Naipaul, V. S. (Vol. 199)
V. S. Naipaul 1932-
(Full name Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul) Trinidadian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Naipaul's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 7, 9, 13, 18, 37, and 105.
Regarded as one of the most talented writers in contemporary literature, Naipaul is also one of the most controversial. His ironic accounts of colonial and postcolonial Third World societies have drawn mixed responses for their negative portrayal of the peoples of those regions. In particular, his harsh indictment of Islamic fundamentalism has inspired debate in light of recent world events. In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor that has resulted in several reappraisals of Naipaul's career and contributions to world literature.
Naipaul was born in Chaguanas, Trinidad, on August 17, 1932. His parents were descendants of Hindu immigrants from northern India, and as a youth he felt alienated from his surroundings and what he felt was the cultural poverty of Trinidad. These feelings of displacement became a recurring theme in his later fiction and essays. While attending secondary school at Queens Royal College in Port of Spain, he was awarded a government scholarship to study abroad, which led him to University College, Oxford, in 1950. Since then, England has remained his principal home. After graduating with a B.A. from Oxford in 1953, Naipaul worked briefly in the cataloguing department of the National Portrait Gallery in London before taking a position with the British Broadcasting Corporation, writing and editing for the program Caribbean Voices. It was during this period that he began to write stories for what was eventually to become Miguel Street (1959). Naipaul spent much of the 1960s abroad, visiting India, a number of African nations, and his native Trinidad. These travels provided Naipaul with a wealth of material and served as the motivation for works such as The Middle Passage (1962) and An Area of Darkness (1964). By 1971, Naipaul had won all of Britain's leading literary awards, including the 1971 Booker Prize for In a Free State (1971). During the next few decades, Naipaul continued to travel for his literary inspiration and published several books that explored political, cultural, and social issues. In 2001 Naipaul received the Nobel Prize for Literature. He resides in London.
Naipaul's essays and nonfiction have been influenced heavily by his travels and his interest in colonial and postcolonial societies. The Middle Passage is written in the form of a travelogue or a record of impressions by an outsider and is the first of Naipaul's nonfiction books to examine the societies of developing countries. An Area of Darkness chronicles Naipaul's travels to India. His harsh portrayal of his ancestral homeland resulted in much controversy; critics accused him of possessing a rigid bias in favor of Western traditions and ideology—a charge that would follow him throughout his career. Naipaul's first collection of essays, The Return of Eva Perón; with The Killings in Trinidad (1980), drawn from his visits to Trinidad, Zaire, and Argentina, focuses on the dangers of charismatic political leadership. His book Among the Believers (1981) is based upon journeys in the Middle and Far East, in which he recounts his personal attempt to explain the “Islamic revival.” Its scathing portrait of civil and social disorder attributed to Islamic fanaticism in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia prompted some critics to accuse Naipaul of merely confirming preconceived notions about his subject rather than attempting a deeper analysis of Islam. His 1998 book Beyond Belief is considered a sequel to Among the Believers and reveals a deeper pessimism and disappointment in the state of religious and individual freedoms in Islamic societies. Naipaul's collection of letters, Between Father and Son (2000), reveals insights into his family life, particularly his relationship with his influential father. Naipaul's most recent essay collection, Literary Occasions (2003), includes his renowned Nobel Prize acceptance speech as well as essays about his life and work, writing, and other authors.
Naipaul's fictional works explore such themes as alienation, cultural displacement, the effects of poverty, sexual and political violence, and the insidious nature of religious fanaticism. Critics generally agree that his finest work is the autobiographical novel A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). Like Mr. Biswas, Naipaul's father was a Trinidadian journalist of Hindu extraction who frequently clashed with his wife's large, powerful Brahmin family and with the Indian community in Trinidad, yet managed to instill his abilities and journalistic aptitude in his son. The novel was praised for its humorous tone, vivid characterizations, and underlying pathos. The short novel and stories of the Booker Prize-winning In a Free State involve characters whose alienation stems from a loss of cultural identity. In A Bend in the River (1979), an Indian merchant unsuccessfully tries to establish himself in a newly independent African country. A Way in the World (1994) is a semiautobiographical collection of character sketches that are linked in some way to the Caribbean region. Half a Life (2001), a tale of an Indian immigrant living in Africa, explores issues of cultural and racial identity.
