When V S Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature three autumns ago, the committee nervously disclaimed any political significance in their choice, but that wasn't the whole truth. The work of Sir Vidia Naipaul (as he has been since 1990, having previously, we learnt from that recently leaked document, turned down the CBE) plainly has a political side. He has reported - or cast a cold eye - on the world around him in non-fictional narrative as well as novels: some of his best and most contentious reportage was collected in 2002 in The Writer and the World.
His writings on Muslim lands, beginning with his book Among the Believers, have been denounced as malign or worse, and he could certainly never be accused of sentimental illusions about Islam or "the third world". Immediately in the wake of 11 September 2001, it was indeed a kind of political statement to choose Naipaul for the Nobel prize, and a brave and admirable one, since it was a blow for the good old cause of "the autonomy of culture": writers should be judged for the quality of their work and not for their ideological positions, or adherence to any of what George Orwell, that comparably independent and cantankerous writer, called "the smelly little orthodoxies".
Although Naipaul has always been a singular figure, who has stood at an angle to his age and society, he has deep personal and cultural roots, which he examines in this collection of more or less autobiographical reflections, looking back on his life and work as they have shaped him. The book is short, delicate and truly delightful, not a word invariably applied to its author.
He is a marginal man by origin, from the unlikely "East Indian" community of Trinidad, descendants of Gangetic Hindus and Muslims who had crossed the world as indentured labourers in the late 19th century. His father was a journalist with higher but unfulfilled literary ambitions. Everything Naipaul writes about him is deeply and sometimes almost unbearably touching. Whatever his own sense of failure, Seepersad Naipaul has an indelible legacy through begetting Vidia and his late, sorely missed, brother, Shiva, and imbuing them with their intense love of English literature.
Although Naipaul has always been free of self-righteousness or self-importance, one couldn't say quite the same about self-pity. He came to England more than 50 years ago on a scholarship to Oxford, where he was lonely and unhappy, and then went to London to work for the BBC for several years, a period which he still speaks of in the anguished tones of Dickens describing the horrors of the blacking factory. He has even persuaded others about "all the years of struggle in London", as one critic has called them, when in fact he was busily writing in the corporation's time and on its paper. The first of his wonderful Trinidadian novels, The Mystic Masseur, was published when he was 25; it was followed by four more, all showered with praise and prizes, before he was 30. This was really not a case of "slow rises worth by poverty oppress'd", and Naipaul's hypersensitivity and solipsism might seem neurotic if they weren't amusing and, in any case, inseparable parts of his personality.
His own story aside, he touches on history, in some ways that will give more pleasure to bien-pensant opinion than others. It wasn't until he had left his native island that he began to understand just how sombre its background was: Trinidadians of all races today are inheritors of a terrible act of dispossession in which the original inhabitants were extirpated. Then he mentions his first visits to his ancestral India, in a different and sharper tone: "It took time to break through the bias and the fantasies of Indian political ideas about the Indian past. The independence struggle, the movement against the British, had obscured the calamities of India before the British."
But there's nothing sharp when he turns to the living world of books. He is an exceptionally good and perceptive critic - a few passages on Dickens are worth whole books by others - and when he addresses the art of fiction he not only writes beautifully (as always) but with complete humility. In the 19th century the European novel developed "very fast in the hands of a relay of masters. It did what no other literary form - essay, poem, drama, history - could do. It gave industrial or industrialising or modern society a very clear idea of itself . . . All of us who come after have been derivative."
To say that he is a political writer is in one sense true, but in another misleading. In his fine Nobel acceptance lecture, Naipaul insists that "I have always been moved by intuition alone. I have no system, literary or political. I have no guiding political idea." That is what the late Edward Said missed. He predictably loved Naipaul's earlier fiction, which could be seen as post-colonial satire, and just as predictably denounced what he had become by breaking free of his third-worldliness and turning his back on the pieties of anti-imperialism; but when Said called him a "native informer", it was simply scurrilous. It is true that some of Naipaul's recent dyspeptic utterances and self-parodying attitudes are impossible for his warmest (and least politically censorious) admirers to defend. But even his most bitter detractors could never deny his stature as a writer and the sheer limpid loveliness of his prose.
A sociological critic such as Said could barely understand what Naipaul means when he says that "everything of value about me is in my books". In his Nobel acceptance lecture he went further: "I am the sum of my books. Each book, intuitively sensed and, in the case of fiction, intuitively worked out, stands on what has gone before, and grows out of it." He now has an official biographer, whose book will doubtless be fascinating. All the same, V S Naipaul illustrates more than any other writer today what Hans Keller meant when he said that great artists have always been less and done more than the public wishes to believe.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Controversy of Zion (Perseus). His latest book, Le Tour: a history of the Tour de France, is published in paperback this spring