NEW YORK -- V.S. Naipaul has never been one to mince words or embrace a gooey sentiment. "Never give a person a second chance," he has said. "If someone lets you down once, he'll do it again." And: "I'm not concerned in preserving the backward races. I find them very boring." And: "It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad." Over the last three decades, Naipaul's caustic reports on the "half-made" developing societies have earned him the rage of left-wing intellectuals -- and a wide audience for his 11 books of fiction and nine of nonfiction. Perhaps, he confesses now, he was a tad too harsh in some of those early works. "They're flawed," Naipaul says in his charming lilt. Take "The Middle Passage," a corrosive 1962 account of his travels in the Caribbean. He wrote of his native Trinidad: "Unimportant, uncreative, cynical ... It was also a place where a recurring word of abuse was 'conceited,' an expression of the resentment felt of anyone who possessed unusual skills. Such skills were not required by a society which produced nothing, never had to prove its worth, and was never called upon to be efficient." "Terribly flawed," is the author's 1989 verdict. "In its human understanding, in its conclusions ... I feel that perhaps I should not let it be republished." He likewise has doubts about "An Area of Darkness" (1964), where he railed against "the smugness ... the imperviousness to criticism, the refusal to see, the double-talk and double-think" of his ancestral Indian homeland: "The narrow, broken lanes with green slime in the gutters, the choked back-to-back mud houses, the jumble of filth and food and animals and people, the baby in the dust, swollen-bellied, black with flies, but wearing its good-luck amulet ... I had seen the physique of the people of Andhra, which had suggested the possibility of an evolution downwards, wasted body to wasted body." His current opinion: "It's less about India than about me being in India. I was probably very hysterical a lot of the time. I was very ... tense." More to his liking is the recently published "A Turn in the South." A gentle narrative based on five months' travel through Atlanta, Charleston, Tuskegee, Jackson, Chapel Hill and their surrounding countrysides, the race question comes second to consideration of the other South -- "of order and faith, and music and melancholy." Naipaul makes no judgments, merely listens. There's no scene anywhere near reminiscent of the one in "An Area of Darkness" where he sees well-fed and well-shod lads preying on American tourists: "The ladies, informed of India's poverty, stopped, opened their purses and smilingly distributed coins and notes, while from the road the professional beggars, denied entrance, watched enviously. The heat was unhinging me. I advanced toward the schoolboys, simple murder in my heart." Books like that one, he says, were written "out of raw nerves. I couldn't help it. 'In a Free State' " -- his prize-winning 1971 novel about whites and blacks in Africa -- "is a very violent book. It's written with such pain -- pain for everybody, really." Pain for everybody, but compassion only for the deserving. The victims of the breakup of the colonial empires are Naipaul's true subjects. At the end of "In a Free State" there is a chapter from the writer's journal. It was 1965; he was in Egypt. The excerpt closes with a foreshadowing of the coming war: "In the dimly lit waiting-room of Cairo station there were more sprawled soldiers from Sinai, peasants in bulky woollen uniforms going back on leave to their villages. Seventeen months later these men, or men like them, were to know total defeat in the desert; and news photographs taken from helicopters flying down low were to show them lost, trying to walk back home, casting long shadows on the sand." All his adult life, Naipaul has been casting long shadows, attempting to flee the terror of knowing one is lost. He was born 57 years ago on an obscure West Indian island that still reeked of colonialism, the grandson of an indentured laborer brought over from Uttar Pradesh, India. "I've never really shaken out that sense of terror of poverty. And cruelty. But the world has changed. I find many more people who would have been in my position are now born into a different world. They can look after themselves. This diminishes the rawness." Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul has changed too. He still is trim and fit, but these days speaks as if he had one foot in the grave. "After so many books, I'm very tired, very tired." More than one respected critic has called him the greatest living writer in English, but he only has plans to finish a short book on India; after that, he suggests, it's unlikely he will write again. Naipaul may have mellowed in outlook, but his soul remains uncompromising. He detests interviews, and has been known to cancel at the last minute. If he expects you at 10 a.m. and you do not show, by 10:02 he will be calling your office seeking an explanation. The hotel suite is enormous, big enough for a game of tennis. It is not Naipaul's own room; he preferred to talk in an anonymous setting. Unfortunately, the heat is off. "Oh my God!" he exclaims. "How evil they are. They want to kill me! I really think they want to kill me." The thermostat is jacked up to the maximum. "They" are not identified, but this time, at least, they have been foiled. "I'm doing this very unwillingly," he volunteers. "I've been brought here where my health has suffered and I don't like doing it." Well, at least he'll be home in England soon. "If I live." He says this without the wisp of a smile. He's been in India recently, and his asthma flared up after he spent eight hours trapped in the Bombay airport, shuttling between too much air conditioning on one floor and none at all on another. But even when he's feeling fine, he despises interviews. "They're done by people who know nothing about one's work. They have a file ... It's rather like some delicate molding in the ceiling. You just paint it and paint it, without scraping it off. In the end, you destroy the original pattern ... The essence of writing is dealing with all kinds of shapes of