“Sir Vidia” is dead, at the age of eighty-five: one less magnificently cranky old man. To one of twenty years less, he has been around forever. I thought he might be a hundred by now; apparently time moves more slowly. The obituaries are long and plentiful, in the British press, which excels in that genre. Their profiles of the living also read like obits. Too, they do “rude” more elegantly than we know how, here in the Americas.

To my mind, he was among the greatest journalists in English. He wrote novels, too; indeed started with them, and his earlier novels won many awards. They were calculated to do that, in their place and time. Naipaul cashed in on Trinidad, brusque and curmudgeonly beneath a glittering comic surface. His career worked backwards, starting where most writers end. Each novel I started seemed a kind of memoir; an accounting for loss. I never finished one; not even A House for Mr Biswas. (I count A Bend in the River, with its African setting, as not really a novel.) Sometimes I got as far as page fifty, before admiring the developing structure, and deciding that I could see where it was going. In the ’sixties, the literati wanted to hear the Third World speaking. He gave them a little more than they wanted, but he filled the order.

Later he moved beyond these “memoirs,” and became a focused journalist, writing pointedly about other people, with his trademarked motto, “The world is what it is.” I think his books on his ancestral India, and on the world of Islam, are unquestionably his best. They are journalism; they are not “travel books.” With tremendous energy, and unfailing curiosity, he travelled and observed. I got easily to the end of his epic, India: A Million Mutinies Now, of Among the Believers, and Beyond Reason — his later and most mature accounts of realms with which I was familiar. I remain in awe of the enterprise of his reporting. I cannot think of better preludes to the refugee world that we live in now.

He was a fine “racist,” in the best sense. He presented the spirit of failure, that animated post-colonial life in so many newly independent states, while capturing the flavour of each. He did this without exculpating, but also without demonizing, the old colonial powers. His accounts of Pakistan (country of my early childhood) and of other Muslim polities tells truths that other visitors cautiously avoid. Yet all he does is describe what is before him, with the sharpness that requires artistic genius.

Thanks largely to the deletion of history from the Western public mind, and its replacement with leftist gibberish and hogwash, there is little appreciation today for what journalism has been, or could be. It is a “first draught of history,” to be sure, but to deliver this it must free itself from “theory,” and try to depict what is really going on. The J-school emphases on the factitious lead us farther and farther away. Naipaul gives us a return to the methods of the eighteenth century, when the essay and prose fiction had not yet been surgically separated; when fruitful exchange between the general and the particular had not yet been disallowed; before imaginative powers had been foresworn on the side of the reporters. For this alone, he would be invaluable: for the example of a journalist using his whole mind, and not only the desiccated bits.

He was a truth-teller, even about himself. His account, in interviews for his authorized biography, of the history of his relations with women, has that ring we associate with the dentist’s drill. It is bravely candid. Naipaul reveals himself as a ruthless man devoted exclusively to his trade, who uses all those most closely around him, and abuses their loyalty. He admits to having been “a shit” of the first water, and his refusal to excuse himself was taken by many as proof that he never cared. But again: he would not deviate from the truth, nor refuse his penitential lumps for it.

Another irreplaceable man, for the overpopulated graves.