[The task of introducing this extraordinary and moving correspondence
is a delicate one. In these letters between a father and a son,
the older man worn down by the cares of a large family and the
distress of unfulfilled ambitions, the younger on the threshold
of a broad and brilliant literary career, lies some of the raw
material of one of the finest and most enduring novels of the
twentieth century: V. S. Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas. Yet
the letters also celebrate Seepersad Naipaul's achievement as
a writer, not merely in the genesis and evolution of his single
published novel, The Adventures of Gurudeva; but also, and perhaps
more strikingly, in revealing the dedication of the true artist.
For Seepersad Naipaul (Pa), the life of the mind -- the writer's
life — was everything: to record the ways of men and women,
with a shrewd, comical and kindly eye, and to do that from within
his own originality, was to live nobly. In his elder son, Vidia,
he found a miraculous echo to this belief — miraculous,
because there is no sense of a son's following in his father's
footsteps, or of a father's urging that he might do so. There
is a sense, rather, of the two men's being in step, neither embarrassed
by any of the implications of the generation that divided them
— and Vidia only seventeen when the present correspondence
opens. The difference in their ages, and the fact of Seepersad's
early death, have allowed Vidia to acknowledge the debt he owes
to his father, and he has embraced the opportunity to do so in
manifold ways in his work. In this correspondence, the reader
will recognize the subtle, and unwitting, repayment of a father's
debt to his son. . . . Gillon Aitkenn.
Please see between Father and Son: Family Letters by V. S. NAIPAUL.
September 21, 1949 — September 22, 1950: Port of
Spain to Oxford
September 21, 1949
Dear Kamla [Naipaul's elder sister],
I wonder what is the matter with this typewriter. It looks all
right now, though. I am enclosing some cuttings which, I am sure,
will delight you. You will note that I went after all to the Old
Boys' Association Dinner. I can count those hours as among the
most painful I have ever spent. In the first place, I have no
table manners; in the second, I had no food. Special arrangements,
I was informed after the dinner, had been made for me, but these
appeared to have been limited to serving me potatoes in various
ways — now fried, now boiled. I had told the manager to
bring me some corn soup instead of the turtle soup that the others
were having. He ignored this and the waiter brought up to me a
plateful of a green slime. This was the turtle soup. I was nauseated
and annoyed and told the man to take it away. This, I was told,
was a gross breach of etiquette. So I had bread and butter and
ice-cold water for the first two eating rounds. The menu was in
French. What you would call stewed chicken they called 'Poulet
Sauté Renaissance'. Coffee was 'moka'. I had rather expected
that to be some exotic Russian dish. Dessert included something
called 'Pomme Surprise'. This literally means 'surprised apple',
and the younger Hannays, who was next to me, told me it was an
apple pudding done in a surprise manner. The thing came. I ate
it. It was fine. But I tasted no apple. 'That,' Hannays told me,
'is the surprise.'
I have just finished filling out the application forms for entrance
to the University; I had some pictures of myself taken. I had
always thought that, though not attractive, I was not ugly. This
picture undeceived me. I never knew my face was fat. The picture
said so. I looked at the Asiatic on the paper and thought that
an Indian from India could look no more Indian than I did. My
face would give anyone the idea that I was a two-hundred-pounder.
I had hoped to send up a striking intellectual pose to the University
people, but look what they have got. And I even paid two dollars
for a re-touched picture.
I am all right. I am actually reading once more. I decided to
start preparing myself for next year by a thorough knowledge of
the nineteenth-century novel. I read the Butler book [Samuel Butler's
The Way of All Flesh (1903)]; I think it is not half as good as
Maugham's Of Human Bondage. The construction is clumsy. Butler
has stressed too much on passing religious conflicts; is too concerned
with proving his theory of heredity. I then went on to Jane Austen.
I had read so much in praise of her. I went to the library and
got Emma. It has an introduction by Monica Dickens, which extolled
the book as the finest Austen ever wrote. Frankly, the introduction
proved better reading than the book itself. Jane Austen appears
to be essentially a writer for women; if she had lived in our
age she would undoubtedly have been a leading contributor to the
women's papers. Her work really bored me. It is mere gossip. It
could appeal to a female audience. The diction is fine, of course.
