Naipaul, V.S. 1932–
Naipaul, V.S. 1932–
(Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul)
PERSONAL: Born August 17, 1932, in Chaguanas, Trinidad; son of Seepersad (a journalist and writer) and Dropatie (Capildeo) Naipaul; married Patricia Ann Hale, 1955 (marriage ended); married Nadira Khannum Alvi (a newspaper columnist). Education: Attended Queen's Royal College, Trinidad, 1943–48; University College, Oxford, B.A., 1953.
ADDRESSES: Home—Wiltshire, England. Agent—c/o Knopf Publicity, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Writer. Also worked as a freelance broadcaster for British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), 1954–56.
MEMBER: British Society of Authors, Royal Society of Literature (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, 1958, for The Mystic Masseur; grant from government of Trinidad for travel in Caribbean, 1960–61; Somerset Maugham Award, 1961, for Miguel Street; Phoenix Trust Award, 1963; Hawthornden Prize, 1964, for Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion; W.H. Smith Award, 1968, for The Mimic Men; Booker Prize, 1971, for In a Free State; D. Litt, St. Andrew's College, 1979, Columbia University, 1981, Cambridge University, 1983, London University, 1988, and Oxford University, 1992; Bennett Award, Hudson Review, 1980; T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing, Ingersoll Foundation, 1986; knighted, 1990; David Cohen British Literature Award, 1993; Booker Prize nomination, 2001, for Half a Life; Nobel Prize for Literature, Swedish Academy, 2001.
The Mystic Masseur (also see below), Deutsch (London, England), 1957, Vanguard (New York, NY), 1959.
The Suffrage of Elvira (also see below), Deutsch (London, England), 1958.
Miguel Street (also see below), Deutsch (London, England), 1959, Vanguard (New York, NY), 1960.
A House for Mr. Biswas, Deutsch (London, England), 1961, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1962, new edition, with an introduction by Ian Buruma, Penguin (New York, NY), 1992.
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion, Deutsch (London, England), 1963, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1964.
An Area of Darkness (nonfiction), Deutsch (London, England), 1964, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1965.
The Mimic Men, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.
A Flag on the Island (short stories), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.
In a Free State (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1971.
The Overcrowded Barracoon and Other Articles, Deutsch (London, England), 1972, Knopf (New York, NY), 1973.
Guerrillas, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.
India: A Wounded Civilization (nonfiction), Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
The Perfect Tenants and The Mourners, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1977.
A Bend in the River, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979, with an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1997.
The Return of Eva Peron (nonfiction), Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.
A Congo Diary, Sylvester & Orphanos (Los Angeles, CA), 1980.
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, Knopf (New York, NY), 1981.
Three Novels (contains The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, and Miguel Street), Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.
Finding the Center, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
The Enigma of Arrival, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
A Turn in the South, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
India: A Million Mutinies Now, Heinemann (London, England), 1990, Viking (New York, NY), 1991.
A Way in the World, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
(Author of text) Raghubir Singh, Bombay: Gateway of India (photographs), Aperture (New York, NY), 1994.
Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples, Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
Between Father and Son: Selected Correspondence of V.S. Naipaul and His Family, 1949–1953, edited by Gillon Aitken, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Reading and Writing: A Personal Account, New York Review of Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Half a Life (novel), Picador (London, England), 2001, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
The Writer and the World, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
The Nightwatchman's Occurrence Book: And Other Comic Inventions (contains The Suffrage of Elvira, Mr. Stones and the Knights Companion, and A Flag on the Island), Vintage (New York, NY), 2002.
Literary Occasions: Essays, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
Vintage Naipaul, Vintage (New York, NY), 2004.
Magic Seeds, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to Island Voices: Stories from the West Indies, edited by Andrew Salkey, Liveright (New York, NY), 1970. Contributor of book reviews to periodicals, including New Statesman and New York Review of Books.
