LONDON — V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born Nobel laureate whose celebrated writing and brittle, provocative personality drew admiration and revulsion in equal measures, died Saturday at his London home, his family said. He was 85.
His wife, Nadira Naipaul, said he was "a giant in all that he achieved and he died surrounded by those he loved having lived a life which was full of wonderful creativity and endeavor."
Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 "for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories."
In an extraordinary career spanning half a century, the writer traveled as a self-described "barefoot colonial" from rural Trinidad to upper-class England, picked up the most coveted literary awards and a knighthood, and was hailed as one of the greatest English writers of the 20th century.
Naipaul's books explored colonialism and decolonization, exile and the struggles of the everyman in the developing world — themes that mirror his personal background and trajectory.
Although his writing was widely praised for its compassion toward the destitute and the displaced, Naipaul himself offended many with his arrogant behavior and jokes about former subjects of empire.
Among his widely quoted comments: He called India a "slave society," quipped that Africa has no future, and explained that Indian women wear a colored dot on their foreheads to say "my head is empty." He laughed off the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie as "an extreme form of literary criticism."
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born on Aug. 17, 1932 in Trinidad, a descendant of impoverished Indians shipped to the West Indies as bonded laborers.
His father was an aspiring, self-taught novelist whose ambitions were killed by lack of opportunity; the son was determined to leave his homeland as soon as he could. In later years, he would repeatedly reject his birthplace as little more than a plantation.
In 1950, Naipaul was awarded one of a few available government scholarships to study in England, and he left his family to begin his studies in English literature at University College, Oxford. There he met his first wife, Patricia Hale, whom he married in 1955 without telling his family.
After graduation, Naipaul suffered a period of poverty and unemployment. Despite his Oxford education, he found himself surrounded by a hostile, xenophobic London.
"These people want to break my spirit ... They want me to know my place," he wrote bitterly to his wife.
Naipaul eventually landed a radio job working for BBC World Service, where he discussed West Indian literature and found his footing as a writer. His breakthrough came in 1957 with his first published novel "The Mystic Masseur," a humorous book about the lives of powerless people in a Trinidad ghetto.
In 1959, Naipaul won the Somerset Maugham Award with the story collection "Miguel Street."
In 1961, Naipaul published "A House for Mr. Biswas," which was widely acclaimed as a masterpiece. That novel, about how one man's life was restricted by the limits of colonial society, was a tribute to Naipaul's father.