VS Naipaul dies at 85: Nobel-winning novelist's flawed character kept him from greatness

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s death on 11 August 2018, at the age of 85, brings to an end a rather controversial life and literary career. Naipaul was born in the West Indies and his ancestors were indentured labourers, originally from India. Later, he discovered that the family on his father’s side were actually from Nepal.

Naipaul’s father was himself a man of letters, a journalist and the author of a collection of stories and Naipaul did not have an underprivileged childhood; his mother’s Capildeo family wielded much influence locally. Judging from Naipaul’s early writing, he saw Trinidad as a place he wanted only to get out of: “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies." But after graduating from a government-run college he got a Commonwealth scholarship to study in Britain and he got into Oxford, where he met Patricia Anne Hale, whom he later married.

Author VS Naipaul. Reuters

Author VS Naipaul. Reuters

His first novel The Mystic Masseur came out in 1957 and Miguel Street, a collection of short stories he had actually written earlier, appeared in 1959. Both won prizes but the first book to make him noticed as a major writer was A House for Mr Biswas (1961). In this novel we see the famous prose style that Naipaul later became renowned for already emerging:

“He thought of the house as his own, though for years it had been irretrievably mortgaged. And during these months of illness and despair he was struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house, the audacity of it: to walk in through his own front gate, to bar entry to whoever he wished, to close his doors and windows every night, to hear no noises except those of his family, to wander freely from room to room and about his yard, instead of being condemned, as before, to retire the moment he got home to the crowded room in one or the other of Mrs Tulsi’s houses, crowded with Shama’s sisters, their husbands, their children.”

As may be seen here, there is a certain empathy which declines in his later novels, where there is a summary, judgemental quality to the descriptions, heightened by the shortness of the sentences.

After this novel, the Naipauls began to travel, and VS Naipaul discovered his penchant for travel writing with The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies – British, French and Dutch in the West Indies and South America (1962). In 1962 they went to India, the home of Naipaul’s ancestors and the result of the shock was An Area of Darkness (1964). This book is a vivid indictment of Indian society as he saw it, its excesses and its evils; still, there are passages in it that seem less observation than invention. In one passage, for instance, a stenographer in a government office crawls at the feet of his superior rubbing the dust off his shoes with his sweating palms when he is threatened with dismissal. ‘Dismissing’ a government employee in India is not an easy matter and Naipaul could not have also witnessed the event. One wonders if he has not taken the hyperbole/metaphor in a reported event as an actual happening and described it vividly as ‘observation’ because it fits in with his ‘India’.

More than his novels, it is Naipaul’s travel writing that fetched him his reputation and it is not accidental that his sharp pen is usually pointed at the ‘Third World’: the West Indies, South America, Africa and the Islamic world. The only travel book of his to take place in the First world — A turn in the South (1989), about the southern part of the US, is not widely available. Often, Naipaul does not quite understand the complexity of what he is dealing with. In An Area of Darkness, for instances, he writes about Premchand as follows:

“Poverty not as an urge to anger or improving action, but poverty as an inexhaustible source of tears, an exercise of the purest sensibility. ‘They became so poor that year,’ the beloved Hindi novelist Premchand writes, ‘that even beggars left their door empty-handed.’ That, indeed, is our poverty: not the fact of beggary, but that beggars should have to go from our doors empty-handed.”

Naipaul evidently misses an important aspect of Premchand’s story. ‘Beggars leaving their door empty-handed’ implies that the householders were unable to give alms to beggars – as was their dharma. Poverty preventing them from fulfilling their dharma has a different implication from the one Naipaul imputes to the story.

Naipaul’s novels, like his travel writing, rarely scrutinise the ‘First World’ and its citizens, although he spent the greater part of his life in Britain. In this respect, he has a kinship with Salman Rushdie, who almost never writes about the West except as spaces into which immigrants from the Third World move (The Golden House, 2017). The role the two writers play, it can be argued, is to represent the ‘Third World’ in a way that an insider in Western society cannot. But while Rushdie, by and large, tries to empathise with the place of his origins since he is genuinely nostalgic about it, Naipaul tried to distance himself from the ‘developing world’ through his writings and his viewpoint echoes a First World perspective that cannot be given expression to by an insider because it would be offensively ‘incorrect’. Although he is an excellent prose writer, Naipaul’s viewpoint is ultimately petty and what he brings to his subjects is essentially sensibility, ie: sensitivity to sensory stimuli with a writer’s ability to describe them.

VS Naipaul’s life was not a particularly happy one and he was known to have been particularly cruel to the women in his life, especially Patricia who died of cancer in 1996. He appears to have taken enormous trouble to construct himself retrospectively even in youth as a fully developed writer with mature opinions: whatever early letters were published later bear some evidence of having been subsequently corrected for publication. Naipaul perhaps wanted to forget his humbler origins and this effort perhaps went there. Here, for instance, is a passage from a letter purportedly written by him to his older sister when he was only 17, containing the hallmark short sentences found in his later fiction:

“I wonder what is the matter with this typewriter. It looks all right now, though. I am enclosing some cuttings which, I am sure, will delight you. You will note that I went after all to the Old Boys' Association Dinner. I can count those hours as among the most painful I have ever spent. In the first place, I have no table manners; in the second, I had no food. Special arrangements, I was informed after the dinner, had been made for me, but these appeared to have been limited to serving me potatoes in various ways — now fried, now boiled. I had told the manager to bring me some corn soup instead of the turtle soup that the others were having. He ignored this and the waiter brought up to me a plateful of a green slime. This was the turtle soup.” (Between Father and Son: Family Letters, 1999).

Naipaul was disliked by his contemporaries in the West Indies. Derek Walcott, also a Nobel Prize winner like Naipaul, expressed anger at what he saw as Naipaul's rejection of his Caribbean heritage in order to gain acceptance from the British literary establishment. Naipaul thanked Britain and India in his Nobel acceptance speech, but not the country of his birth. Walcott’s poem The Mongoose begins as follows: "I have been bitten. I must avoid infection. Or else I'll be as dead as Naipaul's fiction." VS Naipaul was a stupendous writer who perhaps missed being great because he was not morally up to a visionary.

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Updated Date: Aug 13, 2018 11:59 AM

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