VS Naipaul, the British writer born in the town of Chaguanas in Trinidad, was as famous for his subtle and piercing prose as his deliberately cantankerous manner. Over his career, he wrote 15 works of fiction, starting with The Mystic Masseur (1957) and ending with Magic Seeds (2004), and about as many of non-fiction, including diaries and essays that shaped the post-colonial literary world — not without controversy.

“Sir Vidia” has died at the age of 85 in his London home. As news of his death spread, among the first to pay tribute were writers with whom he had fallouts and skirmishes, which sometimes lasted decades. He had the knack of choosing his opponents well. The author Salman Rushdie tweeted: “We disagreed all our lives, about politics, about literature, and I feel as sad as if I just lost a beloved older brother,” and the travel writer Paul Theroux, who mended his relationship with Naipaul in 2015 after a long feud, told the Associated Press: “He will go down as one of the greatest writers of our time. He also never wrote falsely.”

Naipaul decided to be a writer young: “I was 11, no more, when the wish came to me . . . and then very soon it was a settled ambition,” he wrote. But it took some time to realise the ambition.

His early works of fiction, fully formed and still enduring, were written in his 30s, after his marriage to Patricia “Pat” Hale in 1955. The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street and A House for Mr Biswas were all set in Trinidad and had a gentle acuity and tenderness that he would later jettison. By 1962, he had offended Trinidadians by writing in his first travel book, The Middle Passage, that the place was “unimportant, uncreative, cynical”.

In a typically bristling interview with The Paris Review, which Naipaul began by challenging the interviewer on his technique, he said: “I grew up in a small place and left it when I was quite young and entered the bigger world.”

We disagreed all our lives, about politics, about literature, and I feel as sad as if I just lost a beloved older brother

Naipaul was a tireless traveller. By 1961, he had been through the West Indies and South America for The Middle Passage and in the early 1960s, he went across India with Pat, although he followed a practice common among male travel writers of the time by writing his companions, interpreters and fixers out of the final book, An Area of Darkness. He toured Venezuela, Argentina and Congo, and took a six-month trip across Asia after the Iranian Revolution for Among The Believers, published in 1981.

It was this period of fierce energy, with Pat in the background running his household and keeping his notes in order, that made his reputation.

His insights were sharp, his prose honed by the precision of his ideas, and his prejudices on full view, as his reputation grew to sometimes outsize proportions. When he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001, his “incorruptible scrutiny” was praised.

In person, Naipaul could be self-effacing and charming; his smile almost shy, his suit often rumpled. He was a mentor to many male writers, but he was fortunate to write in an era when few cared to examine the evidence that he mistreated his first wife, Pat, and abused his mistress, Margaret Murray. “Vidia says I didn’t mind the abuse. I certainly did mind,” she wrote in a letter to the New York Review of Books. In 1996, Patricia Hale died of cancer and the same year, Naipaul married the Pakistani journalist Nadira Alvi.

Few writers have left behind such a vast and complicated legacy — and such a furiously debated one. In his last decades, Naipaul was in danger of becoming the sort of caricature he might have put into one of his books — the grand, irascible old man, refusing to adapt to a changed world. But for better or worse, Naipaul influenced, and challenged, two generations of writers.


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