Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul
LONDON — V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born Nobel laureate whose precise and lyrical writing in such novels as “A Bend in the River” and “A House for Mr. Biswas” and brittle, misanthropic personality made him one of the world’s most admired and contentious writers, died Saturday at his London home, his family said. He was 85.
His wife, Nadira Naipaul, said he was “a giant in all that he achieved, and he died surrounded by those he loved, having lived a life which was full of wonderful creativity and endeavor.”
Naipaul’s work reflected his personal journey from Trinidad to London and various stops in developing countries. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.”
In an extraordinary career spanning half a century, Naipaul traveled as a self-described “barefoot colonial” from his rural childhood to upper class England and was hailed as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His books explored colonialism and decolonization, exile and the struggles of the everyman in the developing world.
He was critical of colonialism but set himself apart from any social movements. He saw himself as a realist, cured of illusions, his outlook defined by the famous opening words of “A Bend in the River” that became the title of an authorized biography by Patrick French: “The world is what it is.”
He was equally skeptical of religion and politics, of idealism of any kind, whether revolutionary uprisings or of quests for paradise such as Sir Walter Raleigh’s search for the non-existent El Dorado.
Naipaul prided himself on his candor, but he had a long history of offensive remarks. Among his widely quoted comments: He called India a “slave society,” quipped that Africa has no future, and explained that Indian women wear a colored dot on their foreheads to say “my head is empty.” He laughed off the 1989 fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie as “an extreme form of literary criticism.”
His father was an aspiring, self-taught novelist whose ambitions were killed by lack of opportunity; the son was determined to leave his homeland as soon as he could. In later years, he would repeatedly reject his birthplace as little more than a plantation.
Naipaul caught the eye of book reviewers, and in 1959 he won the Somerset Maugham Award with the story collection “Miguel Street.” In 1961, Naipaul published the celebrated “A House for Mr. Biswas.” That novel, about how one man’s life was restricted by the limits of colonial society, was a tribute to Naipaul’s father.
In the years that followed, Naipaul was to travel for extensive periods to pen journalistic essays and travel books. He flew three times to India, his ancestral home, to write about its culture and politics. He spent time in Buenos Aires, Argentina to write about its former First Lady Eva Peron, and went to Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia for books about Islam.
Naipaul received a knighthood in 1990, and in 2001 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
He spent much of his time living quietly in an isolated cottage in Wiltshire, in the English countryside.