ADAPTATIONS: The Mystic Masseur has been adapted as a film, produced by Ismail Merchant, in 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: V.S. Naipaul, considered one of the world's most gifted novelists, was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for literature. As a New York Times Book Review critic wrote: "For sheer abundance of talent there can hardly be a writer alive who surpasses V.S. Naipaul. Whatever we may want in a novelist is to be found in his books: an almost Conradian gift for tensing a story, a serious involvement with human issues, a supple English prose, a hard-edged wit, a personal vision of things. Best of all, he is a novelist unafraid of using his brains…. His novels are packed with thought, not as lumps of abstraction but as one fictional element among others, fluid in the stream of narrative…. [He is] the world's writer, a master of language and perception, our sardonic blessing."
Naipaul is frequently referred to as a writer of the world. He was born in Trinidad to the descendants of Hindu immigrants from northern India, and later educated at England's Oxford University. The idea of Naipaul as "the world's writer" comes largely, as he has pointed out himself, from his rootlessness. Unhappy with the cultural and spiritual poverty of Trinidad, distanced from India, and unable to relate to and share in the heritage of each country's former imperial ruler, Great Britain, Naipaul thought of himself as contentedly existing without ancestors or a heritage. As a result of this nonattachment to region and tradition, most of his work deals with people who, like himself, feel estranged from the societies they are ostensibly part of and who desperately seek ways to belong. The locales Naipaul chooses for his stories represent an extension of this same theme; most take place in emerging Third-World countries in the throes of creating new national identities from the remnants of native and colonial cultures.
Naipaul's early works explore the comic aspects of these themes. Essentially West Indian variations on the comedy of manners, these works present almost farcical accounts of an illiterate and divided society's shift from colonial to independent status, emphasizing the multiracial misunderstandings and rivalries and various ironies resulting from the sudden introduction of such democratic processes as free elections. In The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, and Miguel Street, Naipaul exposes the follies and absurdities of Trinidadian society; his tone is detached yet sympathetic, as if he is looking back at a distant past of which he is no longer a part. The tragic aspects of the situation are not examined, nor is there any attempt to involve the reader in the plight of the characters. In his book V.S. Naipaul, Michael Thorpe described the prevailing tone of these early books as "that of the ironist who points up the comedy, futility and absurdity that fill the gap between aspiration and achievement, between the public image desired and the individual's inadequacies, to recognize which may be called the education of the narrator: I had grown up and looked critically at the people around me."
A House for Mr. Biswas, published in 1961, marks an important turning point in Naipaul's work, his attention to psychological and social realism foreshadowing the intensive character studies of his later works. In addition, A House for Mr. Biswas has the universality of theme his earlier books lacked because of their emphasis on the particularities of Trinidadian society. As a consequence of these developments, many critics regard A House for Mr. Biswas as Naipaul's earliest masterpiece. Robert D. Hamner wrote in his biography V.S. Naipaul that the novel "is a vital embodiment of authentic West Indian life, but more than that, it transcends national boundaries and evokes universal human experiences. Mr. Biswas' desire to own his own house is essentially a struggle to assert personal identity and to attain security—thoroughly human needs."
A New York Herald Tribune Books reviewer noted that "Naipaul has a wry wit and an engaging sense of humor, as well as a delicate understanding of sadness and futility and a profound but unobtrusive sense of the tragi-comedy of ordinary living…. His style is precise and assured. In short, he gives every indication of being an important addition to the international literary scene. [A House for Mr. Biswas] is funny, it is compassionate. It has more than 500 pages and not one of them is superfluous." Paul Theroux admitted in the New York Times Book Review that "it is hard for the reviewer of a wonderful author to keep the obituarist's assured hyperbole in check, but let me say that if the silting-up of the Thames coincided with a freak monsoon, causing massive flooding in all parts of South London, the first book I would rescue from my library would be A House for Mr. Biswas." Thorpe agreed that the novel is "a work of rare distinction," a "'novelist's novel,' a model work." In his V. S. Naipaul Thorpe commented that the popularity of A House for Mr. Biswas "must be largely due to its universality of subject and theme, the struggle of one ordinary man to climb—or cling on to—the ladder of life." In short, Thorpe concluded, "for West Indian literature A House for Mr. Biswas forged [the] connection [between literature and life] with unbreakable strength and set up a model for emulation which no other 'Third World' literature in English has yet equaled."
