Trinidadian 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 on Saturday. “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.”
The article was featured in the London Guardian on Sunday.
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.
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”.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.
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.