Perhaps best known for his novel A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul was a controversial figure in the literary world. The Nobel Prize-winning writer died on Saturday at his London home, the author's agent confirms to NPR. He was 85.
His wife Nadira Naipaul, who was at his side when he passed, 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," The Associated Press reports.
Naipaul's relationship with Trinidad, his birthplace, was nothing if not complicated. His grandparents emigrated there from India as indentured servants, and Naipaul has said he thought it was a mistake that he was born there. Here's how he described Trinidad in a 1994 NPR interview: "After the destruction of the aboriginal people, there was wilderness. And then on that wilderness there began to be created a plantation. And I fear that is how we have to think of the place. It can't be a country in the way you would think of ... Turkey being a country."
But Naipaul's 1961 novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, based on his father's life, presented a different view of Trinidad and of the writer. New Yorker book critic James Wood says, "It's extremely funny; it's truly a comic novel. It's a very tender letter to Trinidad in which it's quite clear that the childish Naipaul had gone around the island swallowing all the information he could. It's full of detail. It's really a poem to the island."
Still, Naipaul didn't want to get trapped in Trinidad like his father, so he sought and won a scholarship to Oxford. His early years in Britain were difficult; the writer suffered from depression and loneliness. Wood says a collection of Naipaul's letters home reveal what life was like for the young student: "Of course there was still a lot of racism around, and he writes back very tenderly to his parents back in Trinidad about certain slights that are done to him at Oxford. And he also interestingly talks in those letters about how he is determined to be top of his class and write better than any of the Englishmen."
When a collection of those letters was published in 2000, Naipaul told NPR he didn't believe in wallowing in the intense emotions of those early experiences. Instead, he used his writing to work through those feelings.
"It's important to avoid the wallow," he said. "It repels the reader. The reader feels: This is so personal, it has nothing to do with me. And the point about processing experience is trying to find the points of universality. You have to step back from the experience and see what there is in it for other people."
But according to Wood, those early emotional experiences left Naipaul wounded. "I think the source of the wound was shame," Wood says, "and specifically a kind of colonial shame." He says Naipaul was caught between two worlds — the world of the colonizer and the world of the colonized — and his views on the colonized could be harsh. Naipaul was often criticized for the way he depicted developing countries in his novels. He may have been wounded, but he could also wound.
"There was a lot of rage there," Wood says, "and it took various forms. Sometimes, you know, he would write about India or he would write about the Caribbean and, as many commentators have noted, he wrote with a kind of savagery and prejudice — sometimes even, I think, a certain amount of racism."
Naipaul never really felt at home anywhere, and he wrote about that in his novel-autobiography hybrid, Half a Life. In this section, he describes the terror of a first journey to a strange land:
"He went by ship. And everything about the journey so frightened him ... that he found himself unwilling to speak, at first out of pure worry, and then, when he discovered that silence brought him strength, out of policy. So he looked without trying to see and heard without listening."
According to Wood, Naipaul's rootlessness and discontent gave his writing an edge and an honesty that often resulted in greatness. "There is something sharp and painful and perpetually interesting about a writer and about a person who can't transcend those wounds and can't heal them and who, as it were, is walking down the street baring the wound absolutely open and vulnerable," he says. "And I think that's something that remained true about his work and about his personality to the end."
Naipaul spent his last years with his second wife in the English countryside, far away from his homeland of Trinidad.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
V.S. Naipaul, winner of the Nobel Prize, has died. The 85-year-old author was at his home in London. Perhaps best known for his novel "A Bend In The River," Naipaul was a controversial figure in the literary world. NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: By all accounts, V.S. Naipaul was not an easy man. His biographer, Patrick French, says Naipaul set high standards for himself. And he expected as much from others. Be it a waiter in a restaurant, a fellow writer or an entire country, Naipaul did not hold back his criticism when he felt it was deserved.
PATRICK FRENCH: If you think of the first line of his book "A Bend In The River," it's the world is what it is. And his view was that you looked at things straight on. You looked at them dead on. And you told the truth as you saw it, as you perceived it. And if that was going to distress and upset people, then so be it.
NEARY: Naipaul's relationship with his birthplace, Trinidad, was nothing if not complicated. His grandparents emigrated there from India as indentured servants. Naipaul has said he thought it was a mistake that he was born there. French believes he probably meant that as a joke. But here's how Naipaul described Trinidad in a 1994 NPR interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
V.S. NAIPAUL: After the destruction of the Aboriginal people, there was wilderness. And then on that wilderness, late in the 18th century, there began to be created a plantation. And I fear that is how we have to think of the place. It can't be a country in the way you would think of Persia being a country or Turkey being a country.
NEARY: Naipaul's early novels give a warm and humorous view of Trinidad. "A House For Mr. Biswas," which some consider his best book, was based on his father's life. But Naipaul didn't want to get trapped in Trinidad like his father. So he sought and won a scholarship to Oxford. Biographer French says Naipaul's early years in Britain were difficult. He suffered from depression, poverty and loneliness.
FRENCH: To arrive in that setting with very little money, very little security, the racial prejudices of the 1950s, that was - it was quite tough for him. And probably the toughest time of all was after he left Oxford, and he really didn't know what to do. And he was so short of money that he was - you know, he was - he got ill. He didn't have enough to eat. He had nowhere to stay.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
NAIPAUL: It's such a difficult period. I don't want to be reminded of it. I prefer to deal with it in imagination.
NEARY: When a collection of his letters was published in 2000, Naipaul told NPR he did not believe in wallowing in the intense emotions of those early experiences. Instead, he used his writing to work through those feelings.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
NAIPAUL: What happens with pain is that, rarely, time does heal it. And one deals with - in the end, with an abstraction. To be reminded of the week-to-week difficulties of those times would be too much for me, actually.
NEARY: In his later years, Naipaul lived comfortably with his second wife in the English countryside. He was a highly respected writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. Still, he always seemed to be a man caught between two worlds, the world of the colonizer and those who are colonized. And his views on the formerly colonized could be harsh. But French says it is the tension between those two worlds that hone Naipaul's writing.
FRENCH: I think that if you've come out of something close to slavery, you've grown up in a colony. You are of Indian origin, but you come from the West Indies. And then you turn up in the 1950s in Oxford. And you make your home in England. You are from the most complex triangulated background possible. And out of that distinctive experience, he created extraordinary works of fiction and nonfiction.
NEARY: Sometimes, it has seemed that Naipaul's caustic pen and penchant for controversy would overshadow his accomplishments as a writer. But biographer Patrick French believes those moments are short-lived. In the long term, he says...
FRENCH: I have no doubt that people will be reading his books for decades and centuries to come.
NEARY: In the end, French thinks that Naipaul was satisfied with his life but never self-satisfied. For V.S. Naipaul, the world was a provocative place. There was always something else to be said, something else to be written. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN'S "MARCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.