Naipaul is widely considered one of the finest authors of contemporary literature. Reviewers commend his narrative skill and command of language, especially dialect, and view his works as perspicacious, original, and highly readable. However, his negative appraisal of life in such countries as Iran, India, Trinidad, Indonesia, and Malaysia has met with a great deal of controversy. Critics charge Naipaul with favoring Western traditions and ideology and deem him reactionary, insensitive, snobbish, and even racist. It has been argued that this controversy often obscured his artistic achievements. Following Naipaul's receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, some critics contended that Naipaul's work has finally been recognized for his bold investigation of cultural, political, and religious issues. Others expressed reservations because they found his work too polemical, dismissive, and politically incorrect for such a prestigious award. Some critics have discussed the timing of the honor—just weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.—and place his views on Islam and the West within the context of these recent events. In this light, he is discussed as a political figure and commentator. Several critics have traced his maturation as a writer and have provided reassessments of Naipaul's work and contributions to world literature. Despite the controversy Naipaul has inspired, he is regarded as one of the world's most important and gifted writers.
The Mystic Masseur (novel) 1957
The Suffrage of Elvira (novel) 1958
Miguel Street (novel) 1959
A House for Mr. Biswas (novel) 1961
The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies—British, French and Dutch—in the West Indies and South America (nonfiction) 1962
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion (novel) 1963
An Area of Darkness: An Experience of India (nonfiction) 1964
The Mimic Men (novel) 1967
The Loss of El Dorado: A History (nonfiction) 1969
In a Free State (novel) 1971
The Overcrowded Barracoon and Other Articles (essays) 1972
Guerillas (novel) 1975
India: A Wounded Civilization (nonfiction) 1977
A Bend in the River (novel) 1979
The Return of Eva Perón; with The Killings in Trinidad (essays) 1980
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (nonfiction) 1981
Finding the Centre: Two Narratives (essays) 1984
The Enigma of Arrival (novel) 1987
A Turn in the South (nonfiction) 1989
India: A Million Mutinies Now (nonfiction) 1990
A Way in the World...
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SOURCE: Wise, Christopher. “The Garden Trampled: or, the Liquidation of African Culture in V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River.” College Literature 23, no. 3 (October 1996): 58-72.
[In the following essay, Wise contrasts the views of Chinua Achebe and Naipaul on the subject of modern African history and culture as evinced in Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Naipaul's A Bend in the River.]
Works of art can fully embody the promesse du bonheur only when they have been uprooted from their native soil and have set out along the path to their own destruction. Proust recognized this. This procedure which today relegates every work of art to the museum, even Picasso's most recent sculpture, is irreversible. It is not solely reprehensible, however, for it presages a situation in which art, having completed its estrangement from human ends, returns to life.
In the beginning it is like trampling on a garden. In the end you are just walking on ground. That is the way we have to learn to live now.
—Indar in Naipaul's A Bend in the River
The extent of Joseph Conrad's impact on both Chinua Achebe and V. S. Naipaul has been copiously documented by both literary critics and scholars,...
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SOURCE: Gilmour, David. “A Second Look at the Faithful.” Spectator 280, no. 8856 (2 May 1998): 30-1.
[In the following review, Gilmour considers Beyond Belief to be a sequel to Among the Believers, contending that Naipaul's approach in Beyond Belief is “patient, fastidious and skeptical, generally compassionate to individuals if not to the societies to which they belong.”]
Sir Vidia Naipaul doesn't like religions. He especially dislikes Islam, which he regards as a sterile faith imposed by Arab imperialism. And his lip really curls during his encounters with ‘fundos’, Muslim fundamentalists in Pakistan.
In 1979 he visited Iran, a few months after the fall of the Shah, and Pakistan, where President Zia was installed in incompetent tyranny. His consequent book, Among the Believers, which also recounted his journeys in Malaysia and Indonesia, described a religion which was negative, unregenerate and obsessed by purity and mediaeval punishment. Fundamentalism ‘pushed men to an unappeasable faith; it offered a political desert’. A pure and just society could be established by forbidding alcohol and usury, by chopping off hands, by forcing women to wear veils and banning them from appearing on television. The society of believers could be preserved if it returned to Koranic rules and defeated the conspiracies of its enemies. (In Iran these were the...
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SOURCE: Naipaul, V. S., Tarun Tejpal, and Jonathan Rosen. “V. S. Naipaul: The Art of Fiction CLIV.” Paris Review 40, no. 148 (fall 1998): 38-66.
[In the following interview, Naipaul discusses the central themes of A Way in the World, his background and ambitions, and his development as a writer.]
Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born on 17 August 1932 in Chaguanas, Trinidad, where his ancestors had emigrated from India—his maternal grandfather, at the turn of the century, had traveled from that country as an indentured servant.
