V. S. Naipaul Essay - Naipaul, V. S. (Vol. 199)

Naipaul, V. S. (Vol. 199)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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 (novel) 1994

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (nonfiction) 1998

Between Father and Son: Selected Correspondence of V. S. Naipaul and His Family, 1949-1953 (letters) 2000

Reading and Writing: A Personal Account (nonfiction) 2000

Half a Life (novel) 2001

The Writer and the World (essays) 2002

Literary Occasions: Essays (essays) 2003

Criticism

Christopher Wise (essay date October 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 7113 words.)

David Gilmour (review date 2 May 1998)

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...

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V. S. Naipaul, Tarun Tejpal, and Jonathan Rosen (interview date fall 1998)

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:...

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Stephanie Jones (essay date 2000)

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...

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Pankaj Mishra (review date 20 January 2000)

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...

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S. Shankar (review date 28 February 2000)

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...

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Joseph Epstein (review date March 2000)

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...

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Ranu Samantrai (essay date spring 2000)

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...

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Farhad B. Idris (essay date spring 2000)

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...

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Robert M. Greenberg (essay date summer 2000)

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...

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Bruce King (review date summer 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

James Wood (review date 1 October 2001)

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...

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Patrick Marnham (review date 6 October 2001)

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...

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Philip Hensher (review date 20 October 2001)

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,...

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Lee Siegel (review date 21 October 2001)

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...

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Jonathan Yardley (review date 21 October 2001)

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...

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Diane Mehta (review date November 2001)

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...

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J. M. Coetzee (review date 1 November 2001)

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...

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John Thieme (essay date 2002)

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...

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Ervin Beck (essay date spring 2002)

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....

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Mervyn Morris (essay date spring 2002)

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...

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L. R. Leavis (essay date April 2002)

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...

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George Packer (essay date summer 2002)

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...

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Bruce Bawer (essay date autumn 2002)

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...

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Bruce King (review date April-June 2003)

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...

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Terry Eagleton (review date September 2003)

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...

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