thought and emotion. One has devoted one's life to that. It can't be summed up in a few words." He talks elliptically, often referring to himself in the third person, frequently repeating phrases, sometimes doing both at once. He's polite and even good-natured, but he'd clearly rather be on another continent. Being compelled to do this no doubt feeds Naipaul's disdain of publishers. Several years ago, he told The New York Times that "the publishing world, the book writing world is an extraordinary shoddy, dirty, dingy world. There are probably only three or four publishers in London that one has any regard for. The others have the morality and the culture of barrow boys -- street sellers, people pushing rotten apples." He was misquoted, he claims. "I didn't say apple sellers," he says delightedly. "They changed that. I said old clothes dealers." Worried at offending the fashion industry, he laughs, The Times "calmed it down." Uncompromising: That's always been Naipaul's approach. His friend Paul Theroux recounts in a memoir how he first met Naipaul in 1966, when they were colleagues at a Ugandan university. Colleagues of a sort, that is: "He never gave a lecture; I don't think he set foot in the department, and towards the end of his term he moved into a hotel" -- in a neighboring country. Naipaul judged a literary contest, but no entry met his standards for first or second place; the only winner came in third. He urged all his writing students to quit. Another fellow, the author of the poem "A New Nation Reborn," got this response: "I want you to promise me to give up poetry immediately. Don't be depressed. Look at me, I've never written a poem in my life! I'm sure your gifts lie in quite another direction. But you have beautiful handwriting." What redeems this brutally straightforward attitude is Naipaul's talent -- and his ambition. A self-made man, he drives others no harder than he drives himself. "When I was in the fourth form I wrote a vow on the endpaper of my Kennedy's 'Revised Latin Primer' to leave within five years," he writes in "The Middle Passage." "I left after six; and for many years afterwards in England, falling asleep in bedsitters with the electric fire on, I had been awakened by the nightmare that I was back in tropical Trinidad." There have been prices to pay -- a breakdown while a lonely student in the alien environment of Oxford University, another nervous collapse 15 years later when "The Loss of El Dorado" was rejected by the commissioning publisher, who wanted a guide for tourists and received instead a brilliant historical rumination. Literature is not a field that offers up prodigies, but Naipaul comes close. By the age of 27, he had written and published three comic novels of Trinidadian life. Then, at an age when American writers are still sharpening pencils in graduate workshops, he delivered "A House for Mr. Biswas." The critic Joseph Epstein recently called this Dickensian epic "as great a novel, in my view, as any written by a living novelist." Naipaul was 29. Such ambition, such achievement: Within another decade, Naipaul had won nearly every important literary prize in Britain, culminating with the prestigious Booker for "In a Free State." He began to be mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize; each year at awards time, the rumors start again. But to hear him talk in this increasingly toasty hotel room, it all means nothing; and tropical Trinidad is always in danger of closing in. "I was in a house 20 years ago," he recalls. "A minor writer had received his books there, his copies. After his death, they were still there. They clearly had become junk. One fears some day this will happen -- they will just become junk." Not yet. All 20 of his books are in print in this country -- a remarkable feat for any living writer. But their author maintains, "I have very little audience here. It was years before I got published." This is not true, he's reminded; only one book, his second, failed initially to appear in the United States. "They were printed in tiny editions," he protests. "Not in any important way." Insecurity still propels him. He never believes people who say they've read his work. "I grew up in a rough way where no one read one's books ... A lot of my nerves had to do with a fear of being destroyed. I grew up with great apprehension. Growing up in Trinidad, I never felt secure. I felt I could always be destroyed quite late in life. Quite late." Inevitably, the subject of Salman Rushdie comes up. While professing to be horrified by the writer's predicament, Naipaul takes a mordant view of the situation. He accuses the publishers of letting events get out of hand: "It's a promotion thing that went a little too far. People didn't understand fully the consequences." There apparently is no love lost between Naipaul and Rushdie, England's two most celebrated writers from the colonies. Rushdie has criticized Naipaul in print, while Naipaul labels Rushdie's work as "easy left-wing Marxist stuff about the wickedness of India and the West." "He should have known," he adds. "If you are going to do this theological debate, which is legitimate if you are a member of the religion, you must do it within the place. You can't do it from a great distance and involve other people in it. This is a trap which writers fall into." Naipaul's own father fell into a slightly different trap. Seepersad Naipaul was a journalist on the Trinidad Guardian. In June 1933, he wrote an article saying local Hindu farmers had religious objections to vaccinating their cattle. Instead, there was a goat sacrifice on an altar dedicated to the goddess Kali. Seepersad, a practical-minded reformer, made references in his story to "superstitious remedies" and "amazing superstitious practices." Ten days later, he received a note in Hindi: He would have to perform the same ceremony he had criticized, or within a week he would die. It was a threat that went beyond offenses to the Kali cult: There were bad feelings between Seepersad and some of his relatives. In any event, he capitulated. Flowers and fruit were placed on an altar; a goat was anointed and garlanded with hibiscus; red powder was placed on its