(Sir) V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) Naipaul Biography
V.S. Naipaul comments:
Nationality: Trinidadian. Born: Trinidad, 1932; brother of the writer Shiva Naipaul. Education: Tranquillity Boys School, 1939-42; Queen's Royal College, Port of Spain, Trinidad, 1943-49; University College, Oxford, 1950-54, B.A. (honors) in English 1953. Career: Editor, "Caribbean Voices," BBC, London, 1954-56; fiction reviewer, New Statesman, London, 1957-61; contributor to New York Review of Books, New Statesman, and other periodicals. Awards: Rhys Memorial prize, 1958; Maugham award 1961; Phoenix Trust award, 1962; Hawthornden prize, 1964; W.H. Smith literary award, 1968; Arts Council grant, 1969; Booker prize, 1971; Bennett award (Hudson Review), 1980; Jerusalem prize, 1983; T.S. Eliot award, 1986; Trinity Cross (Trinidad), 1989; James Tod Award, Maharana Mewar Foundation (India), 2000. D. Litt.: University of the West Indies, Trinidad, 1975; St. Andrews University, Fife, Scotland, 1979; Columbia University, New York, 1981; Cambridge University, 1983; London University, 1988; Oxford University, 1992. Honorary fellow, University College, Oxford, 1983. Knighted, 1990. Agent: Aitken and Stone Ltd., 29 Fernshaw Road, London SW10 0TG, England.
The Mystic Masseur. London, Deutsch, 1957; New York, VanguardPress, 1959.
The Suffrage of Elvira. London, Deutsch, 1958; in Three Novels, NewYork, Knopf, 1982.
Miguel Street. London, Deutsch, 1959; New York, Vanguard Press, 1960.
A House for Mr. Biswas. London, Deutsch, 1961; New York, McGrawHill, 1962.
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion. London, Deutsch, 1963; NewYork, Macmillan, 1964.
The Mimic Men. London Deutsch, and New York, Macmillan, 1967.
In a Free State. London, Deutsch, and New York, Knopf, 1971.
Guerrillas. London, Deutsch, and New York, Knopf, 1975.
A Bend in the River. London, Deutsch, and New York, Knopf, 1979.
The Enigma of Arrival. London, Viking, and New York, Knopf, 1987.
A Way in the World. London, Heinemann, and New York, Knopf, 1994.
A Flag on the Island. London, Deutsch, 1967; New York, Macmillan, 1968.
The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies—British, French and Dutch—in the West Indies and South America. London, Deutsch, 1962; New York, Macmillan, 1963.
An Area of Darkness: An Experience of India. London, Deutsch, 1964; New York, Macmillan, 1965.
The Loss of El Dorado: A History. London, Deutsch, 1969; NewYork, Knopf, 1970; revised edition, London, Penguin, 1973.
The Overcrowded Barracoon and Other Articles. London, Deutsch, 1972; New York, Knopf, 1973.
India: A Wounded Civilization. London, Deutsch, and New York, Knopf, 1977.
The Return of Eva Perón, with The Killings in Trinidad (essays).London, Deutsch, and New York, Knopf, 1980.
A Congo Diary. Los Angeles, Sylvester and Orphanos, 1980.
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey. London, Deutsch, andNew York, Knopf, 1981.
Finding the Centre: Two Narratives. London, Deutsch, and NewYork, Knopf, 1984.
A Turn in the South. London, Viking, and New York, Knopf, 1989.
India: A Million Mutinies Now. London, Heinemann, 1990; NewYork, Viking, 1991.
Bombay: Gateway of India (text/conversations), photographs byRaghubir Singh. New York, Aperture, 1994.
Conversations with V.S. Naipaul, edited by Feroza Jussawalla. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. New York, New York Review of Books, 2000.
Between Father and Son: Family Letters by V.S. Naipaul, edited byGillon Aitken. New York, Knopf, 2000.
V.S. Naipaul: A Selective Bibliography with Annotations by Kelvin Jarvis, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1989.
