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Remembering Nobel Laureate And Author V.S. Naipaul


The literary world is paying tribute to one of the great writers of the 20th century, V.S. Naipaul. The Nobel laureate died yesterday in London at the age of 85. V.S. Naipaul was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, the grandson of indentured servants from India. He won a scholarship to Oxford and stayed in England, where he was knighted in 1990. In novels like "A House For Mr. Biswas" and "A Bend In The River," he explored the themes of migration, colonialism and the collapse of the British Empire. V.S. Naipaul was provocative. He refused to idealize the developing world. He could be witty but also prickly. Naipaul famously fell out with the American novelist ally - novelist and ally - and then they reconciled.

When I spoke with Theroux earlier today, he described V.S. Naipaul's enormous contributions.

PAUL THEROUX: He took a close look at the colonial world and then the modern world. Most of all, he was very clear-sighted. He used to say, write the truth. Tell the truth. He's like the opposite of magical realists or, you know, fanciful. He said, if you write the truth, the truth is prophetic. You write about a place as though no one ever wrote about it before. Write what you see. And you'll - the thing that you write will prophesy what that place will become. So he wrote about India, he wrote about Africa, and he was right in general in most of the things he wrote about those places.

SINGH: His ancestry was Indian, and he was born in Trinidad. As a young man, he got a scholarship and went to university in England and never looked back except in his writing. V.S. Naipaul never seemed to be emotionally rooted in any one place. Do you think that was intentional?

THEROUX: It wasn't intentional. It was force of circumstances. He was - he kind of regretted being born in Trinidad, and he yearned to go to India. He finally went to India, and he said he felt rejected by India, or he - really kind of mutual rejection. But then he wrote - India was his obsessive subject, so he wrote "An Area Of Darkness," "India: A Wounded Civilization" and then "India: A Million Mutinies" (ph). He is the most able chronicler of India. So he was - he wasn't a citizen of the world, but he really was the most homeless, rootless person you could ever find.

SINGH: You were friends with him for many years, and then, all of a sudden, there was this public - very public feud that lasted, what - some 15 years between you and Mr. Naipaul. What happened?

THEROUX: (Laughter) It was a classic case of remarriage syndrome, where the new wife kind of sweeps away the old friends. And here's the interesting thing.


THEROUX: I was at the Hay Festival, and I was sitting next to Ian McEwan. And Ian McEwan said, oh, there's Naipaul. I said, oh, my goodness. This is after we had a feud and after I'd written a book about him and all of that. And he said, go talk to him. Why don't you say hello? And I said, I don't think this is the right moment. And Ian said, life is too short. You should go talk to him. So I went over, and I said, Vidia. And he said, Paul. And he grabbed my hand. And I said, I've missed you. And he said, I've missed you, too. So we sat down and talked.

And, from that moment, we were friends. That was about 10 years ago. And we fell out because his wife felt that I was overstepping myself. She thought I was too friendly with his ex-wife and all that. Now she is one of my dearest friends.

SINGH: So he was such a provocative figure. And yet today, online, we're seeing this kind of outpouring of tribute for V.S. Naipaul. What was it about him that you think drew people to him anyway, despite their contentious relationships?

THEROUX: I would say his gift was being uncompromising - stubborn and uncompromising, not accepting any cliche or any accepted version of what the world is, what politics is. When you consider someone who was so defiant and so uncompromising in his writing and in his life, you learn a lot from that person. And so he was always going against the grain, sometimes to a fault.

SINGH: I found interesting that you had compared V.S. Naipaul to Dickens.

THEROUX: Well, he grew up reading Dickens. He said that Trinidad had no literature, so he had no models. But he understood the Dickensian character. I think that the "House For Mr. Biswas" is a Dickensian novel - lots of people in it, big plot, a whole landscape is in it. "A House For Mr. Biswas" is the beginning of Caribbean literature. Suddenly, it's a big book about a lot of things - not just about an Indian family living on an island but a whole world. When you read that book, you're completely immersed in it. It casts a spell on you. It's an absolutely immortal book. It will go on being read. So the comparison is - you know, it's pretty apt.

SINGH: What would you want people to know about V.S. Naipaul that they might not already know - something that perhaps we missed?

THEROUX: He was extremely funny. He had a capacity for joy and for pleasure. He used to say that. And I think that what people need to remember - he's a man that came from nowhere. He came from nowhere. He would say that. He went to Oxford. He said he wasted his time at Oxford. And he created out of despair, unhappiness, sadness, rootlessness, homelessness and unhappiness a lot of the time. He made great literature, and maybe that's the source of great literature - that all of these difficulties that he met, triumphed over, defying the odds.


SINGH: That was writer Paul Theroux talking about his friend, the Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul, who died yesterday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.