But the work, besides being mere gossip, is slick and professional.
I think you would be interested to know how my $75 will be spent.
I have taken over all your debts. $50 will go to the bank; $10
to Millington; and $15 to Dass. I have about two dollars pocket
money. I get this from Mamie for teaching Sita. Sending that child
to school to get an academic education is a waste of time and
money. She is the most obtuse thing I have ever met. If you want
to break a man's heart, give him a class of Sitas to teach. I
wonder if you know that I have been teaching George. He is dull
but could pass if made to work hard. I am sure you will be glad
to know that Jainarayan is making splendid progress. Those people
are a sorry lot. This devaluation business is going to make it
even harder for them.
It is not for us at home to do extensive writing; that is your
job. It is you who are seeing new countries, having new and exciting
experiences which will probably remain in your memory as the most
interesting part of your life. I must say, however, that your
letters have improved enormously. I wonder why. Is it because
you are writing spontaneously, without any conscious effort at
literature? I think it is. . . .
. . . While you are in India, you should keep your eyes open.
This has two meanings: the subsidiary one is to watch your personal
effects carefully; the Indians are a thieving lot. Remember what
happened to the trousers of the West Indian cricket eleven. [The
white flannel trousers of the West Indian cricket team visiting
India at this time were famously stolen in Bombay.] Keep your
eyes open and let me know whether Beverly Nichols is right. He
went to India in 1945, and saw a wretched country, full of pompous
mediocrity, with no future. He saw the filth; refused to mention
the 'spiritualness' that impresses another kind of visitor. Of
course the Indians did not like the book, but I think he was telling
the truth. From Nehru's autobiography, I think the Premier of
India is a first-class showman using his saintliness as a weapon
of rule. But I am sure it has a certain basis in fact. Huxley
may have degenerated of late into an invalid crippled by a malady
that has received enormous approval by the intellectuals —
mysticism — but what he said in his book [Jesting Pilate
(1926)] about India twenty years or so ago is true. He said that
it was half-diets that produced ascetics and people who spend
all their time in meditation. You will be right at the heart of
the whole cranky thing. Please don't get contaminated; I will
be glad when your three years will be finished; then you could
breathe the invigorating air of atheism. (I don't like that word.
It seems to suggest that the person is interested in religion;
it doesn't suggest one who ignores it completely . . .)
I suppose that by now you have received the ten pounds. We got
your diary. I could sense an underlying unhappiness and worry
in it. I don't think you were completely happy. I could imagine
how glad you were when you saw Boysie at Avonmouth. After all,
who could be perfectly happy going to a strange land with only
about seventy dollars to stay heaven knows how long? I doubt whether
we could have stood the financial strain. I am very glad how things
I will write shortly. Goodbye and good luck.
Vido [an intimate form of Vidia (itself a diminutive of Vidiadhar),
the name by which V. S. Naipaul was and is familiarly known]
October 10, 1949
My dear little fool,
You are the damnedest ass. Your letter amused me as I read the
first few lines; then it became grotesque.
You are a silly stupid female, after all. I fancy you rather enjoyed
writing that plea to a wayward brother. It made you a hero a la
Hollywood. Listen, my dear 'very pretty' Miss Naipaul, you are
free to indulge your fancy, and let it roam, but don't ever mix
me up in it. I appreciate that the picture of an intelligent,
sensitive ('he is the most sensitive of all your children') brother
flinging himself at the dogs, as it were, eating out his heart,
and drowning his sorrows in drink, at the departure of a dear
sister is appealing and not without its melodramatic flavour.
You were the same over here. Do you remember your taunts at my
getting a job? You enjoyed the picture you built up, the picture
someone would form of me if he knew nothing of the family. A weak,
bespectacled brother is frustrated by his lack of physical attraction.
It grows on him, for he is intellectual, and he becomes a drunkard.
He is easily led astray; when he falls for vices, he falls hard.
The sister knew it all the time. She weeps as a fountain as she
pens the bitter letter to her brother, inquiring if what she hears
is true, half hoping to hear that it is. You are a fool. He is
easily led astray. Living in a family where generosity is bad
business; where mediocrity and stupidity hold sway; where meat-eating
is a virtue — he is ungenerous, he is stupid, he eats meat.
