V.S. Naipaul: Literary Great

V.S. Naipaul and wife Nadira at Queens College NY in October 2001. He is the 2nd person only, of Indian descent to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Photo: C. Aklu)

Asked Simple Questions and Listened Attentively

By Chaitram Aklu

V.S. Naipaul the Trinidad and Tobago born, British writer of Indian descent was described as one of the greatest living writers in the English Language. He authored more than thirty books in both fiction and nonfiction genres. One of his earliest works, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) is “considered one of the top 100 English language books of the 20th century,” according to Adrian Alexander, Dean of the Tulsa University McFarlin Library. Naipaul died on August 11, 2018 in London.

When the Nobel Prize Committee announced the then 69-year-old writer, the winner of the 2001 Prize for Literature on October 11 of that year, Naipaul said it was “totally unexpected.” After all, he was being nominated since 1973! He became the second, of only two persons of Indian descent, (Rabindranath Tagore, Indian, in 1913 was the first) and the second from the English speaking Caribbean, to do so. The Prize worth $934 000 that year, was awarded to him for “having perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories” and cited his 1987 book, The Enigma of Arrival as the basis for the award.

At an Evening Reading of his then newest book, Half A Life at CUNY’s Queens College on October 30, 2001 (timing of which was purely coincidental since he was scheduled for the reading before the October 11, announcement) Naipaul said that there was no room for him or other writers coming from outside of England, among the English writers at the time. He therefore had to forge his own way, noting “Everything that I write have come to me as a blessing.” In a 2010 Reuters interview he said, “When I learned to write I became my own master, I became very strong, and that strength is with me to this very day.”

This lively and funny demeanor was evident when he read a section of the life story of Willie Chandran, the main character in Half A Life.

After the announcement was made he told New York Times Magazine columnist, Adam Shatz that he didn’t know if the events of September 11, 2001 (He wrote about Islamic fundamentalism in previous books, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among Converted Peoples (1998)), influenced the Nobel Committee decision to award him the prize that year. “I thought beginning in 1973 that I was being considered and then I felt that great campaigns had been waged against me, quite successfully,” by “people who were pilloring me as a racist and anti- third world.” But he himself may have contributed to this ‘campaign’. The fact is that Naipaul, whether writing about his native Trinidad, the Caribbean, India, South America, Africa, England or religion, has been very harsh – to put it mildly. He had declared, “I do not stand for any country.” He called Trinidad unlearned. He told an interviewer in 1993, “I was born there, yes – I thought it was a mistake”; India unwashed; Africa has no future; Britain was culturally bankrupt; and claimed women writers were unequal to him.

He told his audience that he does not research his material the way college professors do. Joe Cuomo, Professor of English at Queens College and host of the Evening Reading, who engaged Naipaul in the discourse during the event, remarked, “You are the single most misread author.” To which Naipaul replied, “That is because they don’t look at the page.” He noted further, “when you write, you write with the innermost part of your soul – it is a secretion of his (the writer’s) innermost soul that he gives in his writing.” About his nonfiction works, he said, “I go to places—I don’t have prejudices. Traveling is fundamental, you have to know how to travel – you have to ask simple questions, you have to listen to people.”

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born August 17, 1932 in Chaguanas, Trinidad. At age eleven he knew he wanted to become a writer, mostly influenced by his father reading to him. “I had begun to have my own idea of what writing was. It was a private idea, and curiously ennobling one, separate from school and separate from the disordered and disintegrating life of our Hindu extended family. That idea of writing which gave me the ambition to be a writer –had built up from little things my father read to me from time to time.” (Reading and Writing (2000).

After receiving his secondary education there at Queens Royal College, he left for England on a scholarship to read English at Oxford University in 1953. He lived in England for the rest of his life. Naipaul is not an armchair writer. He has traveled the world, including troubled and dangerous regions, gathering materials for his books. He has published more than 30 books and has been described as on the greatest living writers in the English language, using fiction, nonfiction, and a fusion of the two. And he has done so in such a masterful way that at times it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Some of his other books include The Mystic Masseur (1957), In A Free State (1971), which won him the prestigious Booker Prize, A Bend in the River (1979), A Turn in the South (1989), A Way in the World (1994), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), and The Masque of Africa (2010).

He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990 for his writing, and in 1993 was the first recipient of the David Cohen British Literature Prize for a lifetime’s achievement by a living British writer.

Meena Kandasamy writing in TIME, Aug. 27, describes Naipaul’s life and work most eloquently. “A brilliant, tormented artist, Naipaul was compulsively readable – even when one absolutely disagreed with his arguments. But as we marvel at his formidable body of work, we must also mourn the immense talent he squandered on hostility.”
The literary genius of and Naipaul’s unforgettable history will live on for centuries to come. Since 1993, The McFarlin Library of Tulsa University became the home his entire life archive.


The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.