V.S. Naipaul, 1932-2018

A born fighter, who resisted identity politics his whole career, has died

You’ve probably never heard the expression “you better bring a book to a knife fight,” because it’s an expression I just invented. Today, writers are better known for their rapier wit than skill with an actual rapier, but there was a period when writers were combative on matters other than identity politics. There was Norman Mailer, a literary and non-literary pugilist who fought with his contemporaries. (See below for a classic fight between Mailer and Gore Vidal, where Mailer is offended because Vidal alludes to Mailer having stabbed his wife; Dick Cavett asks if Mailer would like two more chairs “to contain your giant intellect”; even Janet Flanner sizzles him). There was Philip Roth, unkind to most humans and beautifully withering to Wikipedia. And there was V.S. Naipaul, who battled writers, prejudice (including his own), and the very idea of an identity or a homeland.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in 1932 in Trinidad, but he would have considered that the least interesting thing about himself. Naipaul detested defining oneself by culture or ethnicity, and famously left a publishing house when they called him “a West Indian novelist.”

Naipaul would have been better defined as a self-invented writer like Joseph Conrad, who shed his name and a landlocked Poland to emerge as an English writer about the sea. Naipaul barely conceded Conrad’s influence, but he too found a sanctuary in England. Perhaps Naipaul’s most controversial recent comment was of immigrants: “I think if a man picks himself up and moves to another country, he must meet it halfway.”

Naipaul wrote a good deal about colonialism—and not especially critically—in novels such as A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River. He won a constellation of literary prizes and a Nobel Prize in 2001.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, he wrote, “I know nothing of the people on my father’s side; I know only that some of them came from Nepal. Two years ago a kind Nepalese who liked my name sent me a copy of some pages from an 1872 gazetteer-like British work about India, Hindu Castes and Tribes as Represented in Benares; the pages listed—among a multitude of names—those groups of Nepalese in the holy city of Banaras who carried the name Naipal. That is all that I have.”

Naipaul took deep pleasure in fighting with various interviewers, publishers, and friends. His most public fight was with Paul Theroux, who fell out with his former mentor when he discovered that Naipaul was selling a collection of Theroux’s work that had been personally inscribed to him. The two later settled the feud, but the prickly Naipaul reveled in his fights to the end.

Naipaul was always a combatant, but it will be an interesting test to see how his legacy is preserved. Naipaul was a warrior of writing who perfected an unflinching, even cruel eye used to judge people and non-Western cultures. That Naipaul removed himself from his “culture” in order to coldly observe it puts him at distinct odds with today’s cultural hawks, so sensitive that even Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name must be removed from a prize. Read him, or at least read about his fights. Those will certainly be his legacy.

Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

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