Brow Beat

Where to Start With V.S. Naipaul

A book by V.S. Naipaul.
Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

V.S. Naipaul, the award-winning writer born in Trinidad who settled in England and wrote an astonishing number of great novels and searing works of nonfiction, died over the weekend at the age of 85. After publishing a novel, The Mystic Masseur, and a number of short stories about Trinidad in the late 1950s, he began writing the books that, with their near flawless prose and withering insights, would ensure his reputation as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. This is despite the fact that many of his accounts of foreign countries were unreliable, his cruelty and bigotry palpable, his reading of history often simplistic. What follows is a short guide to some of his best, most vital work, and some of the great work written about him.

A House for Mr. Biswas (1961)

Naipaul published The Mystic Masseur in 1957, but A House for Mr. Biswas is his first truly brilliant novel. This fictionalized account of the life of his father, who worked as a journalist in Trinidad, is one of the great novels of the 20th century: hilarious, sad, moving, and—for perhaps the very last time in Naipaul’s career—loving.

An Area of Darkness (1964)

The first of Naipaul’s three nonfiction books about India, Area cannot be trusted as history or sociology. But this account of Naipaul’s early visit to the homeland of his ancestors is a stunning piece of writing that viscerally captures the way that a foreigner in India can feel overwhelmed and panicked after initially arriving in the country. In Naipaul’s case, it was clearly connected to his sense of physical shame at his appearance and Indian background; the book is, as Pankaj Mishra has said, a “brilliant guide to the neuroses of the man.” But beware: If you have never read about or visited India, this is certainly not the first thing you should read about the country.

In a Free State (1971)

Naipaul won the Booker Prize for this novel in three parts, which includes the story of an Indian servant who travels to Washington with the diplomat he serves, and a gay official on edge in what is clearly Uganda. It is Naipaul’s first major foray into writing about issues of power and sex in Africa, which would win him great acclaim as well as considerable criticism.

A Bend in the River (1979)

Generally deemed, along with Biswas, Naipaul’s masterpiece, this novel about an Indian man in an African country (unnamed, but clearly Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire) got Naipaul compared to Joseph Conrad and also attacked for his depiction of a continent deteriorating, thanks to dictatorship and the legacy of colonialism. Its misogyny and violence can be tough to take, and the bleakness of its vision is harrowing—“one may wonder whether, in some final reckoning, a serious writer can simply allow the wretchedness of his depicted scene to become the limit of his vision,” Irving Howe wrote—but it is a remarkable book.

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981)

Naipaul traveled to four countries—Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia—and came away convinced of opinions that are often contested and should not be taken as historically accurate. Still, his eye for detail and his ability to capture character—he visited the same countries again nearly two decades later, for Beyond Belief—make this a fascinating book, especially in its sections on post-revolutionary Iran.

The Enigma of Arrival (1987)

Some critics found this novel, which recounts Naipaul’s journey to England and gives an account of his life in the English countryside, where he eventually settled, too slow. But it contains some of his most stunning writing. His feel for the physical earth, and the history underneath it, is entrancing: “And then one afternoon it began to snow. Snow dusted the lawn in front of my cottage; dusted the bare branches of the trees; outlined disregarded things, outlined the empty, old-looking buildings around the lawn that I hadn’t yet paid attention to or fully taken in; so that piece by piece, while I considered the falling snow, a rough picture of my setting built up around me.”

India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990)

This long book essentially consists of Naipaul journeying around India, talking to people, and telling their stories in his own prose. He shows a real generosity of spirit, letting people’s own narratives come through, often at great length, without too much judgment or analysis. One of the great travel books ever written, it also displays an almost eerie foreboding that the Hindu right (with which Naipaul sympathized) was on the verge of real power in India. “To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively. It was to begin to see oneself and one’s group the way the outside world saw one; and it was to know a kind of rage. When I was there last year India was full of this rage. There had been a general awakening. But everyone awakened first to his own group or community; every group thought itself unique in its awakening; and every group sought to separate its rage from the rage of other groups.”

A Way in the World (1994)

Naipaul’s last truly great work is almost impossible to summarize: It is a series of linked narratives that combines a history of the “new world” with another look at Naipaul’s background and an examination of politics in the Caribbean.

Naipaul also wrote a huge number of fine essays, sometimes on writers, sometimes on places he traveled. Many of them are collected in The Writer and the World, and two of them appear in Finding the Centre. A number of them first appeared in the New York Review of Books. As is always the case with Naipaul, do not trust everything you read; his biases and prejudices sometimes overwhelm his commitment to accuracy. His reports from Argentina in the 1970s, for instance, made broad generalizations about the country based on the supposed sexual behavior of its inhabitants. (Naipaul’s mistress was Anglo-Argentine.) But his willingness to listen, and his eye for the ways in which his subjects exhibit pride or humiliation or anger, always make him worth reading.

I’d also recommend this moving and essential collection of letters between Naipaul and his father.

And then there is the stuff written about him. French’s biography itself is a real achievement. There have also been some wonderful essays on Naipaul. My favorites are by James Wood, Teju Cole, Pankaj Mihsra, and Robert Boyers. Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow is a bizarre book which nevertheless gives a good sense of many of Naipaul’s troubling character traits, including his need to be cruel to those who loved him, or aided his career, from his first wife Patricia Hale to the novelist Anthony Powell. Naipaul, French wrote, was “never willing to forgive a past favor.”

Also in Slate: The Impossible Legacy of V.S. Naipaul