Naipaul, in his essay “Prologue to an Autobiography” from Finding the Center, has written: “Half a writer's work … is the discovery of his subject. And a problem for me was that my life had been varied, full of upheavals and moves: from grandmother's Hindu house in the country, still close to the rituals and social ways of village India; to Port of Spain, the negro and G.I. life of its streets, the other, ordered life of my colonial English school, which is called Queen's Royal College, and then Oxford, London and the freelances' room at the BBC. Trying to make a beginning as a writer, I didn't know where to focus.”
After two failed attempts at novels and three months before his twenty-third birthday, Naipaul found his start in the childhood memory of a neighbor in Port of Spain. The memory provided the first...
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SOURCE: Jones, Stephanie. “The Politics and Poetics of Diaspora in V. S. Naipaul's A Way in the World.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 35, no. 1 (2000): 87-97.
[In the following essay, Jones offers a stylistic analysis of A Way in the World, maintaining that its structural tension can be resolved “in a heavier scrutiny of the politics of diaspora bound with a fraught diasporic poetics.”]
Most of us know the parents or grandparents we come from. But we go back and back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings. … We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves …1
In the Minerva edition of A Way in the World, the text is subtitled “A Sequence”.2 This terminology implies something more ambiguous than either “a history” or “a novel” or “an autobiography”. It highlights the book's fusion—or corruption—of these given genres, and points up the way the text confuses their established relative associations with hard definitions of fact and fiction. “A sequence” also implies something both more and less fragmented than either “a history” or “a novel” or “an autobiography”. The term suggests a number of separate, internally coherent...
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SOURCE: Mishra, Pankaj. “The House of Mr. Naipaul.” New York Review of Books (20 January 2000): 14-17.
[In the following review, Mishra explores the major thematic concerns of the family letters collected in Between Father and Son and provides a biographical account of Naipaul's early life, particularly his relationship with his father.]
In an essay called “Prologue to an Autobiography,” V. S. Naipaul tells a story about Indian immigrants in Trinidad. These immigrants had wanted to escape the general dereliction of late-nineteenth-century North India, and they had gone out to another British colony, Trinidad, to work there as indentured laborers. Many of them would have been attracted by the promise of a small grant of land after the end of their contract, or a free return trip to India with their families. But the promise had been fitfully redeemed by the colonial administration; and there were destitute and homeless. Indians everywhere in Trinidad, people without land, or hope of returning to India.
Then, in 1931, a ship called the SS Ganges took a thousand Indians back to India. It returned the next year, and could take only a thousand among the many more who wanted to go. But when the SS Ganges reached, on this second trip, the port of Calcutta, it was stormed by hundreds of immigrants it had brought on the first trip—immigrants who now wanted to go...
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SOURCE: Shankar, S. “Naipaul Writes Home.” Nation 270, no. 8 (28 February 2000): 23-6.
[In the following review, Shankar commends Between Father and Son for the insight it provides into Naipaul's personality and family life and asserts that the collection “is a revelation when it comes to the narrative possibilities in the compilation of letters.”]
Many years ago, when I was about the age that V. S. Naipaul was when he departed Trinidad for England, I would borrow books by him from the library of an erstwhile colonial club in Kuala Lumpur. In a building constructed during the time of the British, A House for Mr. Biswas sat on a shelf whose other books were mostly by writers like Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling. Thinking back now, it seems to me both incongruous and fitting that Naipaul—to the best of my recollection pretty much the only writer not European or North American—should be in such company in such a place. Naipaul's most recent book, Between Father and Son, a collection of family letters from the years leading up to the time of his earliest published works, continues to add to this paradox of his life's work.
Reflecting on the time in which these letters were written, Naipaul wrote many years ago in “Prologue to an Autobiography” that the “career” of a writer wasn't possible in Trinidad. So he had to leave where he was born and...
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SOURCE: Epstein, Joseph. “Father Knows Best.” New Criterion 18, no. 7 (March 2000): 58-62.
[In the following review, Epstein explores Naipaul's relationship with his father as found in the letters collected in Between Father and Son.]
Despite the implications of the marital misadventures of a certain gentleman from Thebes, a fellow who wed with all too little forethought, there is not much evidence that a mother exerts a more telling influence over a son than a father. Just as often—I would guess more often—the father is the more significant figure, for good and ill. Having a father who is benevolent or unjust, honorable or corrupt, cheerful or grim, a success or a failure in life, can, along with so many other things, weigh in heavily on the outlook, the ambition, the confidence, and the ultimate fate of a son. The kind of father one gets, of course, comes under that large and scientifically untrackable category known as the luck of the draw.
