V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate who documented the migrations of peoples, the unravelling of the British Empire, the ironies of exile and the clash between belief and unbelief in more than a dozen unsparing novels and as many works of nonfiction, died on Saturday at his home in London. He was 85.
His family confirmed the death in a statement, the Associated Press reported.
In many ways embodying the contradictions of the postcolonial world, Mr. Naipaul was born of Indian ancestry in Trinidad, went to Oxford University on a scholarship and lived the rest of his life in England, where he forged one of the most illustrious literary careers of the past half century. He was knighted in 1990.
Compared in his lifetime to Conrad, Dickens and Tolstoy, he was also a lightning rod for criticism, particularly by those who read his portrayals of Third World disarray as apologies for colonialism.
Yet, Mr. Naipaul exempted neither colonizer nor colonized from his scrutiny. He wrote of the arrogance and self-aggrandizement of the colonizers, yet exposed the self-deception and ethical ambiguities of the liberation movements that swept across Africa and the Caribbean in their wake. He brought to his work moral urgency and a novelist’s attentiveness.
Mr. Naipaul personified a sense of displacement. Having left behind Trinidad, he was never entirely rooted in England. In awarding him the Nobel Prize in literature in 2001, the Swedish Academy described him as “a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice.”
Yet his existential homelessness was as much willed as fated. Although he spent his literary career mining his origins, Mr. Naipaul fiercely resisted the idea of being tethered to a particular ethnic or religious identity. He once left a publisher when he saw himself listed in the catalogue as a “West Indian novelist.” His guiding philosophy was universalism.
“What do they call it? Multi-culti? It’s all absurd, you know,” he said in 2004. “I think if a man picks himself up and comes to another country, he must meet it halfway.” It was the kind of provocative statement that won him both enemies and admirers over the years.
An often difficult man with a fierce temper, Mr. Naipaul had a face of hawklike severity. He continued to write novels even after declaring the form a 19th-century relic. Yet his fiction was always in conversation with his nonfiction; each new book built on the ones that came before. Mr. Naipaul wrote relatively slowly, sometimes only a paragraph a day, and was intensely protective of his work. Diana Athill, who edited 19 of his books at the London publisher Andre Deutsch, said editing Mr. Naipaul involved providing him with much reassurance.
“You didn’t actually ever have to do a single thing to any of his books,” Ms. Athill told The New Yorker in 1994. “But you did have to do a lot of attempting to cheer him up, because he would deliver a book and he would be happy when he delivered it, and then really soon he would go into a pit: ‘What is the point? What is the point of writing books? I’m never going to write another book.’”
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born on Aug. 17, 1932, in Chaguanas, Trinidad, where his paternal grandfather had emigrated from India in the 1880s as an indentured servant to work on the sugar plantations. His father, Seepersad, was a newspaper reporter for The Trinidad Guardian and an aspiring fiction writer who, as a child, was luckily allowed to go to school; his older brother was sent to work in the cane fields for 8 US cents a day and his sister remained illiterate. His mother, Droapatie Capildeo, was from a large, prosperous family, and when Naipaul was 6, the family moved in with them in a big house in Port of Spain.
The second of seven children, he was particularly close to his older sister, Kamla. His younger and only brother, Shiva, who was also a novelist, died in 1985.
Educated in English schools in Trinidad, Mr Naipaul said he owed his writing ambitions to his father, who read to him, among other things, from Booker Washington’s Up From Slavery.
His first years in England in the 1950s were full of panic and anxiety. In 1952, while at University College, Oxford, he had a mental breakdown.
“Before I became secure as a writer, it was a long, unbroken period of melancholy,” he told The New Yorker in 1994.
His first novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957), about Ganesh Ramsumair, a failed schoolteacher who becomes a masseur and later guru and politician in Trinidad, was well received.
His breakthrough was his joyous, deeply autobiographical fourth novel, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). Set in Trinidad, it is the story of a middle-aged journalist’s efforts to free himself of his dependence on his wife’s wealthier, domineering family and lay claim to his own corner of the world.
Written when he was not yet 30, the book cemented Mr. Naipaul’s standing among the most important writers of his generation; writing in The Times in 1971, Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist and later a fellow Nobel laureate, called it “magnificent.” It was eventually published by the Modern Library of 20th-century classics.
In 1955, Mr. Naipaul married Patricia Hale, an Englishwoman he had met at Oxford. The two were extremely close – she read all his work in progress – but their relationship was puzzling to outsiders, many of whom saw her as self-effacing and subservient. Ms. Hale is mentioned only once in his books, and not by name. The couple never had children.
His childlessness, he told The New Yorker in 1994, “really comes from a detestation of the squalling background of children that I grew up with in my extended family.” He also confessed that he had been “a great prostitute man” in the early years of his marriage and acknowledged that, in the 1970s, he had fallen in love with an Anglo-Argentine woman who became his long-time mistress. After Ms. Hale died of cancer in 1996, Mr. Naipaul dedicated a new edition of A House for Mr. Biswas to her memory.
For his first nonfiction book, The Middle Passage (1962), Mr. Naipaul returned to the West Indies. He charted racial tensions in Trinidad; analyzed the cultural “mimicry” he saw as central to colonial identity; and observed that the smaller Caribbean islands “in the name of tourism, are selling themselves into a new slavery.”
Some found his portrayal distasteful. Derek Walcott, the Caribbean-born poet and winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in literature, called him “V.S. Nightfall” in a poem and said his prose was scarred by his “repulsion towards Negroes” and the “self-disfiguring sneer that is praised for its probity.”
In 1964, Mr. Naipaul published the first of three travelogues about India, An Area of Darkness. He found that, despite his Indian origins, he did not belong there at all.
“No other country was more fitted to welcome a conqueror; no other conqueror was more welcome than the British,” he wrote. “While dominating India they expressed their contempt for it, and projected England; and Indians were forced into a nationalism which in the beginning was like a mimicry of the British.”
Mr. Naipaul began to travel in Africa in the 1970s. His collection In a Free State, from 1971, about a gay English civil servant and a “compound wife” who take a road trip through an unnamed African country that closely resembles Idi Amin’s Uganda, won the Booker Prize that year.
Mr. Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River (1979) centres on an Indian from East Africa in a newly independent African country that resembles Zaire under the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Mr. Naipaul had written about Mobutu in his 1975 essay A New King for the Congo, in which he compared the contemporary place to the one Conrad had described in Heart of Darkness.
In a 1974 essay, Mr. Naipaul wrote of his debt to Conrad, who had also willed himself to be an artist in England and also travelled to the far corners of the colonized world. “I found that Conrad – 60 years before, in a time of a great peace – had been everywhere before me,” he wrote. But in an interview with The Times in 2005, Mr. Naipaul revised this judgment. While conceding that Conrad was “great,” he insisted that he “had no influence on me.”
“Actually, I think A Bend in the River is much, much better than Conrad,” Mr. Naipaul said.
Mr. Naipaul’s writing about Africa drew criticism from many who were unsettled by his portraits of Africans. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe called him “a new purveyor of the old comforting myths” of the white West.
He was also criticized for his unflattering portrayals of women. In A Bend in the River, the protagonist spits on the naked body of his Belgian lover. In his 1975 novel Guerrillas, the English girlfriend of an exiled South African resistance hero acts on her fantasies of native sexual power to disastrous effect.
In 1996, two months after the death of his first wife, Mr. Naipaul married Nadira Khannum Alvi, a divorced Pakistani journalist more than 20 years his junior. He leaves her.
A complete list of who he leaves was not immediately available.