Books

The Impossible Legacy of V.S. Naipaul

Many of his books are masterpieces. When I interviewed him, I couldn’t keep the look of disgust off my face.

Author V.S. Naipaul in 2001.
V.S. Naipaul at home in England in 2001, the year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Chris Ison/Reuters

V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel Prize–winning author who explored issues of colonialism, race, and identity in a strikingly brilliant series of novels, essays, and travel books, died this weekend at the age of 85. As much as any single great writer of the 20th century, Naipaul is present in everything he wrote. His life story; his caustic, penetrating, often callous opinions; his cruelty; his genius: All are there, in his novels and nonfiction. Naipaul inflicted extreme psychological abuse on his first wife, Patricia Hale; beat his mistress; and seemed defiantly proud of his racism, misogyny, and toxic political views; to talk about separating the art from the man seems especially futile in his case. Indeed, the best way to consider the depth of his literary achievement is to view his writing as the partial result of his anger and abiding sense of humiliation, which allowed him to explore the human condition and the legacy of imperialism with a tireless and unflinching gaze, or what one critic called “a terrifying honesty.”

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932; his grandparents had arrived a half-century earlier from India as indentured laborers. He was able to leave for England in the early 1950s, a move he quite clearly considered an escape. Once he graduated from Oxford, he settled down with Hale, who would become a crucial reader of his work, a tireless supporter of his travels, and a poignant victim of his moods and his viciousness. (“It could be said that I had killed her,” he told his biographer, Patrick French, after treating her with extreme disregard while she battled cancer decades later. “It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.”)

By the late 1950s, he had produced short stories and a novel set in Trinidad; from that point forward, he began five decades of fiction writing and travel, especially to India, Africa, and the Caribbean. He eventually married Nadira Alvi, a Pakistani journalist he met before Hale’s death; he invited her to live in the home he had shared with Hale on the day after her cremation, in February of 1996.

Naipaul came under serious criticism from writers such as the St. Lucian Derek Walcott for depicting places like Trinidad as “half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made.” (That is from a reflection Naipaul wrote on Joseph Conrad, with whom he is often compared.) But Trinidad, and his background, would nevertheless exert a magnetic pull on the rest of his career. He would constantly return to the story of his journey to England, which made him part of the so-called Windrush generation of immigrants to Great Britain from the Caribbean, no matter how much Naipaul considered himself unique in supposedly transcending the circumstances of his birth. (His younger brother, Shiva, would make a similar journey years later and also became a successful novelist before dying at a young age.) Naipaul’s views were often simplistically described as imperialist; in fact, he could trenchantly depict the psychological damage colonialism inflicted, but these insights did not lessen his bigotry, or his oft-stated contempt for the “mimicry” adopted by colonialism’s victims.

By the time I interviewed Naipaul, in 2012, he was staying primarily in London, barely writing, and moving very slowly under Nadira Naipaul’s watchful eye. He seemed to fully have embraced his increasingly common popular image as a grumpy reactionary, skeptical of all manner of social change and pessimistic about the fate of postcolonial societies around the world. He was intimidating and austere, and after a testy interview in which he seemed to get annoyed with most of my questions, and refused to talk about French’s recent controversial biography, we sat down to lunch. (His reluctance was due largely, one assumes, to its revelations about Hale, whose diaries Naipaul had allowed French to use, in what French himself wrote was “an act of narcissism and humility.”)

Naipaul finally opened up when discussing the death of his cat, Augustus, informing me that he no longer wanted to stay in the Wiltshire house Augustus had lived in because it made him too sad. “The terrible part of it is that people suggest to me that I get a new cat, that I invite this new cat into the home I shared with Augustus,” he continued. “As if this one should just be replaced so soon. It shows a lack of understanding.”

I asked Nadira some basic questions about her time as a journalist in Pakistan, and after answering several of them she smiled and asked if I knew what Pakistan needed. I informed her that I did not. “A dictator,” she replied. At this her husband laughed.

“I think they have tried that,” I said, doing my best to stay stoic.

“No, no, a very brutal dictator,” she answered. I told her they had tried that, too. “No, no,” she answered again. Only when a real dictator came in and killed the religious people in the country, and enough of them that the streets would “run with blood,” could Pakistan be reborn. It was as if she was parodying a gross caricature of Naipaul’s worst views—and also misunderstanding his pessimism about the ability of colonial societies to reinvent themselves, even through violence—but he smiled with delight as she spoke.

“That’s so American of you,” she then blurted out, before I had said anything. My face, while she had been talking, must have taken on a look of shock or disgust. “You tell a nice young American boy like yourself that a country needs a brutal dictator and they get a moralistic or concerned look on their face, as if every country is ready for a democracy. They aren’t.” The man who liked to say that Indian women wore a dot on their foreheads because they wanted to signal “my head is empty,” and who stated that the destruction of a famous Indian mosque by Hindu fanatics was “India striving to regain her soul” had found his soulmate. I was also uncomfortably reminded of what the leftist Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James—part of whose life is captured to tantalizing effect in Naipaul’s A Way of the World—said of Naipaul: that much of what he wrote was “what the whites want to say but dare not.” It felt as if the clouds that had always obscured so much of what I loved about Naipaul were beginning to conceal everything.

Also in Slate: Where to Start With V. S. Naipaul

This piece has been updated since publication.