young expatriate Europeans drive across an African country, which remains nameless but which offers clues of Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda. The novella speaks to many themes. The colonial era ends and Africans govern themselves. Political chaos, frequently violent, takes hold in newly decolonized countries. Young, idealistic, expatriate whites are attracted to these countries, seeking expanded moral and sexual freedoms. They are rootless, their bonds with the land tenuous; at the slightest danger they leave. The older, conservative, white settlers, by contrast, are committed to staying, even in the face of danger. The young expatriates, though liberal, can be racially prejudiced. The old settlers, unsentimental, sometimes brutal, can show compassion. The young, engrossed in narrow preoccupations, are uncomprehending of the dangers that surround them. The old are knowledgeable, armed, and ready to defend themselves. The events unfolding along the car trip and the conversation during it become the means of exploring these themes.
Writing of Guerrillas
In late December 1971 as news of the killings at Michael X‘s commune in Arima filtered out, Naipaul, accompanied by Pat, arrived in Trinidad to cover the story. This was a time of strains in their marriage. Naipaul, although dependent on Pat, was frequenting prostitutes for sexual gratification. Pat was alone. Intensifying their disaffection was Pat’s childlessness, for which neither Pat nor Naipaul sought professional treatment, preferring instead to say that fatherhood would not allow time for Naipaul’s sustained literary labours. Naipaul was increasingly ill-humoured and infantile, and Pat increasingly reduced to mothering him. She began to keep a diary, a practice she would continue for the next 25 years. According to biographer Patrick French,
“Pat’s diary is an essential, unparalleled record of V. S. Naipaul’s later life and work, and reveals more about the creation of his subsequent books, and her role in their creation, than any other source. It puts Patricia Naipaul on a par with other great, tragic, literary spouses such as Sonia Tolstoy, Jane Carlyle and Leonard Woolf.“
Naipaul visited the commune in Arima and Pat attended the trial. Naipaul’s old friend Francis Wyndham was now editor of The Sunday Times and offered to run the story in his newspaper. Around the same time Naipaul received an invitation from Robert B. Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, to do some stories on Argentina and Eva Pern. The Review, still in its first decade after founding, was short of funds and Silvers had to borrow money from a friend to fund Naipaul’s trip. Naipaul also covered the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, at the behest of Silvers, after which Naipaul wrote “Among the Republicans,” an anthropological study of a “white tribe in the United States.”
In awarding Naipaul the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy praised his work “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.” The Committee added, “Naipaul is a modern philosopher carrying on the tradition that started originally with Lettres persanes and Candide. In a vigilant style, which has been deservedly admired, he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony.” The Committee also noted Naipaul’s affinity with the novelist Joseph Conrad:
Naipaul is Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in the memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished.
His fiction and especially his travel writing have been criticised for their allegedly unsympathetic portrayal of the Third World. The novelist Robert Harris has called his portrayal of Africa racist and “repulsive,” reminiscent of Oswald Mosley‘s fascism.Edward Said argues that Naipaul “allowed himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the Western prosecution”, promoting what Said classifies as “colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies”. Said believes that Naipaul’s worldview may be most salient in the author’s book-length essay The Middle Passage, which Naipaul composed after returning to the Caribbean after 10 years of exile in England, and the work An Area of Darkness.
Naipaul has been accused of misogyny, and of committing acts of “chronic physical abuse” against his mistress of 25 years, Margaret Murray, who wrote in a letter to The New York Review of Books: “Vidia says I didnt mind the abuse. I certainly did mind.”
Writing in The New York Review of Books about Naipaul, Joan Didion offers the following portrayal of the writer:
The actual world has for Naipaul a radiance that diminishes all ideas of it. The pink haze of the bauxite dust on the first page of Guerrillas tells us what we need to know about the history and social organization of the unnamed island on which the action takes place, tells us in one image who runs the island and for whose profit the island is run and at what cost to the life of the island this profit has historically been obtained, but all of this implicit information pales in the presence of the physical fact, the dust itself…. The world Naipaul sees is of course no void at all: it is a world dense with physical and social phenomena, brutally alive with the complications and contradictions of actual human endeavour…. This world of Naipaul’s is in fact charged with what can only be described as a romantic view of reality, an almost unbearable tension between the idea and the physical fact…
Nizziem Ezekiel wrote an essay “Naipaul’s India and mine.” it is a reply to Naipaul’s An area of darkness.