Since the success of A House for Mr. Biswas, Naipaul has increasingly sought broader geographic and social contexts in which to explore his themes. At the same time, his early lighthearted tone gradually has faded as the author examines the more tragic consequences of alienation and rootlessness through the eyes of various "universal wanderers." Noting that "Naipaul's writings about his native Trinidad have often enough been touched with tolerant amusement," Thomas Lask reported in the New York Times that the 1971 story collection In a Free State deals with the issue: "How does the expatriate fare after he leaves the island?" Noting that Naipaul's stories "focus on the failure of heart, on the animal-like cruelty man exhibits to other men and on the avarice that … is the root of all evil," Lask interpreted the fiction to say "that neither customs nor color nor culture seems able to quiet that impulse to destruction, that murderous wantonness that is so much part of our make-up." Characterizing Naipaul's style as "leaner than in the past and much more somber," the critic added: "There is virtually none of the earlier playfulness. He appears to have settled for precision over abundance. Each detail and each incident is made to carry its weight in the narrative. The effect is not small-scaled, for in the title story he has created an entire country. He has not tidied up every loose strand…. But there is nothing unfinished in these polished novellas." In V.S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Work, Paul Theroux dubbed In a Free State "ambitious … a story-sequence brilliant in conception, masterly in execution, and terrifying in effect—the chronicles of a half-a-dozen self-exiled people who have become lost souls. Having abandoned their own countries (countries they were scarcely aware of belonging to), they have found themselves in strange places, without friends, with few loyalties, and with the feeling that they are trespassing. Worse, their lives have been totally altered; for them there is no going back; they have fled, each to his separate limbo, and their existence is like that of souls in a classical underworld." Comparing Naipaul to French author Albert Camus in his focus on "displace-ment," Theroux noted that "Naipaul is much superior to Camus, and his achievement—a steady advance through eleven volumes—is as disturbing as it is original. In a Free State is a masterpiece in the fiction of rootlessness."
The novel Guerrillas established Naipaul's reputation in the United States after its publication in 1975. Most reviewers commented on the novelist's somewhat grim outlook, Theroux calling it "a violent book in which little violence is explicit…. It is a novel, not of revolt, but of the play-acting that is frequently called revolt, that queer situation of scabrous glamour which Naipaul sees as a throw-back to the days of slavery…. Guerrillas is one of Naipaul's most complex books; it is certainly his most suspenseful, a series of shocks, like a shroud slowly unwound from a bloody corpse, showing the damaged—and familiar—face last…. This is a novel without a villain, and there is not a character for whom the reader does not at some point feel deep sympathy and keen understanding, no matter how villainous or futile he may seem. Guerrillas is a brilliant novel in every way, and it shimmers with artistic certainty. It is scarifying in the opposite way from a nightmare. One can shrug at fantasy, but Guerrillas—in a phrase Naipaul himself once used—is, like the finest novels, 'indistinguishable from truth.'"
Reviewing the novel in Time, Paul Gray contended that "perhaps no one but Naipaul has the inside and outside knowledge to have turned such a dispirited tale into so gripping a book. His island is built entirely of vivid descriptions and offhand dialogue. At the end, it has assumed a political and economic history, a geography and a population of doomed, selfish souls…. Guerrillas is not a polemic … but a Conradian vision of fallibility and frailty. With economy and compassion, Naipaul draws the heart of darkness from a sun-struck land." Noting that Naipaul takes a "hackneyed" theme—"incipient Black Power"—and manages to produce "a more significant treatment of it than most of his contemporaries with similar concerns," Charles R. Larson wrote in the Nation that Guerrillas "builds so slowly and so skillfully that … we are hardly aware of the necessary outcome of the events; it is only in retrospect that we see that the desultory action has in fact been charged with fate…. Written in a deliberately flat style, Guerrillas is a deeply pessimistic novel, telling us that we have seen about as much political change in the West Indian island republics as we are likely to see."
In A Bend in the River, Naipaul returns to the African backdrop of In a Free State and confirms his basic pessimism. John Leonard explained in the New York Times that the author "despises nostalgia for the colonial past, while at the same time heartlessly parodying … the African future." Calling A Bend in the River "brilliant and depressing," Leonard added: "It is no secret by now, certainly not since Guerrillas … that V.S. Naipaul is one of the handful of living writers of whom the English language can be proud, if, still, profoundly uneasy. There is no consolation from him, any more than there is sentiment. His wit has grown hard and fierce; he isn't seeking to amuse, but to scourge."
