Naipaul in the Review

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V.S. Naipaul, Venice, 2011

A life in literary criticism: how Review writers read and responded to the books of V.S. Naipaul (1932–2018).

V.S. Pritchett, “Crack-Up,” April 11, 1968

Mr. Naipaul puts the island and the people on the page with a physical clarity, whether the scene is violent or serene. He is excellent on character. He is wracked by the tragedy and wryly notes how the grotesque breaks in at the unbearable moment. The island is both dream and reality; and to him, as for Singh, the searing irony is that in their struggle with the mimic-man nightmare, all they have succeeded in creating is a tourist spot in which the natives are now actors for the tourists who themselves are mimics of God knows what. Tourism has added the final touch of fraudulence. »

J.H. Elliott, “Triste Trinidad,” May 21, 1970

There is an atmosphere of gentle hopelessness about Mr. Naipaul’s Trinidad, and it is an atmosphere which he re-creates with wonderful skill. The hopelessness is the hopelessness created by a colonial situation, but Mr. Naipaul is too subtle and too sensitive to indulge in tendentious denunciations of colonial officials, as if they were all tainted by the same degree of original sin. If anything, he displays a greater sympathy for Picton, the torturer, than for Fullarton, the do-gooder, who remains a shadowy figure, imperfectly achieved. »

Alfred Kazin, “Displaced Person,” December 30, 1971

Though he is a marvelous technician, there is something finally modest, personal, openly committed about his fiction, a frankness of personal reference, that removes him from the godlike impersonality of the novelist so often praised by Joyce—and so much cherished by novelists like Nabokov who angrily deny that they use themselves. Naipaul belongs to a different generation, to a more openly tragic outlook for humanity itself. He does not want to play God, even in a novel. He has associated himself with “History,” and does not expect better treatment. »

Joan Didion, “Without Regret or Hope,” June 12, 1980

The actual world has for Naipaul a radiance that diminishes all ideas of it. The pink haze of the bauxite dust on the first page of Guerrillas tells us what we need to know about the history and social organization of the unnamed island on which the action takes place, tells us in one image who runs the island and for whose profit the island is run and at what cost to the life of the island this profit has historically been obtained, but all of this implicit information pales in the presence of the physical fact, the dust itself. »

Bernard Lewis, “The Question of Orientalism,” June 24, 1982

Mr. Naipaul is not a professor but a novelist—one of the most gifted of our time. He is not a European, but a West Indian of East Indian origin. His book about modern Islam is not a work of scholarship, and makes no pretense of being such. It is the result of close observation by a professional observer of the human predicament. It is occasionally mistaken, often devastatingly accurate, and above all compassionate. Mr. Naipaul has a keen eye for the absurdities of human behavior, in Muslim lands as elsewhere. At the same time he is moved by deep sympathy and understanding for both the anger and the suffering of the people whose absurdities he so faithfully depicts. »

John Bayley, “Country Life,” April 9, 1987

To such a writer as Naipaul, for the purpose of understanding himself and others, and for the purposes of fiction, it is clearly necessary to have a deep and imaginative sense of the dual nature of individuals, their existence in two worlds, both in different ways precarious. Naipaul thoroughly understands the romance of himself—what the novelist John Cowper Powys called his life illusion—the inner saga of himself and his destiny which each person secretly carries alongside the physical circumstances of his existence. His own sense of himself comes out in this book with a gentle, meticulous candor, wholly absorbing and illuminating. »

Roger Shattuck, “The Reddening of America,” March 30, 1989

Aware of how in India the past can paralyze, can kill, Naipaul keeps looking for the new. He finds it in the rehabilitation of one of the oldest of human activities, religion. On page after page the skeptical ex-Hindu notes with amazement and considerable admiration the deep significance of both religious faith and the community of churches to blacks and whites alike. He spots the drift among whites from Church of Christ to Presbyterian. When the Baptist preacher, Will Campbell, describes his intellectual round trip from fundamentalism to liberalism and back, he produces a sentence as political as it is religious: “Jesus asked us to be mindful of the one near at hand.” » 

