The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction - Vol. 3

By John Clement Ball | Go to book overview

N

Naipaul, V. S.
GILLIAN DOOLEY

Having devoted his life to writing, V. S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001. He has brought his uncompromising gaze to bear upon many, often neglected, parts of the world, combining a steely vision with a capacity for compassion that does not sentimentalize poverty, glorify violence, or apologize for imperialism. He has resisted what he calls the corruption of causes and is proud of the fact that he has never been a spokesman for anything.

Naipaul was born in Trinidad, at the time a British colony, on August 17, 1932. His parents were Hindu Indians, descended from indentured laborers brought to the Caribbean island to replace the slaves following abolition. The indentured labor scheme was little better than slavery, but Naipaul’s maternal grandfather, a pundit, was able to build a modest fortune by performing priestly duties. His father, born of desperately poor parents, was given an education by wealthy relatives and became a journalist. In a family that, despite its precarious financial situation, valued education, Naipaul excelled at school, winning one of four highly prized British government scholarships for overseas study. In 1950 he traveled to England to take up his place at Oxford University, where he studied English literature.

Although Naipaul’s voice was idiosyncratic from the start, echoes and influences of other writers can be found in his work – Oscar Wilde’s paradoxes, for example, or Evelyn Waugh’s spare prose style. However, it is clear from Naipaul’s autobiographical writings that his major literary influence was his father, Seepersad Naipaul, whose ambition to be more than a mere journalist, to be a writer, meant “to triumph over darkness” (Naipaul 1984, 32) – the darkness of the limited social and cultural world of colonial Trinidad and the chaos of communal life in a large extended family. Seepersad died at 46, having published only a few stories, but his driving ambition to write was passed on to his son. Another early influence was Charles Dickens, one of the few English writers Naipaul could make sense of as a child. As he explained in his essay “Conrad’s Darkness and Mine,” it took longer for him to appreciate that Joseph Conrad “had been everywhere before me. Not as a man with a cause, but a man offering … a vision of the world’s halfmade societies” (2003, 170).

Following four disillusioning years at Oxford, Naipaul moved to London to set up as a writer. After some false starts he wrote Miguel Street (1959), a novel in the form of linked short stories set in Port of Spain, written in simple language from the point of view of a boy growing up and observing the foibles of the people around him. This was followed immediately by The Mystic Masseur, published (before Miguel Street) in 1957, a satirical novel about an opportunistic young man who becomes famous as a healer, a writer, and eventually a politician in Trinidad. Despite the satirical tone, The Mystic Masseur gives a sympathetic account of an ambitious but basically well-meaning young man making the most of extremely limited opportunities; in 2001 it was made into a film, directed by Ismail Merchant. The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), another satire, concerns an early Trinidad election, with

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The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction - Vol. 3
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Editors i
  • The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature WWW.Literatureencyclopedia.Com ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Entries vii
  • Acknowledgments xiii
  • Notes on Contributors to Volume III xv
  • Introduction to Volume III 937
  • A 942
  • B 980
  • C 995
  • D 1034
  • E 1052
  • F 1066
  • G 1094
  • H 1121
  • I 1145
  • J 1154
  • K 1167
  • L 1180
  • M 1198
  • N 1252
  • O 1270
  • P 1277
  • Q 1296
  • R 1300
  • S 1325
  • T 1365
  • U 1370
  • V 1373
  • W 1378
  • Z 1398
  • Index 1400
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