V. S. Naipaul, in this regard, drew very luckily indeed. His father, Seepersad Naipaul (1906-53), a man of the most modest worldly success, was entirely honorable, generous, selfless, and filled with good sense, for his son if not always for himself. No man ever had anyone more devoted in his corner than Naipaul had in the man he called Pa. When his father died, at the age of forty-seven, V. S. Naipaul, himself only twenty-one, sent home a...
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SOURCE: Samantrai, Ranu. “Claiming the Burden: Naipaul's Africa.” Research in African Literatures 31, no. 1 (spring 2000): 50-62.
[In the following essay, Samantrai examines the function of imperialistic discourse in A Bend in the River and describes the novel as “a fictional documentation of the political shift from colonial to postcolonial Africa.”]
In his work on the epistemology of the anthropological endeavor, Johannes Fabian argues that the “West” constructs its relationship with “the Rest” (28) through a notion of time that affirms “difference as distance” (16). Fabian is concerned primarily with the notion of modernity, the trope through which the West locates itself and constructs the difference of its racial and cultural others. Inherent in his “Politics of Time,” however, is a politics of sexuality that, in addition to creating a teleological history for the triumph of the normative Western subject, also posits a specifically gendered location for the Rest. The epistemology Fabian describes is identical to that which informs the neocolonial vision of V. S. Naipaul, perhaps the most widely read contemporary apologist for European colonialism.
To locate his own writing, Naipaul declares, “I do not write for Indians, who in any case do not read. My work is only possible in a liberal, civilized country. It is not possible in primitive...
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SOURCE: Idris, Farhad B. “The Native Returns: Conrad and Orientalism in V. S. Naipaul's An Area of Darkness.” South Carolina Review 32, no. 2 (spring 2000): 43-53.
[In the following essay, Idris investigates the influence of Joseph Conrad on An Area of Darkness.]
An Area of Darkness is the account of V. S. Naipaul's first visit to India. Born in a Trinidad Indian community, Naipaul went to England at the age of eighteen, in 1950, on a government scholarship to study at Oxford. After graduation and stints at a cement company and the BBC, he succeeded in realizing his old ambition—a writing career. By the time Naipaul got to India, in 1962 at the age of thirty, he had established himself as a writer and had to his credit six books, including the masterpiece A House for Mr. Biswas.1 The last of these, Middle Passage, is a travel book about the Caribbean islands. In it, Naipaul discovered his true talent: writing about decolonized third-world countries. He honed a special vision for the task—an X-ray gaze into the ills of these newly emerging societies. Passage, the first in the genre, sets the general pattern Naipaul's travel writing was to follow. Indeed, readers familiar with Passage have a distinct premonition what to expect in Darkness. The two books are alike in many ways but also dissimilar in that Naipaul uses two different criteria...
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SOURCE: Greenberg, Robert M. “Anger and the Alchemy of Literary Method in V. S. Naipaul's Political Fiction: The Case of The Mimic Men.” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 2 (summer 2000): 214-37.
[In the following essay, Greenberg considers the impact of Naipaul's racial attitudes and pessimism on his novel The Mimic Men.]
V. S. Naipaul's fiction and nonfiction since the 1960s have reflected an unenthusiastic view of postcolonial nationalism and nation building. He has had difficulty believing in the ability of new nations in Africa and the Caribbean to raise themselves to a condition of economic autonomy and cultural authenticity. He has also been against a political rhetoric and agenda that calls for breaking cultural ties with European nations.1 Instead, political skepticism, Western cultural conservatism, and realist and modernist aesthetics have determined the selection and treatment of subjects in Naipaul's writing. These approaches have caused postcolonial intellectuals to complain about his lack of interest in local culture2 and to grumble about his choice of material—such as Mobutu Sese Seko's reign in the Congo and the Michael de Freitas trial in Trinidad—that reflects pessimistically on politics, revolution, and the prospects of national renewal.
Naipaul, however, is probably the most honored living author in the British literary world....
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SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of Between Father and Son, by V. S. Naipaul. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 575-76.
[In the following review, King finds what he calls unexpected details included in the letters of Between Father and Son.]
The letters gathered in Between Father and Son are mostly between V. S. Naipaul, his older sister Kamla, and their father Seepersad Naipaul. The mother seldom writes and seems an outsider to their interests in writing, culture, and becoming independent from her wealthy but insulting family. In one of the last letters before his death, Seepersad remarks that he and his wife have never grown close. The other five children are younger, and a major theme of the letters is the conflict between devoting oneself to a future career, especially as a writer, and helping others in the family gain an education. This was a time in the British colonies when there was little public education and the way up the economic and social ladder was to earn a scholarship to one of a few elite schools, and then for the very few to win a scholarship to study abroad.