Am I easily led astray? Probably. By you. I could have, with profit,
spent my money on myself. I always admire the human ability to
forgo a pleasure, after that pleasure has been enjoyed.
If I smoked in Trinidad you well knew how I was at pains to hide
the fact from you! Why didn't the ass tell me who was the slandering
malicious 'friend' who had my welfare so much at heart?
You have insulted me, Kamla. This is going to be my last letter
to you. I am easily led astray! Not you, who are fool enough to
believe what one ass has said. This could have been entertaining,
but you went all out to play the Hollywood role. At other times
you kept us without letters for nearly three weeks. Now you dispatch
three sermons. Vido is going to the bad. Stop him! He can't help
himself, poor thing. Then the one to me: 'You want me to be happy.
But how can I?' All this is very fine. Leave me out in future
of all your daydreams. Try them on some English or Asiatic ass.
For three weeks past, I have been smoking. As much as with Springer
and Co. when you were here. That is bad, isn't it? I have been
drinking excessively? Well, yes, water. It has been very hot.
Listen, what have you people got against Owad? I can tell you,
Miss Hollywood, he is not a whit worse than any of your cousins.
Of course, this will confirm, in your mind, the fact that I have
gone to the dogs. But I don't give a damn what you think now.
You have insulted me in the worst manner possible.
V. S. Naipaul
Banaras Hindu University,
November 24, 1949
I want you to promise me one thing. I want you to promise that
you will write a book in diary form about your stay in India.
Try to stay at least 6 months — study conditions; analyse
the character. Don't be too bitter. Try to be humorous. Send your
manuscript in instalments to me. I will work on them. I am getting
introductions to quite a number of people — Pagett of Oxford
included. Pa can put me on to Rodin, the star-writer of England's
Daily Express. Your book will be a great success from the financial
point of view. I can see it even now — My Passage to India:
A Record of Six Unhappy Months by Kamla Naipaul.
Don't take everything in such a tragic way. I can't imagine how
a girl like you so fond of laughter can't see the hilarious stupidity
of the whole thing. If you go ahead taking everything to heart,
your whole life will be just one lament.
But let us consider you — from the practical point. I have
already paid back $150, and, by December, $200 shall be struck
off. Not bad, eh? If you can't take it — tell your uncle
in London. Find out if his offer still holds good. I trust you
are keeping in touch with Ruth. If he says no, well, we'll see
then. How much money have you in the bank?
Has the damned Gov't sent you your allowance?
My stay in Trinidad is drawing to a close — I only have
nine months left. Then I shall go away never to come back, as
I trust. I think I am at heart really a loafer. Intellectualism
is merely fashionable sloth. That is why I think I am going to
be either a big success or an unheard-of failure. But I am prepared
for anything. I want to satisfy myself that I have lived as I
wanted to live. As yet I feel that the philosophy I will have
to expand in my books is only superficial. I am longing to see
something of life. You can't beat life for the variety of events
and emotions. I am feeling something about everything —
about this amusing and tragic world.
I have found it difficult to live up to my own maxim. 'We must
be hard,' I say. 'We must ignore the pain-shrieks of the dying
world,' yet I can't. There is so much suffering — so overpoweringly
much. That is a cordial feature in life — suffering. It
is as elemental as night. It also makes more keen the appreciation
Please write to me only how sad you are.
There is one point I want you to help me stress. My thesis is
that the world is dying — Asia today is only a primitive
manifestation of a long-dead culture; Europe is battered into
a primitivism by material circumstances; America is an abortion.
Look at Indian music. It is being influenced by Western music
to an amusing extent. Indian painting and sculpture have ceased
to exist. That is the picture I want you to look for — a
dead country still running with the momentum of its heyday.
Don't cry, my dear.
Your loving brother,
p.m., September 15, 1950
V. S. Naipaul, Esq.,
62 Westbere Road,
It seems you have not yet received my letter. However, you do
seem to be all right with cash, and I'm glad.