By David Pryce-Jones, in London Magazine, May 1967; Karl Miller, in Kenyon Review (Gambier, Ohio), November 1967; The West Indian Novel by Kenneth Ramchand, London, Faber, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1970; V.S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Work by Paul Theroux, London, Deutsch, and New York, Africana, 1972; V.S. Naipaul by Robert D. Hamner, New York, Twayne, 1973, and Critical Perspectives on V.S. Naipaul edited by Hamner, Washington, D.C., Three Continents, 1977, London, Heinemann, 1979; V.S. Naipaul by William Walsh, Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1973; V.S. Naipaul: A Critical Introduction by Landeg White, London, Macmillan, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1975; Paradoxes of Order: Some Perspectives on the Fiction of V.S. Naipaul by Robert K. Morris, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1975; V.S. Naipaul by Michael Thorpe, London, Longman, 1976; Four Contemporary Novelists by Kerry McSweeney, Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1982, London, Scolar Press, 1983; V.S. Naipaul: A Study in Expatriate Sensibility by Sudha Rai, New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1982; Contrary Awareness: A Critical Study of the Novels of V.S. Naipaul by K.I. Madhusudana Rao, Madras, Centre for Research on New International Economic Order, 1982; V.S. Naipaul: In Quest of the Enemy by Anthony Boxill, Fredericton, New Brunswick, York Press, 1983; "V.S. Naipaul Issue" of Modern Fiction Studies (West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn 1984; The Fiction of V.S. Naipaul by Nonditor Mason, Calcutta, World Press, 1986; Journey Through Darkness: The Writing of V.S. Naipaul by Peggy Nightingale, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1987; The Web of Tradition: Uses of Allusion in V.S. Naipaul's Fiction by John Thieme, Mundelstrup, Denmark, Dangaroo Press, and London, Hansib, 1987; V.S. Naipaul by Peter Hughes, London, Routledge, 1988; V.S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading by Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1988; V.S. Naipaul by Richard Kelly, New York, Continuum, 1989; The Novels of V.S. Naipaul: A Study of Theme and Form by Shashi Kamra, New Delhi, Prestige, 1990; London Calling: V.S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin by Rob Nixon, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992; On the Margins: The Art of Exile in V.S. Naipaul by Timothy F. Weiss, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1992; Irony in the Novels of R.K. Narayan and V.S. Naipaul by K.N. Padmanabhan Nair, Trivandrum, S. India, CBH Communications, 1993; Self and Colonial Desire: Travel Writings of V.S. Naipaul by Wimal Dissanayake, New York, Lang, 1993; V.S. Naipaul by Bruce King, New York, St. Martin's Press, and Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1993; V.S. Naipaul by Fawzia Mustafa, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1995; V.S. Naipaul: Displacement and Autobiography by Judith Levy, New York, Garland, 1995; The Novels of V.S. Naipaul: Quest for Order and Identity by N. Ramadevi, New Delhi, Prestige Books, 1996; V.S. Naipaul: A Critical Study by Md. Akhtar Jamal Khan, New Delhi, Creative Books, 1998; V.S. Naipaul by Manjit Inder Singh, Jaipur, India, Rawat Publications, 1998.
I feel that any statement I make about my own work would be misleading. The work is there: the reader must see what meaning, if any, the work has for him. All I would like to say is that I consider my nonfiction an integral part of my work.
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V.S. Naipaul's central place in Caribbean, and indeed, world literature, has been hard won. His double honor in receiving a British knighthood and the Trinidad Trinity Cross are the fruits of an often painful search for identity across English and Caribbean cultures, in which fiction and autobiography constantly interact.
His work falls broadly into five phases. These are his early satirical writings; the major Trinidadian novels; works exploring a rootless existence "in a free state"; the ambivalent recovery of a sense of place in The Enigma of Arrival; and later exploration of global cultures. Miguel Street was his first-written (though third-published) novel, begun in 1955 while Naipaul was freelancing for the BBC. It offers a gallery of vivid characters from Port of Spain, Trinidad, seen through the eyes of a growing child. It is an affectionate book, investing bizarre, almost caricatured figures with humanity: B. (Black) Wordsworth who spends his life trying to write one line; Laura who has many children by different men, but drives her daughter to suicide when she follows her mother's behavior; and Man Man, the religious enthusiast who asks to be crucified but is scandalized when bystanders begin throwing stones.
Naipaul omitted the section originally intended to implicate the boy-narrator directly in the narrative, leaving Miguel Street as a series of impressions rather than a novel. Nevertheless, it is one of his most attractive works, pointing to his achievement in the short stories published in A Flag for the Island (which includes the previously omitted story, "The Enemy") and elsewhere.
The Mystic Masseur is more complex and directly satirical. The anti-hero, Pandit Ganesh Ramsummair, through the fraudulent assumption of powers as a mystic and writer, rises from humble beginnings to the position of G. Ramsay Muir, Esq., M.B.E., Member of the Legislative Council. The satire on popular superstition and the unstable roots of political power in Trinidad is sharply focused by Ramsummair himself, who tells his story both in direct narrative and in the form of a suppressed diary, significantly called The Years of Guilt. The Suffrage of Elvira Naipaul again turns Naipaul's mordant satire on popular politics in Trinidad.
The early work was attacked by his fellow West Indian novelist George Lamming in 1960 as "castrated satire," signaling the resentment many in the Caribbean felt against their most accomplished novelist until the late 1980s. Yet Naipaul's often scarifying account of the futility of West Indian culture grew out of an intense exploration of his own cultural roots, an ambivalence nowhere more clearly seen than in his major Caribbean novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, which owes much to the career of his own father, who became a journalist in Port of Spain.
