V. S. Naipaul Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (ni-POHL), born in Chaguanas, Trinidad, on August 17, 1932, has the peculiar vision of a man who is a product of three cultures: those of India, Trinidad, and Great Britain. His grandfather had come from India to Trinidad as an indentured laborer; one may see from Naipaul’s earlier novels, and particularly in A House for Mr. Biswas, how pervasive and tenacious the Indian culture remained among the many Indian immigrants to the Caribbean.

Naipaul completed his early education in Port of Spain, Trinidad. After working briefly as a schoolmaster at his old school and as a clerk in the Port of Spain Registrar’s Department, he left Trinidad for England on August 2, 1950, to attend University College, Oxford. On a Trinidad government scholarship, he studied literature and planned to become a writer. When his father died in 1953, Naipaul did not return home, but stayed in England to finish his degree. After graduating from Oxford in 1954, he worked briefly in the cataloging department of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Except for a few weeks writing advertising copy in 1957, this would be his last nonliterary job.

Although Naipaul traveled widely, London remained his home of choice. From 1954 to 1955, he worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Caribbean Service, presenting the weekly literary program Caribbean Voices. In 1955, he married Patricia Ann Hale. In 1960, he toured the West Indies on a three-month scholarship from the Trinidad and Tobago government; in 1962, he took a year-long tour of India and in 1966 traveled to the Caribbean and the United States to begin an extensive study of Trinidad’s history. He returned to England in 1970.

Self-imposed exile became a major theme in Naipaul’s writing, yet his earliest novels deal primarily with the multiethnic character of Trinidad and the doings of its inhabitants. Miguel Street, published in 1959, touches on the themes that would be fully realized in his later novels. These themes are presented in a series of vignettes set in a slum street in Port of Spain. The narrator, a street boy, comments on the various characters. Generally, the Trinidadian society that Naipaul presents in his earlier novels is one marked by lassitude in conflict with ambition, corruption, and the inevitable failure of hope in such a milieu. The major characters of The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira rise in politics through the ignorance, superstition, and greed of the society; any integrity with which they begin is lost in this environment.

A more optimistic tone, relatively speaking, is evident in Naipaul’s first major novel, A House for Mr. Biswas. This epic novel, which covers the progress of three generations of West Indian Hindus, begins with a description of Biswas’s house, a badly built, inelegant structure, and then explains how Biswas acquired it. By the end of the novel, the reader sees the house the way Biswas sees it: as the symbol of a triumph over a society...

(The entire section is 1252 words.)

V. S. Naipaul Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, a third-generation West Indian of East Indian ancestry, was born in Lion House (reincarnated as Hanuman House in his fourth novel, A House for Mr. Biswas) into a Hindu Brahman family in Chaguanas, Trinidad, on August 17, 1932. He grew up in a large Indian joint family with a brother, five sisters, and more than fifty cousins (author Neil Bissoondath is his nephew). Naipaul has called his family “a microcosm of the authoritarian state,” with power struggles and the seamy side of human behavior.

Naipaul’s father, Seepersad Naipaul, a correspondent for the Trinidad Guardian and an avid Charles Dickens fan, wrote Gurudeva, and Other Indian Tales (1943, 1946), a collection of short stories that Naipaul used as a model to discover what he calls “the trick of writing.” Naipaul captures his tender affection for his father in the father-son relationship in his first major novel, A House for Mr. Biswas. Even so, Naipaul, speaking about his Trinidad childhood in a 1972 interview, described his father as “a defeated man” who, like Mr. Biswas, felt alienated from the family hierarchy and solaced himself with “easy contempt.” His mother’s side of the family was prominent in Trinidadian society; his father’s was not.

Naipaul spent two years at Chaguanas Government School, a school his father had attended twenty years earlier, when it was the Canadian Mission School. In 1938, when his father was transferred to the capital city, Port-of-Spain, Naipaul transferred to Tranquillity Boys’ School, where he distinguished himself and thus won a free place at the prestigious Queens Royal College, a secondary school, where he studied for six years, specializing in French and English; the school has featured in three of Naipaul’s novels. In 1948, Naipaul wrote an article for the Queens Royal College Chronicle on the origins of W. Somerset Maugham’s novelistic skill and Maugham’s study of slum life in his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897); Naipaul later tackled Trinidadian slum life in his third novel, Miguel Street.