Your typewriter must be good to type so neatly; but I notice the
C & O have a tendency to pile. But this may be due to faulty
I hope the Penguin people accept your story. I am curious to see
what it is like, but I half guess you would not like me to see
it. I'm pretty sure it must be good, though. I can't imagine seeing
you write a bad story. When writing a story it is a good thing
to read good stories. Good reading and good writing go together.
But you must have already discovered this.
Mr Swanzy [BBC World Service Producer, Caribbean Voices, a weekly
literary programme] has paid me some fine encomiums on my short
stories in his half-yearly review of Poems and Prose in Caribbean
Voices. The review was also published in the last Guardian Weekly.
On the other hand Mrs Lindo [Jamaican Editor of Caribbean Voices]
has taken me to task for sending in my published shorter story.
She tells me that the BBC intended paying me seven guineas for
it, but on discovering that the article had been previously published,
the price was cut to ú4 and 9/-, from which was deducted
9/- and something in the pound for income tax. So I was left with
just $11, if you please. I have heard nothing, so far, about either
'Obeah' or 'The Engagement', though both have been sent up; and
I have heard nothing about your poem. You had better write Mrs
Lindo to let her know that you are now in England. Maybe she is
mistaking you for me.
Have you written Kamla? She seems sad at your not writing her.
Do write the girl and say nothing to hurt her feelings. We got
a letter from her today, together with yours. She is ill with
Make contact with people like Thorold Dickinsonç and other
big shots in the film and writing business. You never know what
good these people may lead you to.
So long as you use your freedom and feeling of independence sensibly
it will be all to the good. Do not allow depression to have too
much of a hold on you. If this mood visits you at times regard
it as a passing phase and never give way to it.
Self-confidence is a very valuable asset and I am glad to know
you feel confident; but don't underestimate people and problems.
Your letter of September 17 we got yesterday. It has made me both
happy and — to some extent sad. I thought that when Simbhoo
arrived he would be bringing you and Boysie cheer; that he would
make the place a little more like home, with jokes and sightseeing
and so on. I should not mind if letters do not come very frequently
sometimes. You say Kamla has not written you; and Kamla says you
have not written her. You write her and try to be kind in your
letter. Kamla is only too anxious to hear from you as well as
to write you. She probably did not know your address.
I have not failed with my developing outfit. The very first try
was a success. I cannot enclose photos with this or else I would
have shown you specimens. One photo of my developing I have sent
to Kamla. It is Shivan and Baido. A cute little snap. What I need
now is a printer — you know, the equipment on which negatives
are printed. Another humbug lies in the fact that I cannot get
the right printing paper. Johnsons of Hendon Ltd, London, NW4,
have plastic printing frames; more than this, they carry what
they call a new Exactum Printer; also they stock gas-light printing
paper of all grades. On this paper printing can be done with daylight.
They are very cheap. See if you can send a few packets for me,
for negatives, size 120. Also contact printing paper, grades vigorous,
soft and normal. Tell the people the kind of camera I have, and
they should give you the right stuffs for printing.
The Guardian paid me only $5 for the two Ramadhin pictures; and
five dollars for the story in the Sunday Guardian. Before these
I think I got $3 for the uncle-aunt picture that came out in the
sports page of TG. But my rice-growing story in the Weekly carried
four pictures. They should bring me in at least $12, but of course
you never know with these people.
I have not heard anything further on your poem. You know it has
been sent up to London by Mrs Lindo. And I haven't heard more
about 'Obeah' and 'The Engagement', which, like your poem, have
been sent up; and acknowledged as having been received and retained
for possible future broadcasting. Wait and see.
Your writings are all right. I have no doubt whatever that you
will be a great writer; but do not spoil yourself: beware of undue
dissipation of any kind. I do not mean you must be a puritan.
A pity you spent some money badly re meeting Simbhoo; but such
things will happen. It was gratifying to hear you could send us
some money but everything is all right just now. Are you keeping
a savings account? Yes, I think you do; I think you mentioned
the fact in a previous letter. S. used to also say some such things
to Rudranath when the latter had won his scholarship. I remember
S's spirited objection and umbrage. You keep your centre. You
are on the way to being an intellectual. He is only stating a
fact. Acknowledge it mentally as such. Say, 'Thanks.'