The novel is mediated through the sensibility of Mohun Biswas. Born with an extra finger—at once an indicator of endemic bad luck and malnutrition—he reacts to his privations with a defensive and often self-destructive clowning. He has a genius for disaster—a childish flirtation leads to a marriage into the Tulsis, a predatory merchant family who wish to possess Biswas for the sake of his Brahmin status, and who embody all the values of vulgarity and possessive clannishness Biswas detests. Biswas, artistic by nature, can find an outlet for his talents only in sign-painting, and the creative reporting of sensational events for the island paper. Throughout the book his search for a house of his own is an attempt to find both independence and a meaning for his life, and the often hilarious account of petty island life is underpinned with a deeper sense of the essential loneliness of the human state. This is vividly intimated at the center of the book, when a hurricane blows Biswas's precarious house from around him, precipitating a moment of nervous breakdown. But by the end Biswas has his own (if heavily mortgaged) house, while the Tulsi family is disintegrating. A tender tragicomedy, the book becomes an epic of Trinidad life between the world wars.
After a comparatively unsuccessful sortie into English life with Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion, Naipaul returned to Caribbean themes in The Mimic Men. Set largely on the fictional island of Isabella, it narrates Ralph Kripalsingh's rise to power on fortunes acquired through Coca-Cola and real estate. Politics becomes a metaphor for the essential futility of the Caribbean predicament, based as Naipaul sees it on the "mimicry" of other cultures. Ralph's self-destructive career is set against the possibilities suggested by Ralph's father, who becomes a sunyasi ("holy man"), but Ralph comes to see this only at the end, when, in a lonely London boarding house, he seeks to shape the absurdity of his island history through the medium of writing. A rich, finely crafted novel, its final impact is lessened by its despair.
By 1967, Naipaul was a novelist of international stature, and, partly influenced by his travel and journalism, his fiction increasingly took on a world perspective. In a Free State is a thematically linked trio of stories, set between two diary entries of a Middle East tour. Its subjects are an Indian servant in the United States, West Indians in Britain, and an Englishman in an African state in revolution. The rich detail characteristic of the earlier books is stripped away, giving spare action and description—an image on a television set, a blank stare—momentous impact. The trauma underlying the loss of roots becomes universalized, and is conveyed with a disquieting energy.
Guerrillas, based on the factual journalism republished as The Killings in Trinidad, is set in a thinly disguised Trinidad on the brink of revolution. Jimmy Ahmed, Afro-Chinese, Muslim, and English-educated, attempts to organize a socialist commune, but is finally defeated by his own flawed vision and the self-defeating racial and social conflicts of the island. His tragedy is paralleled by that of Roche, a hero of the South African freedom struggle, who is tricked into confessing his moral disillusionment. Jane, an English girl, attempts to relate to both Roche and Ahmed, and is murdered. The novel reveals Naipaul at his bleakest.
Offering a richer imaginative impact, A Bend in the River is related to Naipaul's A Congo Diary. It masterfully recreates life in a contemporary central African state under a dictatorship, where race, education, and conflicting ideologies uneasily coexist with traditional African cultures. The political struggles are played out against the background of river, jungle, and forest peoples impervious to the changing cycles of history.
In 1984 Naipaul published Finding the Centre, two narratives, one directly about Naipaul's early experiences in London, the other a travelogue describing the African search for identity among the upheavals of the contemporary Ivory Coast. The highly individual use of travel autobiography to explore issues of culture and identity prepared the way for The Enigma of Arrival. Starting with Naipaul's experiences of coming to England from Trinidad with Indian ancestry, the work builds up an evocation of life in rural Wiltshire, as seen from a cottage in the grounds of an Edwardian mansion. As the narrative weaves a pattern of the seasons in the English countryside, one becomes aware of subtle links with patterns in Caribbean and Indian cultures. By coming to terms with the change, rhythms, and decay in rural England, the narrator comes to an intuitive understanding of his own predicament, an ambivalent sense that the journey in time and space is also "the enigma of arrival." Resisting précis, the work takes Naipaul's work onto a further stage of experimentation and achievement.
Enigma of Arrival confirmed Naipaul's coming to terms with the Caribbean, and it coincided with his being received of state honors in Trinidad. But he was also a writer of the world. In a series of controversial travelogues, he examined the world of Islam (Among the Believers), the United States (A Turn in the South), and India (A Million Mutinies Now).
After seven years, Naipaul returned to novel writing with A Way in the World. The theme is the European contact with the Caribbean that he had explored in his early The Loss of El Dorado. But now history is presented in a multilayered work of fiction and autobiography. In it, Raleigh's sixteenth-century expedition to Guyana and Miranda's disastrous invasion of Cuba interact with the contemporary experience of expatriates in London, and revolutionary change and brutal death in East Africa. The work shifts effortlessly between historical periods and three continents, revealing correspondences that illuminate both past and present. Starting as an alienated postcolonial, Naipaul has evolved into a writer with a world perspective, whose constantly evolving literary skill has few rivals in contemporary fiction.