Nobel Winner Also Was Full of Controversy

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), August 12, 2018 | Go to article overview

Nobel Winner Also Was Full of Controversy


Byline: Harrison Smith The Washington Post

V.S. Naipaul, a Nobel Prize-winning writer from Trinidad who penned comic masterpieces of island life before turning to the larger world, traveling from South America to Africa and Asia for richly detailed works on postcolonial states, died Aug. 11 at his home in London. He was 85.

His family announced the death in a statement. The cause was not immediately known.

In the second half of the 20th century, few writers were as praised -- or scorned -- as Naipaul, a prose stylist with talent as great as his penchant for controversy. "If a writer doesn't generate hostility," Naipaul once said, "he is dead."

Sir Vidia, as he was sometimes known after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990, faced accusations of racism, sexism, chauvinism and Islamophobia. He had long-running literary spats with Paul Theroux, a former protg who lambasted Naipaul as "a grouch, a skinflint, tantrum-prone," and the poet Derek Walcott, a Caribbean peer who depicted Naipaul in a poem as "a rodent in old age."

He acknowledged frequenting prostitutes while married, physically abusing his mistress and treating his wife in such a way, he told biographer Patrick French, that "it could be said that I had killed her." Through it all, he expressed few regrets and maintained a prodigious output, publishing more than two dozen volumes that ranged from novels to travelogues to genre-bending works that mixed fiction with personal history.

His books -- which included the realist novels "A House for Mr. Biswas" (1961), "A Bend in the River" (1979) and the Man Booker Prize-winning "In a Free State" (1971) -- were considered works of a technical virtuoso, whom even Walcott hailed as "our finest writer of the English sentence." With few exceptions, his sentences were knife-sharp, devoid of fuss or flair but often lyrical in their simplicity.

Naipaul wrote "Biswas," the book that vaulted him to acclaim, when he was in his 20s, after moving to England on a scholarship to the University of Oxford.

The book's central figure, Mohun Biswas, was based loosely on Naipaul's father, a journalist with literary aspirations. "Six-fingered, and born in the wrong way," Biswas seeks a home of his own, and the sense of security and personal freedom that property might offer.

The story "was Dickensian in its scope and sympathy, yet wholly original," cultural critic and screenwriter Stephen Schiff wrote in the New Yorker in 1994, with dozens of characters and settings that extended from the crowded streets of Trinidad's capital to quiet sugar-cane plantations.

Like Naipaul's three previous books, including his 1959 story collection "Miguel Street," it mixed tragicomic moments -- endless fights between Biswas and his in-laws -- and scenes that seemed to capture the author's private longing for stability and satisfaction.

"In the gloom, a boy was leaning against the hut, his hands behind him, staring at the road," Naipaul wrote in one passage, describing the title character's lingering memory of a late-afternoon bus ride. "He wore a vest and nothing more. The vest glowed white. In an instant the bus went by, noisy in the dark, through bush and level sugar-cane fields. Biswas could not remember where the hut stood, but the picture remained: a boy leaning against an earth house that had no reason for being there, under the dark falling sky, a boy who didn't know where the road, and that bus, went."

Naipaul was initially known as a gentle chronicler of West Indian life, seen by some critics as part of a group that included Trinidadian writer Sam Selvon, the Barbadian novelist George Lamming and Walcott, who was from Saint Lucia.

Naipaul later said that the book, named for a stage of the slave trade in which Africans were taken in bondage to the Americas, was "terribly flawed" and overly harsh in its criticism of Trinidad and its Caribbean neighbors. …

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