I never had so much work as I am having nowadays. I hope I shall
be able to keep up. I am no longer on the Evening News. They have
shifted me to the Guardian. Since last Monday — General
Election day — I have been working, at a stretch almost,
from early morning to late night — nine and ten at nights.
Don't see how I can find the time to do features for the Weekly.
Even this letter I write at a snatch. I was asked to write a feature
on faith-healing at about 12.30 yesterday; and I had to turn out
the stuff first thing in the morning. The faith-healer's meeting
that I was to describe actually never finished till midnight.
This was last night. But I have turned in the story. What is strange
is that I think it will be a good story — snappily written.
I like your decision to write weekly. I think I can easily manage
writing once a fortnight providing the air-letter form is at hand!
And providing that the letter, having been written, gets posted!
I haven't bought the tyre. It will get bought when it comes to
my not being able to go out — unless I had one. Like buying
the battery. Let us know what is happening. Tell me about the
fate of the poems you have sent in, and the stories. And don't
worry about anybody or anything here.
No fear; we received all your letters. Only I find they took a
long time in the coming. Once three letters, differently dated,
came in a batch. Altogether we've got seven letters from you from
the day you left home; plus a cable.
No harm in kissing a girl, so long you do not become too prone
for that sort of thing.
Love from everybody,
[Credit: All letters @ 1999 V. S. Naipaul.]
does a writer pass from the fantasy to the ambition to the act
of writing? In this essay of literary autobiography, V.S. Naipaul
sifts through memories of his childhood in Trinidad, his university
days in England and his responses to his family's native India,
seeking the experiences of life and literature that shaped his
imagination and reflecting on the very different possibilities
that he found in the novel and the travel book for capturing the
truth of his subjects.
a child trying to read, I had felt that two worlds separated me
from the books that were offered to me at school and in the libraries:
the childhood world if our remembered India, and the more colonial
world of our city ? What I didn't know, even after I had written
my early books of fiction ? was that those two spheres of darkness
had become my subject. Fiction, working its mysteries, by indirections
finding directions out, had led me to my subject. But it couldn't
take me all the way."
Writer-to-Be and His Mentor
By MEL GUSSOW
LONDON -- V. S. Naipaul has a new book, "Between Father and
Son: Family Letters," and, in what may be a first for an
author, he has not read it, and, at least for the present, he
has no intention of reading it. As he explained in a recent interview
here, the reason he is maintaining such a distance from the book
is personal rather than critical.
"I don't ever want to relive those years," Mr. Naipaul
said. "They were too wretched." For him, it was a period
of "double dislocation" and "double destitution."
A young man of Indian descent born in Trinidad, he was newly arrived
in England, in need of money and determined to become a writer,
but with nothing to demonstrate that he could fulfill that ambition.
He permitted publication of the letters, he said, because "in
addition to what they say about our family circumstances, they
are a cultural record of an immigrant community moving into a
new world over a couple of generations." They also serve
as a kind of memoir, showing the evolution of an artist transplanted
into an alien environment. It was only in England that he began
to discover himself as a writer.
back at that period, Mr. Naipaul, who is 67, said: "My own
state of mind in 1952 was pretty bad.
"For a long time my heart was so full of love for the members
of my family. That kept me going, but it was a kind of wound as
well because I could do nothing for them." The letters, he
said, were irregular: "They give an illusion of continuity
where the reality is full of emotional upheaval." As he talked,
it was clear that he remembered the basic content of the letters
and how important they were to him.
The core of the correspondence is the relationship between father
and son. Seepersad Naipaul was a writer, working for a time as
a journalist in Trinidad and also writing short stories. At one
point, his father suggested that they do a book together, to be
called "Letters Between a Father and Son."
Each encouraged the other's writing. In 1950 Seepersad Naipaul
wrote to his son, with no justification except his paternal fidelity,
"I have no doubt whatever that you will be a great writer."
On the other hand, the son was torn by crosscurrents of confidence
and insecurity, writing to his older sister, "I am going
to be either a big success or an unheard-of failure."
"I thought somehow the gift was going to descend down to
me," he said. "Then I discovered I had to work at it."