Naipaul longed to leave Trinidad, and he did so at age seventeen, when he entered Oxford University’s University College in 1950. Although his studies were uninspiring, his biggest nightmare was of returning to Trinidad. While he was at Oxford, his father died. After graduating in 1955 with a second-class degree in English, Naipaul married fellow student Patricia Ann Hale and settled in London; he had a number of extramarital affairs, including one with Margaret Gooding that lasted twenty-four years. In 1957, he published his first novel, The Mystic Masseur, for which he received the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1958.

Naipaul served as editor of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Caribbean Voices program and as fiction reviewer on the staff of the New Statesman until 1961, reviewing perhaps sixty-one novels during his tenure. He thought so little of these reviews that he included none of them in The Overcrowded Barracoon, and Other Articles (1972), a...

(The entire section is 1290 words.)

V. S. Naipaul Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Viewing V. S. Naipaul’s writing retrospectively, one can find in it a three-part pattern that suggests an orderly, seemingly calculated development, although the author did not plan this development in advance. Naipaul’s first three novels deal in ironic ways with the struggles of a Trinidad adjusting to its newly achieved independent status. These novels portray the foolishness and absurdity of Trinidad society as Naipaul, the observer, perceives it.

In A House for Mr. Biswas, the fourth book, Naipaul becomes more psychological in his approach and develops the novel by focusing on character rather than on external political events. Mr. Biswas yearns, in his desire to build a house, to make visible a personal identity that he must, for his own security, establish. Finally, in his later work, such as India: A Wounded Civilization and Among the Believers, Naipaul deals with the world outside Trinidad, exploring quests for identity by people who, like Naipaul himself, have left the island and ventured into other parts of the world.

Naipaul’s personal and artistic quest has been to discover his lost identity and the identities of the countries and people about whom he writes. Born in the West Indies to Hindu parents newly arrived from northern India, a teenage Naipaul left Trinidad for postwar Britain, where he was awarded a bachelor’s degree at University College, Oxford, in 1954.

Throughout his life, Naipaul, driven by the sense of his own rootlessness, has sought to discover where he belongs. Indian by ancestry, he is by no means Indian. He has asserted the impossibility of reclaiming his Indian roots in such books as his nonfiction India: A Wounded Civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now. Among the Believers is Naipaul’s nonfiction account of the life, culture, and affairs of the world of Islam. Naipaul writes of his travels to the nations of Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, countries whose effects, through immigration and political struggle, on North America have markedly increased in the late twentieth century.

Being of Indian ancestry yet being a Trinidadian, Naipaul never considered himself an integral part of Trinidad society. Finding no identity during his years in England or in his other ventures abroad, he continues to pursue his own identity. His body of work is a testimony to that effort.

V. S. Naipaul Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (NI-pawl) was born in Chaguanas, Trinidad and Tobago, on August 17, 1932, of Hindu parents whose forebears had emigrated from India. Vidiadhar’s father, Seepersad Naipaul, was reared in poverty because of the early death of his own father. After completing his education, however, Seepersad married into a large, powerful Brahman family. At the time of Vidiadhar’s birth, Seepersad was staff correspondent for the Trinidad Guardian, reporting on events in the small town of Chaguanas. There he and his wife lived, along with dozens of relatives, all crowded into the large family home and dominated by his wife’s mother. Two years after Vidiadhar’s birth, when the crusading managing editor of...

(The entire section is 1010 words.)

V. S. Naipaul Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although he must be admired for his skill in plotting and characterization and for the beauty of his language, V. S. Naipaul is perhaps most important because he addresses the most difficult problem of modern humanity—the sense of alienation. Even in the early comic novels, Naipaul suggests how deeply his characters fear being expelled from the cultural groups that give them a sense of identity. Most of his later works take a grimly realistic look at the Third World, where political and social change has deprived people of their identities, leaving them isolated in chaotic, corrupt societies, where desperation too often leads them into fanaticism and mindless violence. In Magic Seeds (2004), the sequel to Half a...

(The entire section is 148 words.)