August 17th – V.S. Naipaul

“After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities.”

V.S. Naipaul

VS Naipaul was born August 17, 1932, on a sugar plantation on the island of Trinidad. He published more than thirty books in his lifetime and is best known for his novels depicting the legacy and destruction of the British Empire’s colonialism. 

His grandparents emigrated from India to Trinidad and Tobago as indentured servants. His father, Seepersad, was an English-language journalist for the Trinidad Guardian, and his reverence for writing and writers guided the dreams and aspirations of his son.

After graduating from Queen’s Royal College (a high school) Naipaul was awarded a Trinidad Government scholarship to study abroad, and choose to pursue a degree in English at Oxford. After a year of school Naipaul became disheartened with his writing, making plans to return to Trinidad before having something of a nervous breakdown and fleeing to Spain for a trip. Upon returning to Oxford, he met Patricia Ann Hale, a history student, and they became close friends and eventually lovers. Hale helped him move back into writing, and in June of 1953, they both graduated. 

In October of the same year, Naipaul’s father died. As the eldest son, he was expected to light the funeral pyre but could not return to Trinidad to do so. Unable to find secure employment Naipaul planned on enrolling in Oxford for a post-graduate degree but failed his entrance exams. He moved to London and found employment with the BBC Caribbean Voices program, although his girlfriend Pat financially supported the couple. The couple married privately in January 1955, telling neither of their families. Working with the writers on the program, Naipaul was inspired and wrote up a short story based on his memories as a child in a Port of Spain street. Further encouraged by positive feedback, he spent five weeks writing Miguel Street, a collection of stories. Publishers liked the book but did not think there was a market. So Naipaul quickly wrote a novel, The Mystic Masseur, in the autumn of 1955, and it was bought by publisher André Deutsch in December for £125.

In late August 1956, Naipaul returned to Trinidad. He used his travel experiences to write his comic novel The Suffrage of Elvira, which he finished in early 1957, just before his first novel was published in June. While waiting for royalties to come in, Naipaul took a desk job at Cement and Concrete Association, and also began to review books for New Statesman. 

From 1957 to 1960 Naipaul wrote his pivotal work A House for Mr. Biswas. After it was completed, Naipaul and Pat took a tour of the Caribbean, receiving expenses and a stipend to explore. Naipaul wrote his first book of travel writing – The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies. After this trip they traveled to India and spent a year there. Little Brown and Company invited Naipaul to write a book on Port of Spain, and he released The Loss of El Dorado in 1969, although sales of the first printing of only 3000 copies were disappointing. He was hoping for a hit that would relieve his financial stress. In the 1960s the couple also spent time in Africa, which inspired his book In A Free State, released in 1971. It was awarded the Booker Prize. Following that, Naipaul released Guerrillas (1975), and hit a creative slump for a few years before A Bend in the River was published in 1979 – considered to be one of his best works. 

In 2001 Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Although his wife Pat supported him financially and with research, Naipaul was not completely satisfied with their relationship and in 1972 began an affair with Margaret Murray Gooding, a married woman, that lasted for 24 years, until his wife’s death in 1995. After Pat’s death, Naipaul ended his affair and married Nadira Alvi, a Pakistani journalist.

He died on August 11, 2018, just before his 86th birthday, reading those at his bedside Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar just before dying. 

Lesson from Naipaul:

Don’t circumscribe yourself with your thoughts on who you are or what you can become. If you want to write – pursue it. Travel? Write about another country? Create new worlds? There are endless possibilities out there if you are willing to put in the work and be brave enough to pursue your dreams. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s