The letters offer proof that despite his own doubts, the younger
Naipaul always possessed creative talent and that his father,
though unrecognized, was himself a perceptive writer -- and mentor.
With an intellectual acuity that belied the limits of his education,
his father frequently gave him advice on writing. For example,
he said that if you say exactly what you want to say, "you
will have achieved style." When that passage was mentioned
to him, Mr. Naipaul agreed with his father: "In my own practice,
I always avoided style. To me, it is simply getting at what you
mean, and that takes a lot of refining, because words can be deceptive."
The elder Naipaul also admonished him to "keep your center,"
an idea that was to echo through his son's work.
About his father's stories, he said: "If they had contained
an element of untruth, I would not have cared for them. I think
they mattered to me because they gave me this picture of our community.
Without that picture, I would not have known who we were. One
was already in a historical void in a place like Trinidad."
His father was not an active part of his life until the boy was
6 or 7. As one of a large family, he was boarded out and lived
in his grandmother's house during his childhood. When they began
seeing each other regularly, the father would read his stories
aloud, and "they acquired an element of the fairy tale."
The son's wish to write came from his reading, mostly of English
authors (Shakespeare and Dickens), and from the model of his father.
As Mr. Naipaul wrote in his recent essay, "Reading and Writing,"
it was "less a true ambition than a form of self-esteem,
a dream of release, an idea of nobility."
The letters deal passingly -- and often comically -- with his
days at Oxford, for example, with his brief attempt to be a coxswain
on a rowing crew. Such events made him aware of things he could
not do: "The nature of one's life meant that one wrote in
a funny way about things that were not funny in real life."
At 18 he wrote his first novel, "The Shadow'd Livery."
"It was," he said, "heavily dependent on Evelyn
Waugh, but the idea was my own -- a kind of farce on an important
subject," a black man in Trinidad who tries to turn himself
into a king. After the book was rejected by a publisher, it was
jettisoned. He sank into a depression that lasted about a year..
Then he wrote a second novel, a "more personal, foolish book"
-- also unpublished.
In October 1953 his father died (at 47) in Trinidad. Partly because
he was short of money, Mr. Naipaul did not return home for the
funeral. Somehow, despite his love for his father, the death acted
as a release. Less than two years later, he began writing with
a new seriousness of purpose and a clearer point of identity.
The breakthrough came suddenly, while he was writing the stories
that later appeared in his book "Miguel Street." From
his perspective, those early stories got better and better: "There
was a moment, almost an hour, in which I began to be a writer.
Somehow I found the right tone, and the tone released the material,
and it all came together, and I could see my way ahead."
In quick succession he wrote "Miguel Street" and the
novel "The Mystic Masseur." Both were accepted for publication,
and he sent a cable home with the news. In 1956 he returned to
Trinidad for the first time -- and it was not a happy homecoming.
"It was a tormenting time for me," he said. Nothing
had yet been published. "The family situation was desperate.
I was unhappy, hour by hour." After returning to England,
he began writing "A House for Mr. Biswas," his first
masterpiece (published in 1961), and "a lot of the emotional
charge of that book" came from that visit to Trinidad.
Many years earlier his father had suggested that he use him as
a character in his fiction. "I remember that letter,"
said Mr. Naipaul. "He says, settle down and write, think
of a character, make me a character, begin it like this."
After his father's death he did precisely that, using him as the
inspiration for Mr. Biswas.
"In the myth," he said, "having written two books,
the young writer should be taken up to the skies. In reality,
having written two books, the young writer remained firmly on
the ground. Because the books were not published until later,
I was drained, and I began to play with this idea: a man tells
his life and it's in terms of things which he's acquired, simple
things, but in his own eyes, very big things." After the
start, he was blocked, but kept writing and finally after seven
months, "there came a light."
From the beginning, he intended "to cannibalize" one
of his father's stories, published in the posthumous 1976 collection
"The Adventures of Gurudeva." Anand, Mr. Biswas's son,
is a combination of the author and his younger brother, Shiva,
who later became a novelist.