John Updike, writing in the New Yorker, asserted that A Bend in the River "proves once more that Naipaul is incomparably well situated and equipped to bring us news of one of the contemporary world's great subjects—the mingling of its peoples…. A Bend in the River is carved from the same territory [as In a Free State]—an Africa of withering colonial vestiges, terrifyingly murky politics, defeated pretensions, omnivorous rot, and the implacable undermining of all that would sustain reason and safety…. Rage … is perhaps the deepest and darkest fact Naipaul has to report about the Third World, and in this novel his understanding of it goes beyond that shown in Guerrillas…. Always a master of fictional landscape, Naipaul here shows, in his variety of human examples and in his search for underlying social causes, a Tolstoyan spirit, generous if not genial." In his Newsweek review, Walter Clemons described A Bend in the River as "a hurtful, claustrophobic novel, very hard on the nerves, played out under a vast African sky in an open space that is made to feel stifling." Noting its political bent, Clemons added, "As an evocation of place, [the novel] succeeds brilliantly" and "confirms Naipaul's position as one of the best writers now at work." Irving Howe was equally laudatory, writing in the New York Times Book Review that "Naipaul has mastered the gift of creating an aura of psychic and moral tension."
For his 1987 novel The Enigma of Arrival Naipaul selected a new setting: Great Britain. John Thieme explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that in the years between the publication of A Bend in the River and The Enigma of Arrival the author "suffered from a serious illness and was deeply moved by the deaths of his younger sister and his brother, Shiva." The Enigma of Arrival, Thieme continued, reflects Naipaul's somber personal experience and "is pervaded by a sense of personal loss and fragility." The novel examines the impact of imperialism on a native English estate, slowly decaying along with its reclusive landlord, who is suffering from a degenerative disease. The decay of the manor house and its owner causes the novel's first-person narrator to ponder the inevitability of his own death. Calling The Enigma of Arrival "full of intimations of mor-tality," Thieme added that "ultimately it is as much a generalized lament for human transience and an expression of the writer's all-pervasive sense of vulnerability as an elegy for any particular person or community."
With A Turn in the South and India: A Million Mutinies Now, Naipaul turned to nonfiction. A Turn in the South tells of a journey the author took through the southern United States, ostensibly looking for similarities between his own Trinidadian culture and that of the American South. While the issue of race is "high on his agenda at the outset," Thieme noted that its importance decreases the further into the work the reader explores. Instead, Naipaul finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into a description of the culture of the modern American south, including country western music, strict, conservative Christianity, and the enduring fascination with Elvis Presley. India: A Million Mutinies Now represents Naipaul's third consideration of his ancestral homeland. Whereas Naipaul had formerly expressed pessimism about India's ability to overcome centuries of religious and ethnic strife, in this 1990 work he appears to "take … heart in what he sees," according to Thomas D'Evelyn in his appraisal of the book for the Christian Science Monitor. "As the details accumulate, the reader becomes more deeply involved in a growing appreciation for a life lived under extreme circumstances. Reading Naipaul," D'Evelyn concluded, "one becomes as optimistic about mankind as the author is about India." The author's "cautious optimism represents the primary value of the book," commented Douglas J. Macdonald in America. "Pessimism can too easily lead to inertia and Despair…. Naipaul's message is that despite the problems, despite the obstacles, the Indians, and by extension the rest of us, must continue to try."
A Way in the World, published in 1994, is a collection of narratives that mix elements of fiction and nonfiction, merging Naipaul's Indian and West Indian heritage with the English history and culture he adopted when he immigrated to England at age eighteen. "His project is simultaneously to construct his own literary inheritance and the legacy he will leave to the world," explained Philip Gourevitch in Commentary. "The book … combines memoir, historical scholarship, and imaginative writing in a series of nine independent but thematically interlocking narratives. These narratives accumulate to form a dramatic portrait gallery of people—historical and fictionalized—whose lives have been formed and transformed by their encounters with Trinidad. And through the echo chamber of their stories there emerges a portrait of the artist, Naipaul himself, at the apex of his literary consciousness." "Now, near the end of his days," declared New Republic contributor Caryl Phillips, "Naipaul is clearly … deliberating over the question of whether he ever left home in the first place, for whatever else it is A Way in the World is a beautiful lament to the Trinidad he has so often denigrated."