When the volume begins, Vidia has left for Oxford University, where he will study English, and Kamla is already at Benares Hindu University taking courses in Indian culture. They are both brilliant scholarship students but lonely, isolated, unaccustomed to life outside their extended...
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SOURCE: Wood, James. “Saving Vidia.” New Statesman (1 October 2001): 79-80.
[In the following review, Wood applauds Half a Life,finding it intelligent and complex.]
It is a delight, after the spilt “fury” of Salman Rushdie's latest assemblage, to savour the furious control of V S Naipaul's new novel. Here, anger is measured in sips, and compassion, of which there is more than might be expected in one of Naipaul's late works, is subtly rationed. Half a Life confirms Naipaul's stature as the greatest living analyst of the colonial and post-colonial dilemma; and those who have never approved of that analysis, and have objected over the years to what they see as Naipaul's fatalism, snobbery or even racism, may find in this book the surprise of a submerged radicalism, a willingness to see things from the eyes of the disadvantaged. At times, the lion does indeed consent to lie down with the underdog.
In the simplest possible prose, in sentences dried down to pure duty, this novel unfolds its compelling story. One day, young Willie Chandran asks his father about his curious middle name. In the course of providing an explanation, the father tells Willie his life story. The son of a successful clerk and proud Brahmin, Willie's father deliberately ruined his chances of betterment by deciding, in the spirit of Gandhi (it was the 1930s), that he should abandon his college...
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SOURCE: Marnham, Patrick. “An Innocent, but Not at Home.” Spectator 287, no. 9035 (6 October 2001): 69-70.
[In the following review, Marnham describes Half a Life as a novel but also as a topical book on contemporary political and cultural issues.]
Willie Chandran, from a family of temple priests, grows up in a maharajah's state in the last days of the Raj. Mocked at school because his middle name is ‘Somerset’, he discovers that he was named after a great English writer who had a stammer and who once visited his father while travelling to gather material for a book about spirituality. His father had quarrelled with his own family by marrying Willie's mother, an ill-favoured and sarcastic woman of low caste. Subsequently this father abandoned all chance of a future as an engineer or doctor; he ‘gave up education and unfitted himself for life’. Instead he became a holy man, taking a vow of silence and living by begging in an ashram.
Willie Chandran's childhood is spent in genteel poverty on the fringe of the maharajah's court. But he has hopes of future distinction since he is raised in the shade of the revered Mr Maugham. As Gandhi's ‘civil disobedience’ spreads through the Raj, Willie's childhood world becomes increasingly confused, his father's certainties dissolve and British rule collapses. Willie's view of India becomes misty and uncertain, like that of a...
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SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “A Perfectly Targeted Prize.” Spectator 287, no. 9037 (20 October 2001): 44-5.
[In the following review, Hensher assesses Naipaul's literary achievements and deems him “a supremely deserving Nobel laureate.”]
The best aspect of V. S. Naipaul's Nobel Prize is that, for once, the prize has not been influenced by any political considerations, and can only be taken as an acknowledgment of a great literary master. If ever there was a moment when external considerations might have discouraged the Nobel committee from rewarding the author of Among the Believers, that magnificently disdainful journey through Islam, this is it. They have, admirably, not taken that into account, and nobody can doubt that, for once, here is an author who is being rewarded for the only thing that matters, the quality of his work. He is a supremely deserving Nobel laureate.
In recent years, rows over his always audacious public pronouncements and, alas, title-tattle about his private life have proliferated alarmingly, to the point that the reviews of Half a Life, his brilliant new novel, hardly seemed to engage with the book at all. In an age when fame can be based on nothing at all, it sometimes seems difficult to remember that Naipaul's claim on our attention is not founded on throwaway remarks or a private life of which, despite extensive and unpleasant scrutiny, we...
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SOURCE: Siegel, Lee. “The Riddle of Identity: Preserving the Idea of Freedom Despite the Weight of History.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 October 2001): 4.
[In the following review, Siegel judges Half a Life as the artistic interpretation of Naipaul's preoccupation, in his nonfiction, with the reality of poverty.]
V. S. Naipaul hates poverty. He hates the miserable material and intellectual conditions he encountered in his travels to Islamic countries; he hates the sordidness of Third World regimes. He is less interested in the suffering imposed by colonialism, which he knows and acknowledges, than he is in the suffering that he observes in the urgent present.
For Naipaul's critics, however, it is rank snobbery merely to record the degradations of poverty or to register one's disgust at poverty. Rather, one must uncover the long history, often the long colonial history, that produced such conditions. Rewriting the standard, deceitful version of this history will set the record straight. Dwelling on the repellent condition of the poor alone perpetuates the great historical lie of the lower classes predestined to their doom. Better to tell a littler lie about the history-beleaguered poor and their virtue and modest heroism.
