Naipaul, V. S.

Biography

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Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Chaguanas, Trinidad, on August 17, 1932. His Hindu grandfather had emigrated to Trinidad from West India as an indentured servant. His father, Seepersad (1906-53), was a journalist, whose literary aspirations were inherited by V.S., and his brother, Shiva. The family moved to Port of Spain, where Naipaul attended Queen’s Royal College. In 1948, he was awarded a Trinidad government scholarship, which he used to study literature at University College, Oxford, beginning in 1950. Following his graduation in 1953, Naipaul worked as a freelance writer with the BBC, hosting the program “Caribbean Voices,” and contributed to the literary journal, The New Statesman. He married an English woman — Patricia Ann Hale — in 1955. Since then, he has resided in London, traveling extensively and writing many critically acclaimed novels, short stories, and essays. In 1990, Naipaul was knighted by the Royal family. For many years, he had an affair with Margaret Gooding, but when his wife died in 1996, and remarried shortly thereafter to a Pakistani woman named Nadira Alvi.

Themes and Form

One day, deep in my almost fixed depression, I began to see what my material might be: the city street from whose mixed life we had held aloof, and the country life before that, with the ways and manners of a remembered India. It seemed easy and obvious when it had been found; but it had taken me four years to see it. Almost at the same time came the language, the tone, the voice for that material. It was as if voice and matter and form were part of one another.

Naipaul “Reading and Writing”

Naipaul’s first books are set in Trinidad.  A House for Mr. Biswas, his first major novel, is an imaginative account of the Indian experience in Trinidad based on his father’s life and his own youth. A few years after its publication he went to India, finding only disappointment in the recognition that colonialism and the new world had stripped him of the capability of contentment there. This realization is the subject of An Area of Darkness.

His work went in a new direction in the early 1960s, beginning with Mr.Stone and the Knights Companion — the setting is England and the tone is more serious and philosophical. Naipaul’s feelings of alienation, his disdain for both England and Trinidad, and his sense of responsibility as a post-colonial writer weighed heavily on him, culminating in The Mimic Men.

A few years later, after the publication of The Loss of El Dorado, which examined the early history of Trinidad in light of the surrounding world affairs, Naipaul attempted to return to Trinidad. But he soon retreated to England, unable to find happiness there. During this period, his work broadened. “Fiction, which had once liberated me and enlightened me, now seemed to be pushing me toward being simpler than I really was.” In a Free State, which was awarded the Booker Prize, transcended the boundaries of genre. It consists of short stories, a novella, and two excerpts from a travel diary. The only common thread is the concern with issues of freedom for the individual and the decolonized world. Naipaul’s position as a social and political critic grew with the publication of his next few books, all of which treated the issues surrounding colonization.

Beginning with Finding the Center, Naipaul’s writing moved away from critical analysis of the problems of freedom. Instead, he embraced the people and places he visited, withholding judgment and seeing beauty where he once saw futility. The synthesis of autobiography and fiction continued, and even became the subject matter of The Enigma of Arrival. In “Reading and Writing,” Naipaul explains: “So, as my world widened, beyond the immediate personal circumstances that bred fiction, and as my comprehension widened, the literary forms I practiced flowed together and supported one another; and I couldn’t say that one form was higher than another.” Travel and autobiographical books followed. In India: A Million Mutinies, Naipaul’s views of his family’s homeland are reconsidered and adjusted but as always, themes of alienation, mistrust, rootlessness, mockery, and self-deception will certainly continued  to pervade this work.

Naipaul’s experiments with form are perhaps his greatest achievements. Of this, he wrote: “Literature, like all living art, is always on the move. It is part of its life that its dominant form should constantly change” (“Reading and Writing”)

Major Works

  • Naipaul, V. S. An Area of Darkness. 1964.  New York: Vintage Books, 1981.
  • —. A Bend in the River. 1979.  New York: Vintage Books. 1980.
  • —. A Flag on the Island. London: Andre Deutsch, 1967.
  • —. A House for Mr. Biswas. 1961.  New York: Vintage Books,1984.
  • —. Among the Believers. London: Andre Deutsch, 1981.
  • —. A Turn in the South. New York: Knopf, 1989.
  • —. A Way in the World. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
  • —. Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
  • —. Guerrillas. 1975.  New York: Vintage Books, 1980.
  • —. In a Free State. 1971.  New York: Vintage Books, 1984.
  • —. India: A Million Mutinies Now. New York: Penguin, 1995.
  • —. India: A Wounded Civilization. 1977.  New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
  • —. The Enigma of Arrival. New York: Knopf, 1987.
  • —. Finding the Center. New York: Knopf, 1984.
  • —. The Loss of El Dorado. 1970.  New York: Vintage Books, 1984.
  • —. The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies. 1962. New York: Vintage Books, 1981.
  • —. Miguel Street. 1959.  New York: Vintage Books, 1984.
  • —. The Mimic Men. 1967.  New York; Vintage Books, 1985.
  • —. Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion. 1963.  New York: VintageBooks, 1985.
  • —. The Mystic Masseur. 1957.  New York: Vintage Books, 1984.
  • —. The Overcrowded Barracoon. 1972.  New York: Vintage Books,1984.
  • —. The Return of Eva Peron with the Killings in the Trinidad. 1980. New York: Vintage Books, 1981.
  • —. The Suffrage of Elvira. 1958.  New York: Vintage Books, 1985.

Awards

  • John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize  1958
  • Somerset Maugham Award  1960
  • Hawthornden Prize  1964
  • W. H. Smith Prize  1968
  • Booker Prize  1971
  • The Jerusalem Prize  1983
  • David Cohen Prize  1993
  • The Nobel Prize  2001

Works Cited

  • Hammer, Robert D. Critical Perspectives on V. S.  Naipaul. Washington D.C.:  Three Continents Press, 1977.
  • Kelly, Richard. V. S. Naipaul. New York: Continuum, 1989.
  • King, Bruce. V. S. Naipaul. London: MacMillan, 1993.
  • Naipaul, V. S. “Reading and Writing.” New York Review of Books 18 Feb. 1999: 13-18.
  • Naipaul, V. S. “The Writer and India.” New York Review of Books 4 Mar. 1999: 12-16.
  • White, Landeg. V. S. Naipaul: A Critical Introduction. London: MacMillan, 1975.

Related Links

Review of Beyond Belief: Islamic Excusions among the Converted Peoples
http://www.lrb.co.uk./v20n17/gils2017.htm

Nobel Prize
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2001/naipaul-bio.html

Naipaul’s controversial statement about women authors
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/02/vs-naipaul-jane-austen-women-writers

Author: Zach Okun, Spring 1999

Last edited: June 2012

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