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...
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