Yet Naipaul's repulsion at squalor in the present moment implies that life could be different, just as his critics' deep...
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SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. Review of Half a Life, by V. S. Naipaul. Washington Post Book World (21 October 2001): 2.
[In the following positive review, Yardley delineates the key thematic concerns of Half a Life.]
V. S. Naipaul marks his rise to Nobel laureate, however accidentally, with a strange new novel [Half a Life] that is at once of a piece with and apart from most of his previous work. On the one hand it is a continuation of his preoccupation with the innumerable questions raised by cultural and racial identity; on the other hand its spare, melancholy, elusive, somewhat heavily ironic tone contrasts with the more animated quality of his best fiction (A House for Mr. Biswas, for example), and the graphic sex with which its final sections are filled is a stark departure from his almost priggish treatment of the subject previously.
The heart of the novel can be found in a brief scene three-quarters of the way through. At a rough restaurant on the coast of the African nation where he is living, Willie Chandran encounters a “big light-eyed man” who is being abused by his Portuguese boss as he goes about his work as a tiler. Afterward Willie's lover, Ana, herself part Portuguese and part African, tells him that the tiler is illegitimate, with an African mother and an important Portuguese landowner for a father. “The rich Portuguese put their illegitimate...
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SOURCE: Mehta, Diane. Review of Half a Life, by V. S. Naipaul. Atlantic Monthly 288, no. 4 (November 2001): 144-45.
[In the following review, Mehta offers a mixed assessment of Half a Life.]
“You can keep your socks on,” a prostitute instructs the raw Willie Chandran, an Indian immigrant and the protagonist of V. S. Naipaul's first work of fiction [Half a Life] in seven years. Half Brahmin, half Untouchable, Willie arrives in London in the late 1950s, and immediately immerses himself in that era's “bohemian-immigrant life,” which for him includes sleeping with his friends' girlfriends or with prostitutes. In the first half of this novel the parallels between Willie's life and that of his creator are unmistakable: An aspiring writer from the imperial hinterlands journeys to London and gets involved with literary types, most of whom turn out to be self-aggrandizing schemers and fakirs. His initial attempts to publish his stories are curtly rebuffed: “India,” he's told, “isn't really a subject.” Ultimately, though, he places his work with a small Marxist press—at which point his life deviates dramatically from Naipaul's.
Having engaged in a surreptitious and brutal sex life, Willie bumbles along passively and marries the first woman who admires his writing. He then follows her—a mixed-race Portuguese-African—to her estate in one of Portugal's East...
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SOURCE: Coetzee, J. M. “The Razor's Edge.” New York Review of Books (1 November 2001): 8-10.
[In the following review, Coetzee provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Half a Life.]
In later life the English writer W. Somerset Maugham developed an interest in Indian spirituality. He visited India in 1938, and in Madras was taken to an ashram to meet a man who, born Venkataraman, had retreated to a life of silence, self-mortification, and prayer, and was now known simply as the Maharshi.
While waiting for his audience, Maugham fainted, perhaps because of the heat. When he came to, he found he could not speak (it must be mentioned that Maugham was a lifelong stammerer). The Maharshi comforted him by pronouncing that “silence also is conversation.”
News of the fainting fit, according to Maugham, soon spread across India: through the power of the Maharshi, it was said, the pilgrim had been translated into the realm of the infinite. Though Maugham had no recollection of visiting the infinite, the event left its mark on him: he describes it in A Writer's Notebook (1949) and again in Points of View (1958): he also works it into The Razor's Edge (1944), the novel that made his name in the United States.
The Razor's Edge tells the story of an American who, having prepared himself by acquiring a deep tan and donning...
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SOURCE: Thieme, John. “Naipaul's Nobel.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37, no. 1 (2002): 1-7.
[In the following essay, Thieme finds it surprising that Naipaul was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature.]
Perhaps it shouldn't have done, but in many ways it came as something of a surprise to hear that V. S. Naipaul had won the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. His name had first been mentioned in connection with the Prize at least three decades before, at a time when his reputation was riding high with both the British literary establishment and in academic circles; and the succession of accolades that had been showered on him in the U.K. had culminated in the award of the Booker for In a Free State in 1971. At that time it seemed likely that, given the political rotations that appeared to characterize the award of the Nobel, there might be well be a Caribbean winner and, if so, then surely Naipaul was a front runner. Then came the rumours that he had been short-listed, but rejected on the grounds that his work lacked insufficient humanitarian concern. They may have been unfounded, but the word was that the Nobel jury had been more sympathetic to the claims of Wilson Harris. There could be little doubt as to his humanitarian concern, but Harris, like Naipaul, was also to remain a bridesmaid in the ensuing years, allegedly nominated on several occasions but never finally...
