LONDON — V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born Nobel laureate whose precise and lyrical writing in such novels as “A Bend in the River” and “A House for Mr. Biswas” and brittle, misanthropic personality made him one of the world’s most admired and contentious writers, died Saturday at his London home, his family said. He was 85.
His wife, Nadira Naipaul, said he was “a giant in all that he achieved and he died surrounded by those he loved having lived a life which was full of wonderful creativity and endeavor.”
His friend and fellow author Paul Theroux said that he had been in poor health, but had taken pride in having his work recognized.
“He will go down as one of the greatest writers of our time,” Theroux told The Associated Press during a telephone interview Saturday, citing his mastery of writing about families and colonialism. “He also never wrote falsely. He was a scourge of anyone who used a cliche or an un-thought out sentence. He was very scrupulous about his writing, very severe, too.”
Naipaul’s fiction and nonfiction reflected his personal journey from Trinidad to London and various stops in developing countries. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.”
In an extraordinary career spanning half a century, Naipaul traveled as a self-described “barefoot colonial” from his rural childhood to upper class England, and was hailed as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. From “A Bend in the River” to “The Enigma of Arrival” to “Finding the Centre,” Naipaul’s books explored colonialism and decolonization, exile and the struggles of the everyman in the developing world.
He was critical of colonialism, but set himself apart from any social movements. He saw himself as a realist, cured of illusions, his outlook defined by the famous opening words of “A Bend in the River” that became the title of a biography by Patrick French: “The world is what it is.”
He was equally skeptical of religion and politics, of idealism of any kind, whether revolutionary uprisings or of quests for paradise such as Sir Walter Raleigh’s search for the non-existent El Dorado.
“If you come from the New World, as I in large measure do, you see all the absurd fantasies people have taken there and the troubles they have wrought as a result,” Naipaul told The Associated Press in 2000. “We were not given a proper history of the New World itself. This was not out of wickedness. It was out of ignorance, out of indifference, out of the feelings that the history of this very small island was not important. These aspects one had to learn and writing took me there. One didn’t begin with knowledge. One wrote oneself into knowledge.”
Naipaul prided himself on his candor, but he had a long history of offensive remarks. Among his widely quoted comments: He called India a “slave society,” quipped that Africa has no future, and explained that Indian women wear a colored dot on their foreheads to say “my head is empty.” He laughed off the 1989 fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie as “an extreme form of literary criticism.”