neck to symbolize its own blood. The cutlass was raised and the deed was done. "My father was entering the world of civilization, writing bravely. When the crunch came, he couldn't be protected," says Naipaul sadly. "He had to recant and he never recovered." Things began to go wrong: The editor of the paper left and Seepersad was demoted to a stringer. Soon after, Naipaul's mother told her son, Seepersad looked in the mirror and "couldn't see himself. And he began to scream." For Rushdie, Naipaul believes even recantation is too late. "It is a mess." The beleaguered Rushdie remains in hiding, presumably somewhere in England. At the height of the crisis, one expert opined that he would be lucky if, in five years, he could safely walk the streets of Manhattan. The only life possible for him, in other words, is the one lived for almost 30 years by Naipaul -- a man who changes countries as easily as other writers change their software. This, the thought of Rushdie adopting Naipaul's unpublicized life, provokes a rare smile. "I think he rather liked being known," the writer says, getting in one final dig. "He liked high visibility." In the South, as on his other trips, Naipaul was invisible -- and he liked it. But his approach toward his subject underwent a drastic shift from previous books. "The South has been so written about, one has to do something else ... I wouldn't have had the cheek to make judgments about people who had spoken to me and taken me into their thoughts." As a result, "A Turn in the South" is easygoing. It has moments of sharp observation -- "American places, big and small, are often named after people; and the ordinariness of the names can make some itineraries read like the muster of an army squad or a sports team" -- and fine characterization, such as the elderly Charlestonian who plans to inscribe "Have one on Jack" on his tombstone and to leave his church $2,000. Every spring, parishioners will be able to have a drink almost literally on him. Yet the book has drawn criticism for not coming to closer terms with the race question. Says Naipaul: "One quickly came to the end of the race thing. From black people, especially, one got rather tired quickly of hearing the stories of humiliation and persecution and things like that. So it was better to try to encapsulate them in a couple of experiences rather than keep on banging away at it." Instead, he concentrated on the music, the melancholy, the pitfalls of the past. The result is a curiously passive tale, one that has received some disappointed reviews. "There is an aimless fatigue to this journey, the author tolerating not confronting, leaving not waiting, happy to be led rather than seeking," said Caryl Phillips in the Los Angeles Times. But Naipaul, at least, is pleased with the people he has captured on the page. "This thing about the richness of human beings and human experience is rather wonderful," he says, sounding positively Pollyannish. "It would be very nice if, when one hangs up one's boots, there were an awful lot of people in one's books, made up and real -- it would be nice." That would be a happy ending indeed, but is it possible? Writing of Booker T. Washington, Naipaul points out: "So many snares; so many people to please; so many contradictions to resolve; so many possibilities of destruction. The achievement was great. But at what cost. He died at the age of fifty-nine." The same risks imperil Naipaul. He's had a career as impressive as any, but where does he go from here? When writing "A House for Mr. Biswas" three decades ago, he remembers, he wouldn't have given the book up if offered a million pounds. "It was almost why I wanted to be born, really." And now? He'd take the money and run. A phlegmatic laugh. "It's very tiring. One has done a lot, and when one is in a bad mood the weight of all the writing that one has done fills one's head." In 1970, writing about John Steinbeck, he concluded that "A writer is in the end not his books, but his myth. And that myth is in the keeping of others." Naipaul's own myth is stoked by both his provocative books and his personal elusiveness. But it is not secure. Writing about the flash points of the world -- Islam during the fundamentalist uprising; Argentina and Uruguay during the years of terror; Central Africa when native rulers displaced the colonial establishment -- he's been taking snapshots of disorder. By his own calculations, the books may become relics of a more dangerous time. Surprisingly, this once dour critic is hopeful about the world's future. "Certainly the battles have been won. A country like India has begun to examine its internal cruelties." The room by now is heavily humid. Naipaul has the afternoon free. He has no plans. "I would have liked to go and buy some shirts." He laughs again. "But it's too cold." That night, high above the windy Manhattan streets, Sonny Mehta -- the Knopf publisher and Naipaul's editor -- gives a party for the author in his apartment. Fashionable folk nibble on tiny delicacies and offer opinions of the guest of honor. Al Murray, a Tuskegee-educated writer on jazz and one of those interviewed in "A Turn in the South," says: "Naipaul is like a satellite in orbit. He's got an objectivity that no one else has, and he knows that the past is an albatross." Neil Bissoondath, Naipaul's nephew and a novelist himself, agrees that his uncle has mellowed. "Perhaps it's something to do with some deaths in the family" -- including that of his younger brother Shiva, also a writer, who died of a heart attack in 1985. As for the future, "I can't imagine him not writing, and I think he can't imagine it." And the man himself? At the moment he's withdrawn into the library, a room somewhat isolated from the crowd and noise. Has the traveler come home? Here in civilized New York, at the apex of success, does he finally feel no longer an exile? "I don't think like that any longer. One doesn't have to be a West Indian or Indian or English writer. Just a writer." His phrases drift off; his mind seems to wander. In any case, he says, "exile is too pretty a word. One doesn't want to use it." Nevertheless, "the feeling is always there." To the end, uncompromising.