Comparing his father with Mr. Biswas, Mr. Naipaul said: "My
father was a profounder man in every way. And his wounds are deeper
than the other man can say. It's based on him, but it couldn't
be the real man." He said he felt he had inherited his sense
of comedy from his father, and added that others have said that
he had his mother's tenaciousness.
Before and after his artistic breakthrough, Mr. Naipaul read all
his work aloud to Patricia Hale, whom he had met at Oxford and
who later became his wife. He recalled, "For three years,
from 1952 to 1955, all I read to her was rubbish. She gave her
response and it was very valuable. When things are going badly,
you need someone to point out what was good" -- and worth
saving. "I trusted her. I read everything to Pat, for her
approval, even a few days before she died" (in 1995). He
said that his relationship with her and with his father had been
the deepest ones in his life.
After his father died, Mr. Naipaul wrote to his mother, "What
we are he has made of us." Several weeks later, he added,
"In a way I had always looked upon my life as a continuation
of his -- a continuation which, I hoped, would also be a fulfillment."
When that letter was quoted to him, he said, "Neither I nor
my father could have known where the writing was going to lead
one, in terms of the intellectual adventure. I don't think I had
any idea at the beginning that I was going to be writing about
colonialism, the New World, slavery and revolution -- and about
His career has led him to write 23 books, from his early comic
novels to the richly textured dramatic chronicles of "Mr.
Biswas" and "A Bend in the River," and includes
transformative returns to India, a confrontation with Islam and
his later novelistic contemplations of his place, and way, in
the world, as in "The Enigma of Arrival."
He continued: "The reason why my father would not have been
able to understand where I would eventually go is that the nature
of your society conditions the kind of writing you can do about
it. There are certain societies where intellectual adventure,
social adventure, is necessarily limited," as in Trinidad.
To the question of how he became a writer, he said, "For
me there was always an element of desperation." With him,
more than anything, it was the will to be a writer, the innocence
in believing that someone from his background could be a writer
and "the idea of the presence of my father -- I always knew
that regardless of our circumstances that he was a noble man."
When Mr. Naipaul comes to New York, he will read at the 92nd Street
Y (on Jan. 24), but not from his new book. Instead he will draw
upon his other writings. The book of letters remains something
apart from him. Any day a package of copies sent by his publisher
will arrive at his home in Wiltshire, where he lives with his
second wife, Nadira. In all probability the package will remain
Thinking about the book and the memories it would evoke, he said,
"I wonder if I will have enough courage to read it."
[Credit: Article publisehd, January 5, 2000.]
'Literary Occasions': The Critical Is Personal
By LYNN FREED
a pleasure it is to read V. S. Naipaul's collection of personal
and critical essays, variously published over almost 40 years
and culminating in ''Two Worlds,'' his Nobel lecture of 2001.
The essays themselves are largely meditations on writing and literature,
evolving from Naipaul's own experience -- his background and history,
his development as a writer and his observations as a reader.
Quite often they overlap, the same subject matter turning up in
two or three different places. And usually they do so to effect,
shifting the perspective slightly, complicating the significance
of the whole.
Here, for instance, is Naipaul on the subject of his early ambitions:
''The wish to be a writer didn't go with a wish or a need actually
to write. It went only with the idea I had been given of the writer,
a fantasy of nobility.''
''My father worshiped writing and writers. He made the vocation
of the writer seem the noblest in the world; and I decided to
be that noble thing.''
''I couldn't truly call myself a reader. I had never had the capacity
to lose myself in a book; like my father, I could read only in
little bits . . . I hadn't begun to think in any concrete way
about what I might write. Yet I continued to think of myself as
Naipaul's story itself is deeply rooted in the story of his father.
In many ways, ''Literary Occasions'' is a testament to their shared
love affair with language. Naipaul's father was a journalist.
He also published a collection of short stories (''I read every
new typescript my father made as the story grew. It was the greatest
imaginative experience of my childhood''). Father and son also
shared a sort of hysteria -- a nervous illness that in the father
had shown up as a ''fear of extinction'' and in the son as ''a
panic about failing to be what I should be'' (''I was eaten up
with anxiety. It was the emotion I felt I had always known'').
