The book took three years to write. It felt like a career; and there was a short period, towards the end of the writing, when I do believe I knew all or much of the book by heart. The labour ended; the book began to recede. And I found that I was unwilling to re-enter the world I had created, unwilling to expose myself again to the emotions that lay below the comedy. I became nervous of the book. I haven't read it since I passed the proofs in May 1961.
Naipaul was born on 17 August 1932 in Chaguanas in Trinidad. He was the second child of Droapatie (née Capildeo) and Seepersad Naipaul. In the 1880s, his grandparents migrated from India to work as farm labourers. In the Indian immigrant community in Trinidad, Naipaul's father became an English-language Journalist, and in 1929 began contributing articles to the Trinidad Guardian. In 1932, the year Naipaul was born, his father joined the staff as the Chaguanas correspondent. In "A prologue to an autobiography" (1983), Naipaul describes how his father's reverence for Writers and for the writing life spawned his own dreams and aspirations to become a Writer.
In 1939, when he was seven years old, Naipaul's family moved to Trinidad's capital, Port of Spain, where Naipaul enrolled in the government-run Queen's Royal College, a well-regarded school that was modelled after a British public school. Upon graduation, Naipaul won a Trinidad Government scholarship that allowed him to study at any institution of higher learning in the British Commonwealth; he chose Oxford.
In 1952, before visiting Spain, Naipaul met Patricia Ann Hale, his Future wife, at a college play. With Hale's support, he began to recover and gradually to write. She became a partner in planning his career. Her family was hostile to the relationship; his was unenthusiastic. In June 1953, Naipaul and Hale graduated from Oxford.
In 1953, Naipaul's father died. He worked at odd jobs and borrowed money from Pat and his family in Trinidad.
Naipaul moved to London in 1954. In January 1955, he and Pat were married. In December 1954, Naipaul began appearing on the BBC's Caribbean Voices once a week. Sitting in the BBC freelancers' room in the old Langham Hotel, he wrote "Bogart", the first story of Miguel Street. The story was inspired by a neighbour he knew as a child in Port of Spain. Naipaul wrote Miguel Street in five weeks. The New York Times said about Miguel Street: "The sketches are written lightly, so that tragedy is understated and comedy is overstated, yet the ring of truth always prevails."
Diana Athill, an Editor at the publishing company André Deutsch, read Miguel Street and liked it, but publisher André Deutsch thought a book of short stories by an unknown Caribbean Writer unlikely to sell profitably in Britain. He encouraged Naipaul to write a novel. Naipaul quickly wrote The Mystic Masseur and it was published in 1955.
In 1956, Naipaul returned to Trinidad for a two-month stay with his family. Travelling by ship there, he sent humorous sketches of the ship's West Indian passengers to Pat. These sketches became the inspiration for The Suffrage of Elvira, a comic novella about a rural election in Trinidad. In 1957, Naipaul became an editorial assistant at the Cement and Concrete Association (C&CA), his only full-time job. The C&CA was to be the setting for Naipaul's later novel, Mr Stone and the Knight's Companion. At this time the New Statesman's Kingsley Martin gave Naipaul a part-time job reviewing books, a job he did from 1957 to 1961.
The Mystic Masseur was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1958, and Miguel Street the Somerset Maugham Award in 1961, W. Somerset Maugham himself approving the first-ever selection of a non-European.
Before Naipaul began writing The Loss of El Dorado, he had been unhappy with the political climate in Britain. He had been especially unhappy with the increasing public animosity, in the mid-1960s, towards Asian immigrants from Britain's ex-colonies. During the writing of the book, he and Pat sold their house in London, and led a transient life, successively renting or borrowing use of the homes of friends. After the book was completed, they travelled to Trinidad and Canada with a view to finding a location in which to settle. Naipaul had hoped to write a blockbuster, one relieving him of Future money anxieties. As it turned out, The Loss of El Dorado sold only 3,000 copies in the US, where major sales were expected; Naipaul also missed England more than he had calculated. It was thus in a depleted state, both financial and emotional, that he returned to Britain.
