In an age of mandatory multi-culturalism and groupthink --where well-intentioned but stale pieties stand in for close scrutiny on the left, and shrill but defensive assertions parade as rigorous criticism on the right -- it is altogether beneficial to have a writer such as V.S. Naipaul in our midst. Throughout his long and prolific career, Naipaul, who was knighted in 1990 and awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001 (in a rare instance of merit triumphing over politics,) has never bothered to check the cultural pulse before offering his blunt, often incendiary opinions. Although he has won the Booker Prize as well as numerous other British prizes and has lived in England since the age of eighteen, he continues to see himself as an outsider. ''I could not have done this writing in any other country,'' he explained in a recent interview.'' ''To that extent, I am a British writer.''
Naipaul's position is that of someone in a permanent state of exile who has never lost sight / his success and the acclaim that has come with it notwithstanding --of his precarious status as a minority within a minority. (Although true to form, he has been known to mock the very notion of exile, questioning what it means ''in a world of cheap airfares'' where everyone ''can go home.'') He was born in 1932 andgrew up in a large Indian family [of Brahmin caste?], the second of seven children, in the tiny and impoverished town of Port of Spain, Trinidad (his Hindu grandfather came over as an indentured servant.) In 1950, Naipaul left for Oxford on a government scholarship; according to the letters that are collected in Between Father and Son, he delighted in seeing snow for the first time and endured the entrenched snobbism of university life by dint of gritty application (he set set himself to reading straight through chunks of literature:''Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Donne, Marlowe,etc'') and care packages from home (which typically included cigarettes as well as tinned staples, such as sugar and juice.), and.'' 178] While still at Oxford he got married to a fellow-student whom he described grudgingly in a letter to his family as ''not unintelligent or altogether unattractive.'' (The unsung Pat would go on to suffer Naipaul's temper, infidelities, and general neglect--he rarely made mention of her in his writing and usually left her home when he went anywhere grand-- in the name of her quiet belief in his genius.) Through sheer will and perseverance, living on the money he made from piecemeal assignments and his wife's income as a school mistress, Naipual proceeded to hurl himself at the cliquish London literary world. He painstakingly carved out a position out for himself as a ''Paki'' writer worth attending to, shooting out three novels before he was thirty, and going on to cement his reputation with what many consider to be his best novel, A House for Mr. Biswas / a tender and funny portrait based on his father, a struggling journalist who dreamed of literary glory. (V.S. Pritchett, usually the least snobby of critics, once described him as ''a brilliant chameleon from the Caribbean,'' and went on to note approvingly that unlike other imported novelists of color, Naipaul knew his place: ''He feels his pain, but he is in command.'')
Yet although he is as entitled to claim the prerogatives of the disenfranchised as much as anyone, Naipaul has always eschewed the rhetoric of marginality. ''To be a victim,'' he has observed, ''is to be absurd.'' Sir Vidya's Shadow, Possessed of a vigorous, casually elegant prose style and infinite curiousity, he has managed to elude every possible ideological niche despite having produced an extraordinary body of work -- twenty-six books in all, including almost equal amounts of fiction and non-fiction -- over the past forty years. With his unbowed independence of mind, his pessimistic convictions about the inevitable abuse of power and the durability of human avarice, Naipaul has been a thorn in the side of bien pensant types of evey political stripe.
This would be all to the good, of course, if Naipaul /known as Vidya to unrequited admirers like Paul Theroux, who several years ago published Sir Vidya's Shadow, a fascinating account of their abruptly terminated friendship in which Naipaul emerges as an unlikable but oddly moving character / were as widely read as he is discussed among a tiny group of ''pointy-headed intellectuals'' (in a phrase he lifted from George Wallace.'')[SV's Shadow, One would think that the mere fact of his wide-ranging interests / he has written about the rise of fundamentalist Islam, the complex legacy of racism in the American South, the decimated energies of India, the genocidal history of Argentina, and the disorder and instability of the post-colonialist Third World -- would gain him a large readership. But the mirror that Naipual holds up to contemporary civilization is a less than flattering one: The tragic view he has expressed from the very beginning, which has seemed to afford him a tonic /strange kind of comfort, offers little in the way of ordinary solace. (''Suffering,'' he explained in a letter from Oxford to his older sister, Kamla, ''* is as elemental as night'' and ''makes more keen the appreciation of happiness.'') Indeed, the very gloominess of his beliefs, characterized by his obsession, as he described it in ''The Enigma of Arrival,'' with ''the idea of decay,'' and his sense of having been born into ''a world past its peak,'' have ensured him a relatively small audience.
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