Ian Buruma, “In the Empire of Islam,” July 16, 1998

Naipaul’s historical views can be challenged, but to dwell on them would be to miss the point of his book. For its main subject is not Islam. It is, above all, a book about storytelling, about taking a distance from oneself, and seeing the world clearly, and describing one’s place in it. What enrages him about dogmatic beliefs, such as fundamentalist Islam, is the way they close people’s minds, the way they stop people from seeing clearly. For all his laments about the loss of reverence for sacred places, he is not a reactionary dreamer who thinks we can return to village ways. He quotes a Malay expression for a person of limited perspective: like a frog living under a coconut shell. People who are prisoners of a narrow tribal universe, whose limits are clearly defined by traditional beliefs, are like frogs who mistake the coconut shell for the sky. Naipaul’s sympathies are with those who struggle to be free from the “nightmare” of imposed beliefs. He is a champion of the disenchanted. It should come as no surprise that his greatest sympathy is for writers. »


Pankaj Mishra, “The House of Mr. Naipaul,” January 20, 2000

The appropriation of a writing personality, a perspective and tone unrelated to the writer’s past and present circumstances, occurs a lot in writing from Britain’s former colonies. It is a colonial tendency, this random borrowing from more accomplished literatures and civilizations, the first reflex of people just beginning to emerge into the light after centuries of intellectual darkness. In Naipaul’s case it kept him from discovering that the complicated past—the Hindu-peasant ancestry, the lower-middle-class upbringing in a racially mixed Caribbean colony—he found shameful and wished to hide behind his borrowed metropolitan personality was really his truest subject. As he wrote in The Enigma of Arrival, “Man and writer were the same person. But that is a writer’s greatest discovery. It took time—and how much writing!—to arrive at that synthesis.” »

J.M. Coetzee, “The Razor’s Edge,” November 1, 2001

The vein of autobiography in Naipaul’s fictional oeuvre runs deep. But the Naipaul selves do not have a simple relationship to their author: they are stages in a process of continual self-creation and revision. W.S. Chandran is and is not V.S. Naipaul. As beginning writers, for instance, both Willie and Naipaul find inspiration in Hollywood, but Willie is far less literate than Naipaul, who used as models Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, and (it comes as no surprise) Somerset Maugham, with his characteristically English tone, “aloof everywhere, unsurprised, immensely knowing.” »

Hilary Mantel, “Naipaul’s Book of the World,” October 24, 2002

Perhaps what we will say about Naipaul was that he was the self-made man who didn’t stop at weaving the cloth for his own garments but clothed his own bones in prose. We will say he was the rational man who was afraid to see night fall, because it falls within himself. His shining belief in order and progress is stained by an area of internal darkness: by a natural apprehension—though not a certainty—that the power of reason will be defeated. “The aim has always been to fill out my world picture, and the purpose comes from my childhood: to make me more at ease with myself.” To our profit, this is the one aim he has missed. His readers may complain that they are trapped in an enactment of his own psychodrama, but the point is that it is not simply his own; we are all afraid of the dark, and though Naipaul is an isolate, he is not a solipsist. »

John Lanchester, “Where the Fun Starts,” April 28, 2005

V.S. Naipaul’s books are not Fabergé eggs. They are not made out of, and not intended for, detached aesthetic contemplation; they are passionately engaged with the world. They have also proved to be, in at least two ways, prophetic. First, what at one point seemed a lonely body of work can now be seen as explaining an entire field of study that is known as Postcolonialism, which examines the writing, politics, history, and modes of thought of the developing world. Postcolonialism as a field is dominated by left-leaning academics, with whom Naipaul has almost nothing in common; but he is nonetheless a crucial, minatory, alarming writer for anyone with any interest in the field, not least because he dissents from all its orthodoxies. 

Second, and more importantly, the world has caught up with Naipaul’s great preoccupation with how people’s lives turn in unexpected directions, especially the way in which the pressures of modern society and social fragmentation have caused a terrible longing for old certainties, reassuring fantasies, and violence. »

Norman Rush, “Naipaul’s Mysterious Africa,” November 11, 2010

Trying to figure out Naipaul’s foundational worldview is too hard for me. It’s a secret he works to keep. He strews around all manner of conflicting clues. Is he an Empire Loyalist? Not really. Not if you read his columns of acidic comment on modern England published in the Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1960s. And not if you read his The Loss of El Dorado (1969), a powerful indictment of the settling and ravaging of Trinidad.


Is he a champion of the insulted and injured? Sometimes, with reservations—and often he forgets that their poverty is making somebody up the pyramid happy and rich. He has written in praise of the fundamentalist ideology of Hindu nationalism. Does that have anything to do with the murmurs of tenderness he expresses toward certain features of the old African religions—a tenderness appearing so fitfully and faintly earlier in The Masque of Africa that its reemergence in this last chapter is rather perplexing? I don’t know. He is passionately against cruelty to animals. One can be certain of that. »

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