For his next novel, A House for Mr Biswas (1961), Naipaul took for inspiration childhood memories of his father (later he wrote that the novel "destroyed memory" in some respects). In the novel, title character Mohun Biswas takes a succession of vocations (apprentice to a Hindu priest, signboard painter; a grocery store proprietor, and reporter for The Trinidad Sentinel). What ambition and resourcefulness Mr Biswas has are inevitably undermined by his dependence on his powerful in-laws and the vagaries of the colonial society in which he lives.
In 1962, Naipaul and Pat went to India, the land of Naipaul's ancestors, where Naipaul wrote An Area of Darkness. For the first time in his life, he felt anonymous, even faceless. He was no longer identified, he felt, with a special ethnic group as he had been in Trinidad and England; it made him anxious. He was upset by what he saw as the resigned or evasive Indian reaction to poverty and suffering.
In late 1964, Naipaul was asked to write an original script for an American movie. He spent the next few months in Trinidad writing the story, a novella named "A Flag on the Island", later published in the collection A Flag on the Island. The finished version was not to the director's liking and the movie was never made. The story is set in 1964, in a Caribbean island that is not named. The main character is an American named Frankie who affects the mannerisms of Frank Sinatra. Frankie has links to the island from having served there during World War II. He revisits reluctantly when his ship anchors during a hurricane. Naipaul wilfully makes the pace of the book feverish, the narrative haphazard, the characters loud, the protagonist fickle or deceptive, and the dialogue confusing. Balancing the present time is Frankie's less disordered, though comfortless, memory of 20 years before. Then he had become a part of a community on the island. He had tried to help his poor friends by giving away the ample US Army supplies he had. Not everyone was happy about receiving help and not everyone benefited. Frankie was left chastened about finding tidy solutions to the island's social problems. This theme, indirectly developed in the story, is one to which Naipaul would return again.
Back in London in October 1966, Naipaul received an invitation from the American publisher Little, Brown and Company to write a book on Port-of-Spain. The book took two years to write, its scope widening with time. The Loss of El Dorado eventually became a narrative history of Trinidad based on primary sources. Pat spent many months in the archives of the British Library reading those sources. In the end, the finished product was not to the liking of Little, Brown, who were expecting a guidebook. Alfred A. Knopf agreed to publish it instead in the United States, as did André Deutsch later in Britain.
In late December 1971 as news of the killings at Michael X's commune in Arima filtered out, Naipaul, accompanied by Pat, arrived in Trinidad to cover the story. This was a time of strains in their marriage. Naipaul, although dependent on Pat, was frequenting prostitutes for sexual gratification. Pat was alone. Intensifying their disaffection was Pat's childlessness, for which neither Pat nor Naipaul sought professional treatment, preferring instead to say that fatherhood would not allow time for Naipaul's sustained literary labours. Naipaul was increasingly ill-humoured and infantile, and Pat increasingly reduced to mothering him. She began to keep a diary, a practice she would continue for the next 25 years. According to biographer Patrick French,
Naipaul visited the commune in Arima and Pat attended the trial. Naipaul's old friend Francis Wyndham was now Editor of The Sunday Times and offered to run the story in his newspaper. Around the same time Naipaul received an invitation from Robert B. Silvers, Editor of the New York Review of Books, to do some stories on Argentina and Eva Perón. The Review, still in its first decade after founding, was short of funds and Silvers had to borrow money from a friend to fund Naipaul's trip. Naipaul also covered the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, at the behest of Silvers, after which Naipaul wrote "Among the Republicans," an anthropological study of a "white tribe in the United States."
In awarding Naipaul the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy praised his work "for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories." The Committee added, "Naipaul is a modern philosopher carrying on the tradition that started originally with Lettres persanes and Candide. In a vigilant style, which has been deservedly admired, he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony." The Committee also noted Naipaul's affinity with the Novelist Joseph Conrad:
After completing A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul and Pat spent the next five months in British Guiana, Suriname, Martinique and Jamaica, where Naipaul took notes for The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies – British, French and Dutch in the West Indies and South America, his first travel book. He wrote, "The history of the islands can never be told satisfactorily. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies."
Naipaul has been accused of misogyny, and of committing acts of "chronic physical abuse" against his mistress of 25 years, Margaret Murray, who wrote in a letter to The New York Review of Books: "Vidia says I didn’t mind the abuse. I certainly did mind."