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.