Sir VS Naipaul, the Trinidad and Tobago-born Nobel laureate, whose precise and lyrical writing and brittle, misanthropic personality made him one of the world’s most admired and contentious writers, has died at 85.
- VS Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001
- He received a knighthood in 1990
- Author Paul Theroux says he will go down as one of the greatest writers of our time
His family said Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul or Vidia, who wrote A Bend in the River and A House for Mr Biswas, died on Saturday at his London home.
His wife, Nadira Naipaul, 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 endeavour”.
His friend and fellow author Paul Theroux said that he had been in poor health, but had taken pride in having his work recognised.
“He will go down as one of the greatest writers of our time,” he said.
“He also never wrote falsely. He was a scourge of anyone who used a cliche or an un-thought out sentence. He was very scrupulous about his writing, very severe, too.”
Sir Vidiadhar’s fiction and nonfiction reflected his personal journey from Trinidad and Tobago to London and various stops in developing countries.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories”.
In an extraordinary career spanning half a century, Sir Vidiadhar travelled as a self-described “barefoot colonial” from his rural childhood to upper class England, and was hailed as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
His books explored colonialism and decolonisation, exile and the struggles in the developing world.
He was equally sceptical of religion and politics, of idealism of any kind, whether revolutionary uprisings or of quests for paradise such as Sir Walter Raleigh’s search for the non-existent El Dorado.
Sir Vidiadhar prided himself on his candour, but he had a long history of offensive remarks. He called India a “slave society,” quipped that Africa has no future, and explained that Indian women wear a coloured dot on their foreheads to say “my head is empty”.
Non-fiction provokes anger
Sir Vidiadhar was born on August 17, 1932 in Trinidad and Tobago — a descendant of impoverished Indians shipped to the West Indies as bonded labourers.
In 1950, he was awarded one of a few available government scholarships to study in England, and he left his family to begin his studies in English literature at University College, Oxford.
There he met his first wife, Patricia Hale, whom he married in 1955 without telling his family.
After graduation, Sir Vidiadhar suffered a period of poverty and unemployment: he was asthmatic, starving and depending on his wife for income.
His breakthrough came in 1957 with his first published novel The Mystic Masseur.
His non-fiction often provoked much anger, and many were offended by his views about Islam and India — novelist Salman Rushdie, for example, thought he was promoting Hindu nationalism.
Rushdie tweeted late on Saturday night:
Sir Vidiadhar received a knighthood in 1990, and in 2001 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
He was a private man and did not have many friends, but his personal life entered the public domain when Theroux, whose relationship with Sir Vidiadhar had soured, published a stinging memoir about him in 1998.
Sir Vidia’s Shadow described him as a racist, sexist miser who threw terrifying tantrums and beat up women.
Sir Vidiadhar ignored Theroux’s book, but he did authorise a candid biography that confirmed some of Theroux’s claims.
It recalled Sir Vidiadhar’s confession to The New Yorker that he bought sex and was a “great prostitute man”. and recorded his frank and disturbing comments on how that destroyed his wife, Hale, who died of breast cancer in 1996.
“It could be said that I had killed her,” he told biographer Patrick French. “I feel a little bit that way.”
Two months after Hale died, he married his second wife, Pakistani newspaper columnist Nadira Khannum Alvi.
Theroux, who later reconciled with Sir Vidiadhar, had visited with him recently.
“We had some very ups and downs over the years, but there was great satisfaction in reconnecting,” he said.