Naipaul labels each of these early narratives "An Unwritten Story." He includes under that title tales about the sixteenth-century sea dog and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh traveling down a branch of the Orinoco River in Guyana in search of gold and not finding it, and an account of nineteenth-century South American revolutionary Francisco Miranda, who plotted a Venezuelan revolution that never materialized. Naipaul also traces the careers of other notables, such as the Trinidadian Marxist revolutionary he dubs "Lebrun," who served as advisor to several independence movements, but was discarded as irrelevant after the regimes were established. "Once in power," declared Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Richard Eder, the nationalists "had no use for him; his ideology was good for building up their strength but they had no intention of actually setting up a Marxist regime." Instead, Lebrun found himself banished to the fringes of society, spending his life in exile, speaking to leftist groups in Great Britain and the United States.
"If there is one thing that unifies the chapters in [A Way in the World]," declared Spectator reviewer Amit Chaudhuri, "it is its attempt to explore and define the nature of the colonial's memory." Like other reviewers, Chaudhuri contrasted Naipaul's fiction with the work of Conrad, who often looked darkly at the spreading colonialism of Great Britain at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. The reviewer suggested that Naipaul retraces the colonialism Conrad depicted in his work and shows, in A Way in the World, how British imperialism created not just colonies but colonials: men and women with unique sensibilities and memories. "The river, in these 'stories,' no longer remains simply a Conradian image of Western exploration and territorial ambition," Chaudhuri concluded, "but becomes an emblem of the colonial memory attempting to return to its source."
Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples served as both a return to nonfiction and a sequel to Naipaul's 1981 work Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey. Discussing the earlier book with Jeffrey Myers of American Scholar, Naipaul described Among the Believers as "about people caught at a cultural hinge moment: a whole civilization is on the turn…. It seeks to make that change clear, and to make a story of it." Beyond Belief, like its predecessor, deals with Islamic countries that are non-Arabic: Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia. Both books relate stories from individuals Naipaul encountered while traveling extensively through these countries. Comparing the two books, a Booklist reviewer observed that in Beyond Belief "Naipaul is more dispassionate, letting the people he meets take center stage as they express their struggles with family, religion, and nation." Meyers also observed this dispassionate quality, commenting, "The author of Guerrillas and A Bend in the River has done what I thought impossible: written a book as boring as its bland gray jacket." Meyers also found Naipaul's central thesis—that "everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert"—to be "radically flawed." Edward Said agreed, noting in the Progressive: "This ridiculous argument would suggest by extension that only a native of Rome can be a good Roman Catholic…. In effect, the 400-page Beyond Belief is based on nothing more than this rather idiotic and insulting theory…. The greater pity is that Naipaul's latest book will be considered a major interpretation of a great religion, and more Muslims will suffer and be insulted."
In support of his thesis, Naipaul points out how Islam came late to these nations and has since remained in conflict with older native traditions. He also shows how the revival of Islamic fundamentalism during the late twentieth century had a negative impact on these "converted" countries. Despite this argument, most critical response to the book expressed disagreement. Noted Jane I. Smith in a review for Christian Century: "Naipaul's picture of Islam among the converted peoples is not necessarily inaccurate; it is simply incomplete. And his presupposition that Muslims in the countries he visits have sacrificed their native traditions for a religion in which they can never fully share is a partial truth at best. The whole picture is both broader and considerably more hopeful than this artful but melancholy presentation might have us believe." While also questioning Naipaul's thesis and his generally negative views of Islam, L. Carl Brown in Foreign Affairs took a different slant on Beyond Belief: "In-depth interviews with a handful of the near-great and the obscure from each country produce brilliant writing and somber stories…. Beyond Belief is rewarding."
