The Nobel Prize-winning British author invented post-colonial literatureby Sameer Rahim / August 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
In December 1950, a young Vidia Naipaul wrote a letter from Oxford back to his family in Trinidad. “I want to come top of my group,” he said, “I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.” By all measures of formal public commendation, VS Naipaul, who died on Saturday at the age of 85, came out top of his group. He won the Booker and the Nobel Prize among many other accolades; in 1990 he was knighted. Along with Chinua Achebe, he inaugurated what is now called post-colonial fiction. Through his own talent and sheer hard work—starting with winning the highly competitive island scholarship to study in England—Naipaul leaves us 30 books written over 50 years, evenly split between fiction and non-fiction. He mastered every genre, from the pungently witty stories of Trinidad street life in Miguel Street (1959) and his tragi-comic masterpiece A House for Mr Biswas (1961), to the Conradian darkness of A Bend in the River (1979). He invented a fair few genres as well—most notably the auto-fiction of The Enigma of Arrival (1987), an unclassifiable work in which his beautifully controlled prose is married to a piercing self-analysis.
But despite his astonishing achievements, he is still under-appreciated, or only grudgingly given his due. Unlike Philip Roth, another giant of post-war letters who died earlier this year, there was no late flowering. His last book, the 2010 travel narrative The Masque of Africa, was a forgettable effort that rehashed old stereotypes about the continent. Patrick French’s 2008 authorised biography, while an admiring portrait, drew attention to Naipaul’s troubled relations with women, especially his first wife Patricia whom he repeatedly cheated on with prostitutes.
He was always ready to trash an old friend (Anthony Powell, Paul Theroux) or dismiss a canonical writer (especially if they were a woman.) That in making such comments he was often practising what West Indians called “Picong” or provocative banter, testing his audience to see if they could come up with a counter-argument or joke, was usually missed when his comments were set down in bald print.
The papers didn’t know how to place him. “Trinidad-born author” was what the Observer called a writer who had lived in England for nearly 70 years. Naipaul, not one…