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SOURCE: Beck, Ervin. “Naipaul's ‘B. Wordsworth.’” Explicator 60, no. 3 (spring 2002): 175-76.
[In the following essay, Beck asserts that the short story “B. Wordsworth” shows how Naipaul dealt with having a British literary canon thrust upon him and his reactions to it, and his development of a calypso-influenced, Trinidadian form.]
V. S. Naipaul's novel The Mimic Men (1967) is probably the best known and most complex handling of the postcolonial literary trope of “mimicry” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin) in Caribbean literature. The short story about Black Wordsworth in Miguel Street (1959), the first book Naipaul actually wrote (c. 1955), is also his first explicit handling of the problem of literary mimicry—that is, the colonized subject responding to the English literary canon thrust upon him by colonial education and an imposed foreign culture. “B. Wordsworth” not only depicts the condition that Naipaul personally reacted to in his own experience, but in the context of the whole of Miguel Street it also shows how Naipaul overcame the problem of British precedent and indigenized English fiction writing by using a calypso-influenced, Trinidadian form.
The most obvious mimicry in the story, of course, is the name of the Port-of-Spain poet “Black Wordsworth,” which cannot be his christened name but is the result of his self-naming. The...
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SOURCE: Morris, Mervyn. “Sir Vidia and the Prize.” World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 11-14.
[In the following essay, Morris discusses the mixed reaction to Naipaul's 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature and traces the author's attitude toward Trinidad in his writings.]
V. S. Naipaul has published novels, short stories, autobiography, letters,1 travel books, enquiries into history and politics, critical essays, personal essays, and innovative combinations of these forms. “My aim every time,” he says in his Nobel Lecture, “was [to] do a book, to create something that would be easy and interesting to read.” There is worldwide consensus that this has been achieved. It is generally acknowledged that the man writes very well.
Not everyone admires Naipaul, however. There are some formidable, well-known names among the readers who have expressed serious reservations. Baldly summarized, their main complaints are that much of Naipaul's work displays a lack of ordinary human sympathy, that with insufficient knowledge he has written overconfidently about various societies and cultures, and that his writing privileges Europe while tending to be contemptuous of Europe's colonial victims.
Caribbean admirers of Naipaul are said to overvalue his (merely) technical skills, and to be not concerned enough about the negative implications of his work. Many of...
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SOURCE: Leavis, L. R. “Travelling Through Colonialism and Postcolonialism: V. S. Naipaul's A Way in the World.” English Studies 83, no. 2 (April 2002): 136-48.
[In the following essay, Leavis praises A Way in the World, judging the work as a culmination of genres and interests, and as a combination of travel narrative, biography, ideas about oppression and the oppressed, and historical research.]
Before coming to a key work by a writer who has been publishing since the late fifties, I wish to stitch together from various materials an impression of the context in which his art can be seen (inevitably from an English point of view—but then, from what he has recently written, Naipaul still seems to care about England).1
In his autobiographical essay, Reading and Writing: A Personal Account (New York, 2000), V. S. Naipaul in a particularly arresting paragraph recalls the pressures that drove him at a stage in his life into writing his travel books:
Fiction had taken me as far as it could go. There were certain things it couldn't deal with. It couldn't deal with my years in England; there was no social depth to the experience; it seemed more a matter for autobiography. And it couldn't deal with my growing knowledge of the wider world. Fiction, by its nature, functioning best within certain fixed social boundaries, seemed...
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SOURCE: Packer, George. “V. S. Naipaul's Pursuit of Happiness.” Dissent (summer 2002): 85-9.
[In the following essay, Packer traces Naipaul's literary development.]
In October 1953, V. S. Naipaul's father died in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He died in disappointment and misery. He had been waiting to see his son, who was finishing a degree at Oxford, and waiting for his own book of stories to find a publisher. All his life he had struggled to be more than a journalist for the Trinidad Guardian—to be a writer. V. S. Naipaul had not so much been handed this ambition as become its living extension. “I had always looked upon my life as a continuation of his—a continuation which, I hoped, would also be a fulfillment.” To read the letters published recently in Between Father and Son is to see where Naipaul got the spareness of his style, right down to the semi-colons.