Between Father and Son: Selected Correspondence of V.S. Naipaul and His Family, 1949–1953 presents letters from Naipaul to his father, Seepersad Naipaul, and other members of his family during the time when Naipaul was studying in England on a scholarship. Longtime Naipaul readers will recognize Seepersad, a weary man struggling as a journalist, in the fictional title character in A House for Mr. Biswas. During the course of the correspondence, Naipaul's father suffers a heart attack, loses his job at a local newspaper, and dies at the age of forty-seven without having realized his dream of publishing his short stories. "A major theme of the letters is the conflict between devoting oneself to a future career, especially as a writer, and helping others in the family gain an education," noted Bruce King in World Literature Today. After his father's death, Vido—as Naipaul was known to his family—contemplates returning to Trinidad, but claims financial hardship in not doing so. Instead, his sister leaves India, where she is studying on scholarship, and returns to Trinidad to take care of family obligations. Naipaul remains in England, convinced that he can best help his family by continuing his studies and working toward his goal of becoming a published writer.
Even as a teenager studying abroad for the first time, Naipaul is concerned with many of the issues for which he will eventually become known. Among the themes familiar to readers of Naipaul's mature writing are "the enigma of arrival, the sadness of separation and exile, neocolonial ambition and the effort to find one's center," according to Abraham Verghese in the New York Times Book Review. Nevertheless, continued Verghese, "those who have formed the impression that Naipaul is arrogant and conceited will find little to change their beliefs." Noting that the letters document Naipaul's depression—or what the author himself characterized as a "nervous breakdown"—Joseph Epstein commented in New Criterion that Naipaul's literary vision is "hideously complicated"; Between Father and Son reminds readers "how little we really know about the workings of first-class literary minds."
In 2001 the Swedish Academy awarded Naipaul the Nobel Prize for Literature, in recognition of what they termed his "incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories." Critics were nearly unanimous in their approval of the award, although some noted that Naipaul's strong views have been less than decorous throughout the years. "Few writers have offended their readers as regularly as V.S. Naipaul has," wrote Akash Kapur for Salon.com; he "has shown a staggering capacity for insensitivity and prejudice." Even while acknowledging Naipaul's hostility toward his native Trinidad, Caryl Phillips commented in the Guardian that the author's books "have been written in a sublime English, and with a ferocity of purpose unequaled by any of his contemporaries in the English language. His ability to synthesise, in almost equal part, his fiction and nonfiction—the one genre informing the other both structurally and thematically—has been both original in construction and fascinating to witness."
The Nobel announcement was made barely a month after Islamic fundamentalists seized international attention following the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. Naipaul's often outspoken criticism of fundamentalism cast an air of irony over the Academy's choice. In his Beyond Belief Naipaul had dubbed fundamentalist Islam "the most uncompromising kind of imperialism," recalled Salon.com reviewer Gavin McNett. While Los Angeles Times contributor Tim Rutten cited the Nobel Prize honoree as maintaining, "I don't stand for any country," Rutten went on to note that Naipaul deplores the "calamitous effect" some Islamic sects have had on their countries. Such controversy aside, David Pryce-Jones concluded in the London Times that "the Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to someone who deserves it…. His use of language is as precise as it is beautiful." Receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature cemented Naipaul's status as one of the English language's most distinguished and perceptive contemporary writers.
The 2002 publication of Half a Life came on the heels of Naipaul's Nobel win. The novel recounts the first forty years of the life of Willie Chandran, the son of a local Hindu ascetic of some renown and his untouchable wife. Willie escapes an unremarkable youth in India to study in England where, confused by his sexual initiation and flustered by both his own heritage and the cultural shifts thrust upon him in 1960s England, he forgoes a budding literary career. Instead, Willie follows Ana, the first woman to express an interest in him, to a Portuguese-ruled African country. Willie remains there for eighteen years, doing nothing much except loathing the native population, enjoying the perks of Ana's wealth, and engaging in a liaison with Ana's best friend.
