V.S. Naipaul wins Nobel for literature

Literature: The outspoken writer is acclaimed for both fiction and nonfiction, much of it critical of the Third World.

October 12, 2001|By Dan Cryer | Dan Cryer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

V.S. Naipaul, whose life and writings have made him one of the world's most cosmopolitan and controversial writers, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature yesterday.

The 69- year-old writer was born in Trinidad, where his parents had emigrated from India, and has lived in Britain since leaving home for Oxford University in 1950. A novelist and travel writer, he has written acerbic, no-holds-barred books about Britain and various Third World countries.

His best-known works include the novels A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River and Guerrillas; the nonfiction books India: A Wounded Civilization and Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey and a memoir, The Enigma of Arrival.

A winner of the Booker Prize, Britain's most coveted literary honor, in 1971, Naipaul was knighted in 1990. Many critics regard Naipaul as the heir to Joseph Conrad.

"Whatever we may want in a novelist," Irving Howe wrote in 1979, "is to be found in his works: an almost Conradian gift for tensing a story, a serious involvement with human issues, a supple English prose, a hard-edged wit, a personal vision of things."

Even so, Naipaul's willingness to speak his mind has made him a contentious figure. He is an unabashed cynic and snob who has called India unwashed, Trinidad unlearned and Britain culturally bankrupt. "Africa has no future" was another famous Naipaul dismissal.

Little wonder in the Third World, Naipaul is "a marked man as a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust for the world that produced him," according to Edward Said, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York.

What remains undisputed is that Naipaul writes from a sensibility of displacement, rootlessness and exile. This quality gives his work a tone that is very urbane and very cold. In his view, this is the mark of the truth-teller, the dispeller of illusions.

"Naipaul writes about the many psychic realities of exile in our contemporary world," critic Alfred Kazin wrote, "with far more bite and dramatic havoc" than Irish novelist and famous expatriate James Joyce.

What gives Naipaul's work the greater impact, Kazin wrote, "is his major image - the tenuousness of man's hold on the earth."

Late in his career, Naipaul seemed to have turned his back on the novel. He denied that, but insisted that it was not necessarily the highest form of literary prose. As he put it: "Great writing can be done in biography, history, art."

And clearly, he hasn't yet exhausted the possibilities of fiction; his new book, Half a Life, to be published this month, is a novel.

Dan Cryer is book critic at Newsday, a Tribune publishing newspaper.

Excerpts from the works of V.S. Naipaul

"The destructive urge comes on me at times like this. I want to see fire everywhere, when I stop and think that there is no hope of creative endeavor being appreciated, it is all for nothing, and on a night like this I feel I could weep for our world and for the people who find themselves unprotected in it. When I think how much I expected of my life at one time, and when I think how quickly that time of hope dies, I get sad, and more so when I think of the people who never expected anything. We are children of hell." - from Guerrillas, 1975

"With each job description I read, I felt a tightening of what I must call my soul. I found myself growing false to myself, acting to myself, convincing myself of my rightness for whatever was being described. And this is where I suppose life ends for most people, who stiffen in the attitudes they adopt to make themselves suitable for the jobs and lives that other people have laid out for them."

- from A Bend in the River, 1979

"The life that had come to Islam had not come from within. It had come from outside events and circumstances, the spread of the universal civilizations. It was the late 20th century that had made Islam revolutionary, giving new meaning to old Islamic ideas of equality and union, shaken up static or retarded societies. It was the late 20th century - and not the faith - that could supply the answers - in institutions, legislation, economic systems."

- from Among the Believers, 1981

Associated Press

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