The Daily Fix

The Weekend Fix: 10 reads on VS Naipaul, from the worst things he said to why he still matters

Everything you need to know for the day (and a little more).

Nobel prize-winning author VS Naipaul died on Saturday in London. He was 85. Born in Trinidad in 1932, Naipaul would grow to loom large over the literary firmament writing eloquently and sometimes infuriatingly about India and being a part of the diaspora among many other things. He won the Booker Prize in 1971 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001.

  1. “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 to individual lives and triumphs,” writes Rachel Donadio in her obituary of Naipaul in the New York Times.
  2. “Naipaul cast a steely eye on the shards of empire in a series of novels and travelogues. Unflattering portraits of the West Indies, India, Africa and the Islamic faith brought both hostility and acclaim. Critics accused him of holding people of the developing world in contempt even as his diamantine prose won him a series of awards including the Booker prize in 1971, a knighthood in 1989 and the Nobel prize for literature in 2001,” writes Richard Lea in his obituary in the Guardian.
  3. “I value Naipaul for his travel narratives, for his visits to the so-called dark places of the earth... They are courageous not because they voice unpopular, and sometimes wrong-headed, opinion, but for the opposite reason: the books contain little opinion and are, rather, artful compressions of dozens of conversations. These are texts in which the natives, whomever they might be, speak for themselves and give an account, sometimes inadvertently, of their contradictory beliefs and ways of life, but also of their deep humanity,” Teju Cole writes in the New Yorker of when he met Naipaul.
  4. Sanjay Subhramanyam, in the London Review of Books, engages with Naipaul as the person of colour who judges the world according to the West: “So, in the end, there is a reason why we should be grateful that Naipaul exists. With his clarity of expression and utter lack of self-awareness, he provides a window into a world and its prejudices: he is thus larger than himself.”
  5. Emily Temple, on Flavorwire, collects a list of the worst things that Naipaul ever said. Here’s one: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”
  6. “Remember that last sentence and a half, for it is Naipaul’s thesis as well as the platform from which he addresses the world: The West is the world of knowledge, criticism, technical know-how and functioning institutions, Islam is its fearfully enraged and retarded dependent, awakening to a new, barely controllable power. The West provides Islam with good things from the outside, because “the life that had come to Islam had not come from within.” Thus the existence of one billion Muslims is summed up in a phrase and dismissed,” writes Edward Said in Outlook.
  7. What do we do with the art of monstrous men, asks Claire Derder in the Paris Review?
  8. This was the magic of reading Naipaul in those years,” writes Amitav Ghosh. “His views and opinions I almost always disagreed with: some because they were founded in truths that were too painful to acknowledge; some because they were misanthropic or objectionable; and some because they came uncomfortably close to being racist or just plain ignorant (the last, particularly, in his writings on the Islamic world). Yet he was writing of matters that no one else thought worth noticing; he had found words to excavate new dimensions of experience.”
  9. The Paris Review’s invited Jonathen Rosen and Tarun Tejpal to interview Naipaul for its Art of Fiction series in 1998.
  10. “Every serious writer has to be original; he cannot be content to do or to offer a version of what has been done before. And every serious writer as a result becomes aware of this question of form; because he knows that however much he might have been educated and stimulated by the writers he has read or reads, the forms matched the experience of those writers, and do not strictly suit his own,” writes VS Naipaul in the New York Review of Books. “My aim was truth, truth to a particular experience, containing a definition of the writing self. Yet I was aware at the end of that book that the creative process remained as mysterious as ever.”

The Big Scroll:

  • Rifat Munim says we can continue to like VS Naipaul’s novels while opposing his ideas.
  • “It’s intriguing to muse on the ways his talent could have expressed itself had Naipaul turned his unforgiving gaze on the colonisers instead of the colonised; or tried to work out ways of how he fit into their world. A wonderful and rare example of the latter can be found in the quiet yet vivid descriptions of the changing English countryside and his place in it in the haunting The Enigma of Arrival. Intriguing to ponder on such untrodden paths, yes, but also fruitless. The world is what it is, and Sir Vidia was what he was,” writes Sanjay Sipahimalani.
  • Read Naipaul’s Nobel speech from 2001, in which he examines his own past and what writing meant to him.
  • Urvashi Bahuguna collects the five books that will introduce you to Naipaul’s complicated legacy.
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