He was loathed by third world intellectuals and called, among other things, a “restorer of the comforting myths of the white race” (Chinua Achebe), “a despicable lackey of neocolonialism” (H.B. Singh) and a “cold and sneering prophet” (Eric Roach).
He made enemies as easily as sipping tea. He said: “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.” He physically abused Margaret Murray, his mistress of many years. He spoke openly about disliking overweight people and about visiting prostitutes. A bindi on a woman’s forehead signifies, he said, “My head is empty.”
He had as many ardent defenders. Ian Buruma, the editor of The New York Review of Books, thought it was a mistake to view Naipaul as “a dark man mimicking the prejudices of the white imperialists.” He wrote: “This view is not only superficial, it is wrong. Naipaul’s rage is not the result of being unable to feel the native’s plight; on the contrary, he is angry because he feels it so keenly.”
At its best, Naipaul’s work made these questions nearly moot. He was a self-styled heir to Joseph Conrad, and a legitimate one. “This is what I would ask of the writer,” he once said. “How much of the modern world does his work contain?” Naipaul’s work contained multitudes — subtle and overlapping meanings, only rarely sledgehammer ones. He is the subject of an excellent biography, “The World Is What It Is” (2008), by Patrick French — a good starting point, along with “A House for Mr. Biswas,” for those interested in Naipaul’s work.
Naipaul was a difficult man. He cultivated an air of superciliousness. He treated interviewers the way cats treat mice, condescending to them and pouncing on their, in his view, naïve and ridiculous questions. Yet those who knew him also spoke of his personal warmth.
One example will suffice. In her new memoir, “A Life of My Own,” the English biographer Claire Tomalin writes about becoming ill while at lunch with Naipaul in the early 1980s. He canceled both their orders and requested a pot of tea and a jug of hot milk, which they shared before he suggested a restorative walk by the river. “I decided Vidia was not only one of the great writers of his generation,” she wrote, “he was also the kindest of men.”
Naipaul overcame a great deal, including years of neglect, before making it as a writer. He had determination and a sense of destiny. “I knew the door I wanted,” he wrote. “I knocked.”