J.M. Coetzee praised Naipaul's prose in his review for the New York Review of Books, calling it "as clean and cold as a knife." While noting the self-righteousness of both Willie and his father—both men "believe they see through other people" but "are incapable of imagining anyone unlike themselves"—Coetzee added that neither character appears to grow during the course of the novel. "Willie's story ends not only without resolution but without any glimpse of what a resolution might look like," the critic commented. Willie's nihilistic tendencies prompted David Kipen to declare in the San Francisco Chronicle that "under everything lurks Naipaul's uncharitable treatment of his own characters, robbed of our sympathy through want of his." However, Booklist contributor Donna Seaman praised Naipaul for both his language and his "command of both the intimately personal and the sweepingly political," calling Half a Life "a psychological complex yet rapidly paced tale of a father and son who fail to fully engage with life." In the New York Times contributor Michiko Kakutani continued such praise, complimenting the author for his "uncommon elegance and acerbity," and dubbing the novel "a small masterpiece in its own right and … a potent distillation of the author's work to date, a book that recapitulates all his themes of exile, postcolonial confusion, third-world angst, and filial love and rebellion."
In Naipaul's 2002 essay collection The Writer and the World, he includes pieces about numerous elections around the world, including the 1984 American presidential campaign; the movement, led by Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin, to have New York City named the nation's fifty-first state; the influence of the Peron family on the country of Argentina; and the Black Power movements in America and the Caribbean. The book demonstrates the writer's "tragic view of history," stated Jason Cowley in the London Observer, which he has perhaps arrived at because "he has travelled so far and seen so much. He knows something of the world, its pitilessness and struggle, its indifference to human suffering." According to Cowley, after reading The Writer and the World one understands why Naipaul was compelled to stop writing in a comic vein. In his travels, the writer has sought to understand history, and his essays combine short biographies, cultural criticism, and historical narrative to arrive at his bleak analysis of the psychology of decolonized people. Sven Birkerts, in the Washington Times, similarly remarked that this book emanates an acerbic world view. "Naipaul is merciless and exacting in his fiction as well as his essays and documentary accounts, and many readers have concluded that he is scornful of his subjects, expending upon them a powerful private rage," Birkerts wrote. Yet he found that the essays collected in The Writer and the World must correct this misperception. "The more one reads these essays … the more clearly one sees that the point of his astringent reportage, his withering portraits of life in various unstable pockets of the Third World, is not to expose the deficits of the people or their culture—though it can certainly look that way—but rather to unmask the grandiose mythologies, the illusions, that flourish where the deeper continuities of civilization are lacking." In 2003 Naipaul published another essay collection, Literary Occasions: Essays. Included in this book is his Nobel Prize lecture, as well as essays on other writers of Indian extraction, memories of his childhood, even a foreword from the 1983 edition of his novel A House for Mr. Biswas.
Naipaul published his fourteenth work of fiction, Magic Seeds, in 2004. He has been quoted as saying it is also his last, but, as Charles Foran wrote in Globe & Mail, this is "something he has, admittedly, claimed before." The novel picks up Willie Chandran's life eighteen years after Half a Life ended. Willie, who is living with his sister Sarojini in Berlin, decides to travel to India to join a guerrilla group. After seven years with them he is thrown in jail. Willie is released when his book of short stories is republished and he returns to London. James Atlas, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that the novel "revisits the themes—exile, identity, the precariousness of civilization—that [Naipaul has] been grappling with over the past five decades." Foran added, "the prose is muscular and precise," and "for all his impatience with character, the author possesses rare insights into the hearts of men made desperate by circumstance." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Naipaul "a modern master of the multiple ironies of resentment."
Throughout Naipaul's career he has become increasingly well-accepted as "a writer with a world perspective, whose constantly evolving literary skill has few rivals in contemporary fiction," as an essayist for Contemporary Novelists pointed out. Yet his unique viewpoint has drawn critics who have accused him of "racism, chauvinism, and of displaying a nostalgic collaboration with imperialist ideology," reflected Stella Swain in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. On the other hand, Swain noted, those enthusiastic about his work generally praise it for its "aesthetic and philosophical considerations or from an appreciation of his honesty. Naipaul is lauded as a sophisticated artist whose refined and subtle prose represents the best of contemporary fiction in English." Swain conjectured that these two opposing views of the writer are difficult to reconcile, "except insofar as it could be said that the confusion he has caused in his reading public is simply an expression of anxieties and conflicts that already exist. In the sense that his work presses such tensions into articulation and dialogue, it is of great value."
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