V. S. Naipaul Additional 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...

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(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.


(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...

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(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 Life, Naipaul seems to have abandoned hope for humanity. However, taken as a whole, his works provide such valuable insights into postcolonial societies that they may well make constructive change possible.