Author Sir V.S. Naipaul gave voice to people with forgotten histories. Whether they migrated through force or fate, he often portrayed those searching for a new home and identity. Naipaul, a Nobel laureate and one of the foremost fiction and nonfiction authors of the 20th century, died August 11, 2018. The University of Tulsa houses Naipaul’s entire archive, a collection that preserves his own history, which is anything but forgettable.
V.S. Naipaul origins
Although Naipaul was of Indian descent, he was born and raised in Trinidad. Lars Engle, TU Chapman Professor of English, said, “His ancestors, who were Brahmins (that is high caste in India), came to Trinidad with sugarcane cutters and gradually built a family there.”
Naipaul’s impressive intellect and ambition won him a scholarship to Oxford University; and once in England, he never again lived in Trinidad. Dean of the TU McFarlin Library Adrian Alexander explained, “He was a post-colonial man without a country almost because he grew up in an area where another ethnic group was predominant. When he came to England as a man of color, he was never in a place where he was at home.”
The quest for self-definition is interwoven throughout his personal life and a hallmark in his memorable characters. Published in 1961, Naipaul’s first significant novel, A House for Mr. Biswas is “considered one of the top 100 English language books of the 20th century,” Alexander said.
Marking the passing of Naipaul, President Barack Obama included A House for Mr. Biswas in his 2018 summer reading list. “It’s his first great novel about growing up in Trinidad and the challenge of post-colonial identity,” Obama said.
Often known for his unsparing insight, Naipaul’s first novels have a more comedic tone. A House for Mr. Biswas focuses on “his father’s attempts to separate himself from the power of his wife’s family and their relative prosperity among the community,” Engle said. “It’s a novel not without its sadness, but it’s very funny and warm. By comparison with Naipaul’s later work, it’s tender.”
A new kind of novel
Naipaul had an appreciation for straight forward, factual writing, which led him to write not only nonfiction books but also an innovative blend of fiction and journalism. Because his father was a journalist, “he always thought factual writing was important because it showed the world for what it was in a way that fiction never could,” Alexander said. Naipaul’s combination of facts and embellishments were so intertwined, “you couldn’t really tell which was which.”
His strictly nonfiction writings are often described as travelogues, but don’t expect a list of top restaurants and suggested attire. “They are more an examination of the culture he enters, and they are often quite critical,” Engle said.
Naipaul wrote his truth and both the colonized and the colonizer were scrutinized. “Looking at the people of this new world and telling the truth about them became Naipaul’s theme and purpose in both his novels and his nonfiction books,” Engle explained.
Oh the controversy
Due to Naipaul’s stringent evaluations of different cultures, he acquired many enemies. In his book, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples, he views non-Arabic Islamist as abandoning their indigenous roots. The book’s reception was divisive among Muslims. Naipaul continued to generate adversaries with a trilogy on India: An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now. “He alienated a great many Indians and people of Indian descent,” Engle said. The first book was even originally banned from India.
As a man of color, Naipaul was accustomed to being distinctive in Trinidad and England, but in India, he was another face in the crowd. “For the first time I his life, he was anonymous, and it bothered him a lot,” Alexander added.
Another apparent conflict of Naipaul’s identity was his unusual opinions on monarchs. “The reason that Naipaul had a remunerative speaking career among rich white American conservatives is that in some ways Naipaul is nostalgic for aspects of the British Empire,” Engle said. “Unlike almost all great writers of color, he is not programmatically anti-imperialist.”
The pursuit of happiness
Naipaul was a non-practicing Hindu, but his core belief was “the progress of civilization (while he was equivocal about whether civilization was making any progress or not) he believed in the power of life being a pursuit of happiness.” Engle said.
Despite some of the darkness surrounding his late works, “he believed his own writing was chronicling people who were pursuing happiness though with difficulties and many kinks,” Engle said.
Naipaul visited The University of Tulsa at the inauguration of his archives, and Engle had a brief chance to interact with him. “I got an impression of a slightly haughty man with a wicked sense of humor and maybe quite a bit of warmth underneath.”
V.S. Naipaul archives
In 1993, McFarlin Library acquired Naipaul’s entire life archive. From manuscripts to his publisher’s papers, a picture of Naipaul’s truest identity emerges. In letters to his editor, Naipaul’s hesitation about his talent is evident. “His editor says of him: ‘I didn’t have to work hard on his books. What I had to work on was his psyche. I had to keep him from going into despair when he finished a novel because he thought it was so imperfect,’” Engle noted.
There are even more personal accounts like the journal kept by Naipaul’s’ wife who was dying of cancer when he left her for a lover, which Naipaul never read. Researchers from all over the world travel to TU to explore the Naipaul Archives; and his biographer, Patrick French, even spoke to the McFarlin Fellows.
“The collection is unique because it is his entire life archive,” Alexander said. “For writers of the caliber and reputation of someone like Naipaul, those collections don’t typically all go to one place.”
Just as Naipaul tried to make sense of his place in the world, his archives illuminate his distinguished place in literary history.