The Nobel Prize in Literature 2001
V. S. Naipaul
by David Pryce-Jones
The Nobel Prize for literature has gone to someone who deserves it. Like the great masters of the past, V.S. Naipaul tells stories which show us ourselves and the reality we live in. His use of language is as precise as it is beautiful. Simple, strong words, with which to express the humanity of all of us.
Born in Trinidad in 1932, the descendant of indentured labourers shipped from India, this dispossessed child of the Raj has come on a long and marvellous journey. His upbringing familiarised him with every sort of deprivation, material and cultural. A scholarship to Oxford brought him to this country. Nothing sustained him afterwards except the determination, often close to despair, to become a writer. Against all likelihood, a spirit of pure comedy flows through his early books. It is a saving grace.
Footloose, he began to travel for long periods in India and Africa. It was at a time of decolonisation, when so many people the whole world over had to reassess their identity. Naipaul saw for himself the resulting turmoil of emotions, that collision of self-serving myth and guilt which make up today's bewildered world and prevents people from coming to terms with who they really are, and to know how to treat one another. On these travels he was exploring nothing less than the meaning of culture and history.
Victimhood might have been his central theme, granted his background. Not at all. That same determination to be a writer also liberated him from self-pity. Each one of us, his books declare, can choose to be a free individual. It is a matter of will and choice, and above all intellect. Critics have sometimes argued that people - in the Third World especially - are trapped in their culture and history without possibility of choice, and can only be free if others make them so. To them, V.S. Naipaul's vision that they have to take responsibility for themselves can seem like some sort of First World privilege, and a conservative philosophy at that.
Quite the contrary: the absolute rejection of victimhood is necessary if we are to meet as we must on an equal footing, and it is no exaggeration to say that he has shifted public opinion towards this understanding as no other writer has done. Courage and persistence were required to hold a belief quite so unfashionable in recent years, but it is this belief that has made Naipaul the universal writer and humanist that he is.
The comic spirit is still present, though submerged in his later books beneath a darkening sense of tragedy. Naipaul has written about slavery, revolution, guerrillas, corrupt politicians, the poor and the oppressed, interpreting the rages so deeply rooted in our societies. Long before others, he began to report on the irrational frenzy loosed these past two decades by religion in the Islamic world from Iran to Indonesia and Pakistan. This phenomenon too was a retreat from history into self-serving myth. Self-pity possesses Islamic fundamentalists so absolutely that they are able to close out everything else. Yet Naipaul also observed with profound insight that even the most fanaticised among them know that the West will always be there setting the objective standards, and that they can do nothing about that. They are to be pitied for rage so helpless.
In himself, Naipaul is a private man, who lives in the country in order to have the solitude for thinking and writing. Everything that has ever happened to him is pigeonholed with exactitude in his memory. Formidably well-read, he can quote books he read years ago, and all the conversations he has had. Melancholy grips him at the spectacle of "the steady grinding down of the old world" as he put it, and he might complain to an interviewer that he is living in a "plebeian culture that celebrates itself."
Other writers born abroad have settled here and enriched our literature, but there has never been one like Naipaul. His personal story is moving; his achievement extraordinary. There is a great moral to his life's work, that the human comedy will come out all right because, when all is said and done, intellect is more powerful than vicissitude and wickedness.
The writer is the author of "The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs".
NAIPAUL, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad, (Sir Vidia), Kt 1990; author; b. 17 August 1932; m. 1st, 1955, Patricia Ann Hale (d. 1996); 2nd, 1996, Nadira Khannum Alvi. Educ: Queen's Royal Coll., Trinidad; University Coll., Oxford (Hon. Fellow 1983). Hon. Dr Letters Columbia Univ., NY, 1981; Hon. LittD. Cambridge, 1983; London, 1988; Oxford, 1992. British Literature Prize, 1993. Publications: The Middle Passage, 1962; An Area of Darkness, 1964; The Loss of El Dorado, 1969; The Overcrowded Barracoon, and other articles, 1972; India: a wounded civilisation, 1977; The Return of Eva Peron, 1980; Among the Believers, 1981; Finding the Centre, 1984; A Turn in the South, 1989; India: a million mutinies now, 1990; Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions, 1998; Letters, 1999; novels: The Mystic Masseur, 1957; (John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize, 1958); The Suffrage of Elvira, 1958; Miguel Street, 1959; (Somerset Maugham Award, 1961); A House for Mr Biswas, 1961; Mr Stone and the Knights Companion, 1963, (Hawthornden Prize, 1964); The Mimic Men, 1967 (W.H. Smith Award 1968); A Flag on the Island, 1967; In a Free State, 1971 (Booker Prize, 1971); Guerrillas, 1975; A Bend in the River, 1979; The Enigma of Arrival, 1987; A Way in the World, 1994. Address: c/o Gillon Aitken Associates Ltd, 29 Fernshaw Road, London SW10 OTG, UK.
From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 2001, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 2002
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/Nobel Lectures. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2001