Naipaul's mother and older sister pleaded with him to come home to Trinidad and take up his family duty. Before his death, his father had asked the same thing, and Naipaul had written from Oxford: “If I did so, I shall die from intellectual starvation.” With his father dead, the pressure to return became intense. “Our family was in distress. I should have done something for them, gone back to them. But, without having become a writer, I couldn't go back.” And so for three years Naipaul put his...
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SOURCE: Bawer, Bruce. “Civilization and V. S. Naipaul.” Hudson Review 55, no. 3 (autumn 2002): 371-84.
[In the following essay, Bawer offers an overview of Naipaul's literary oeuvre and judges the author an ardent and eloquent defender of civilization.]
Last December, on the day after being presented with the Nobel Prize for Literature, V. S. Naipaul sat down in Stockholm for a televised conversation with three fellow literary laureates, Günter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, and Seamus Heaney, and with Per Wästberg, a member of the Swedish Academy. One might have expected that the topic under discussion would be writing and literature, but the Nobelists soon turned to politics. Naipaul, alone in resisting this direction, protested that he is not political: he just writes about people. “Perhaps that's too frivolous,” he suggested slyly. Gordimer, perhaps failing to understand that there was more than a little irony in the air, and that in Naipaul's view writing about people, far from being frivolous, is in fact precisely what a serious writer does, was quick to challenge his self-characterization, insisting: “Your very existence as a boy living under colonial rule in Trinidad was political!”
This was, needless to say, meant as praise. To many members of the literary (and academic) establishment, after all, colonialism is the paramount literary theme and political issue of our...
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SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of Half a Life, by V. S. Naipaul. World Literature Today 77, no. 1 (April-June 2003): 90.
[In the following review, King provides a favorable assessment of Half a Life.]
V. S. Naipaul's new novel, Half a Life, tells of someone like the author but his opposite, someone who does not know what he wants to do, who wastes his opportunities, who drifts, never takes root, never builds a house, never becomes morally or financially independent. He does many of the things Naipaul has done, such as go to England for further education, write for the BBC, write a book of short stories, travel to Africa, but each parallel ends with flight revealing lack of purpose. Having fled from Africa, Willie Chandran laments, “I am forty-one, in middle life … I have risked nothing. And now the best part of my life is over”; at the conclusion, before leaving for Berlin, Willie tells his wife, “The best part of my life has gone, and I done nothing.”
Is Willie right? He has traveled from India to England, Africa, and Germany. By the standards of most people, he has had a remarkably full life by the age of forty-one, but is a life of action good? Throughout the novel the value of political action and of political gestures are called into doubt. Ideas of revolutionary justice, liberation, and egalitarianism seem inevitably to lead to “the Pol Pot position” of...
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SOURCE: Eagleton, Terry. “A Mind So Fine: The Contradictions of V. S. Naipaul.” Harper's Magazine 307, no. 1840 (September 2003): 79-84.
[In the following review, Eagleton places Naipaul within the context of other English literary emigrés and contends that the essays and speeches collected in Literary Occasions chart “the extraordinary spiral of displacements that make up Naipaul's career.”]
Arriving at Oxford University from a down-at-heel family in Trinidad, the eighteen-year-old V. S. Naipaul wrote: “Gone are the days of the aristocrats. Nearly everyone comes to Oxford on a state grant. The standard of the place naturally goes down.” It was as though Dick Cheney were to complain that there were too few Trotskyists in his golf club. My own entry into the dreaming spires, a decade or so later, was unfortunate for just the opposite reason: the place was positively swarming with patricians, almost all of whom seemed to be called Nigel. Towering in stature as a result of generations of fine breeding, they brayed rather than spoke, elbowed the townspeople off the thin medieval pavements, and joked about letting loose their hounds on “oiks” (working-class undergraduates) like myself. As a stunted North-of-England plebeian, I found myself ducking servilely between their legs like Gulliver in Brobdingnag. It was the kind of place in which one would as soon have worn a pink tutu as...
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Athill, Diana. “Editing Vidia.” Granta 69 (spring 2000): 179-204.
Athill recalls her experiences as Naipaul's literary editor from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.
Foster, Kevin. “‘A Country Dying on Its Feet’: Argentina and Britain.” Modern Fiction Studies 48, no. 1 (spring 2002): 169-93.
Judges the influence of Naipaul's essays on Argentina on British and American perceptions of that country.
Gorra, Michael. “V. S. Naipaul: In His Father's House.” In After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie, pp. 62-110. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Analyzes themes of colonialism and postcolonialism in Naipaul's writing.
Wheatcroft, Geoffrey. “A Terrifying Honesty.” Atlantic Monthly 289, no. 2 (February 2002): 88-92.
Considers the political implications of Naipaul's 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Additional coverage of Naipaul's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1960 to Present; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols....
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