In a sense, it was the circumscription of his father's life that
fed Naipaul's own urgent need to escape Trinidad (''To become
a writer, that noble thing, I had thought it necessary to leave.
Actually to write, it was necessary to go back. It was the beginning
of self-knowledge''). Again and again he considers the small escapes
that his father made, the failures that followed, and the despair.
He writes of the limitations of village life, of Trinidad's Indians
and of the loss of India itself in the diaspora. He writes too
of his grandparents, who came to Trinidad from India, of the sad
history of Trinidad's aboriginal peoples and of the island's cruel
colonial history. And to all this he brings an exacting eye and
a sort of broad philosophical despair. But never does he descend
to the odious singsong of the self-righteous. He is far too honest
a man, too independent a thinker and too intelligent a writer
for that sort of thing.
In many ways it is as if Naipaul cannot get over having left Trinidad
in the first place, or having managed to stay afloat through all
the years of struggle in London while he was establishing himself
as a writer. The hard-won success that followed is not nearly
as mysterious to him: it was worked for; it was earned. And this
is clearly a matter of fierce pride. In book after book, Naipaul
is described as having ''followed no other profession'' than that
of writer (at least one unhappy stint in the academy notwithstanding).
The essays in this volume go a long way toward explaining this
pride and this refusal.
And yet never is the prose self-inflating. One of Naipaul's most
endearing qualities is his unfailing impulse toward honesty. It
is manifested in the intelligent candor with which he lays bare
his subjects, never excepting himself. The writing itself is a
wonder of clarity, complex ideas given shape in simple English,
and achieving that most difficult of tasks -- having writer and
reader seem simultaneously to be making the same journey. With
consummate skill, Naipaul will introduce a character or a scene,
leave it behind for 20 pages or so while he takes off in a different
direction, return to it to add a few more brushstrokes, and then,
somehow, after several such loops, arrive at the complete picture
with the reader still at his side. It is a masterly game of cat's
Behind the work -- fueling it in a way -- is a quality of what
one might call rage. It is the sort of impulse, the sort of uncompromising
urge, to get at the truth through language that informs so much
of what is excellent and enduring in literature. ''I could see
the young Tolstoy moving, as if out of need, to the discovery
of fiction: starting as a careful descriptive writer . . . and
then, as though seeing an easier and a better way of dealing with
the horrors of the Sebastopol siege, doing a simple fiction, setting
characters in motion, and bringing the reality closer.''
Inevitably, some of the pieces in this volume shine less brightly.
After the wonders of the prologue (''Reading and Writing, a Personal
Account'') and Part 1 -- essays written largely around himself,
his father, their history in Trinidad, their love affair with
words -- Part 2, which contains literary essays on other subjects,
seems to alter the tone and thrust of the collection. And yet
there are gems to be found here, too. In a fraction of a paragraph
on Kipling, for instance, Naipaul manages to distill what other
writers would extrude into a full-length volume: ''The club-writer
always needed the club, the common points of reference; he needed
the legend, which perhaps his own stories had helped to create.
. . . A story by Chekhov is complete in itself; a story by Kipling
of the shorter essays in Part 1 (''Jasmine'' and ''East Indian'')
contain subject matter that is more fully realized (rather than
advanced) in ''Two Worlds,'' the beautiful and moving Nobel speech
that reads rather like an elegy. And there are puzzles. In his
essay on Conrad, for instance, which was published in 1974, Naipaul
declares, ''The novel as a form no longer carries conviction''
-- an idea he reiterates elsewhere. And yet he himself continued
to write and publish novels over the next 30 years. Why? One wishes
that he would address this anomaly.
Still, these are all small quibbles, only able to be made by comparison
with the ideal. No other living writer is able as brilliantly
as V. S. Naipaul both to clarify and to enhance the mystery of
writing. And yet ''Literary Occasions'' constitutes anything but
a fairy tale of success. Rather, it is a complex testament not
only to the struggle of one man against great odds to be ''that
noble thing,'' but also to theplace
and purpose of the writer in the world: the ''triumph over darkness.''
Photo:Naipaul outside at his Salisbury
home in 2001 after he had won the Noble Peace Prize.
[Credit: The New York Times, January 5, 2004.]