Between Father and Son
By VS Naipaul

[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 turned out.
I will write shortly. Goodbye and good luck.

With affection,
Vido [an intimate form of Vidia (itself a diminutive of Vidiadhar), the name by which V. S. Naipaul was and is familiarly known]

[To Kamla]
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

Miss Kamla Naipaul,
Women's Hostel,
Banaras Hindu University,
November 24, 1949

My darling,
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 of happiness.

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,

Trinidad p.m., September 15, 1950
V. S. Naipaul, Esq.,
62 Westbere Road,
London, NW2
Dear Vido,
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 fast typing.
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 overwork.
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. Write often.


Home, 9/22/50
Dear Son,

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.]






"How 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.

As 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."

The Writer-to-Be and His Mentor

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.

Looking 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 India."

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 unopened.

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

What 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 a writer.''
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 cradle.

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 isn't.''

Two 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 the
place 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.]

© 2001