Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul is the author of more than a score books of fiction and nonfiction, including the highly acclaimed "A House for Mr. Biswas," "India: A Million Mutinies Now," and "Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples." His writing has been praised by Elizabeth Hardwick in the "New York Times Book Review": "The sweep of Naipaul's imagination, the brilliant fictional frame that expresses it, are in my view without equal today"; and by John Updike in "The New Yorker": "A Tolstoyan spirit. The so-called Third World has produced no more brilliant literary artist."
Born and raised in Trinidad among the large community of people of Indian origin, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul ("Vido"), at age 17, won a government scholarship to attend Oxford University. Written a few years before he won the Nobel prize, "Between Father and Son: Family Letters" illuminates the author's years of launching his writing career. Most of the letters are addressed from Oxford to his father, Seepersad Naipaul ("Pa"), an impecunious journalist and a self-published short-story writer, and to his older sister, Kamla, who also won a scholarship and was attending Benares Hindu University in India.
The book reads like an engrossing novel. It also shows us much of the raw experience Naipaul transformed into A House for Mr. Biswas. In a recent National Public Radio interview, Naipaul said that although he gave permission to publish the letters, he did not participate in making selections. Nor does he intend reading the book--too many painful memories.
Gillon Aitken has restrained his editing, wisely letting the letters speak. The first chapter is Vido's letters to Kamla as he gets ready to leave Trinidad, 19491950: "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 going to be either a big success or an unheard of failure." The next eight chapters are divided according to Oxford terms, from 1950 to 1953. The 10-page final chapter is Vido's letters after leaving Oxford, 1954-1957, addressed to his widowed mother and to Kamla.
Vido, the second eldest of Seeprasad's seven children, had a warm, synergetic relationship with his father. "Dear Everybody: What a delight to receive Pa's letter from home . He really writes extremely good letters." And from Seeprasad: "Your letters are charming in their spontaneity. If you could write me letters about things and people -- especially people -- at Oxford, I could compile them in a book: Letters Between A Father and Son, or My Oxford Letters." Vido to his father: "You know I can't write well. Not half as well as you. You manage a type of humour I cannot manage. Your view of life is surprisingly good-humored."
Pa praises Vido's writing published in "Isis," the Oxford literary magazine. Vido: "When Palme Dutt, the half-Indian boss of the British Communist Party, came to Oxford, I gave him so much hell that the Communists rang up the editor and cursed him. I think a man is doing his reporting well only when people start to hate him." (The last sentence, underlined in the original, presages the reception of his first two reportorial books on India. However, in "India: A Million Mutinies Now," (1990), Naipual distances himself from these two early books. In a May 2000 interview published in Outlook magazine, he said, "I was not equipped to deal with India when I first came here.")
Throughout their correspondence, the father and son encourage each other in their writing endeavors. Pa revises and retypes some of his old stories and asks his help in getting them published in London: "Vido, please try to place those stories. I know parts would sound rather immature and crude, but it seems that is the sort of thing publishers want these days. Just read the thing through, type what needs typing and send it to a publisher. I think you know what a godsend it would mean to me, if it was accepted -- not for the name, but for the money it might bring me." Vido: "If I try to hawk your book around, I wouldn't be doing you a favour. I would be trying to sell stuff that deserves to be published." Unfortunately, Vido fails to place his father's stories. (Many years later, Seepersad's stories were published in London in 1977 and reissued in 1995: The Adventures of Gurudeva.).
At Oxford, Vido finds his stipend barely covers room and board. Perpetually short of funds, he never asks his father. To Kamla: "This is a desperate plea for help. I am broke, broke, broke. Can you send me L5-L10?" He takes a summer job and offers to send money home. Pa: "Do not worry about sending us money. It is bad enough we do not send you anything. What a wretchedly poor lot we are!" Vido: "When I am working, I shall move heaven and earth to send home a lump sum of money every year, a sum which, I hope, shall grow larger."
Vido not only felt the constant pinch of poverty, but also rejection by girls, and loneliness. To Kamla: "You see, my dear, I'm very homesick. I am scared to be alive. For the past six months an air of unreality has hung about the things I have done." Vido suffers a nervous breakdown. To his Pa, "Of course I know the reason for my breakdown: loneliness, and lack of affection. You see a man isn't a block of wood that is sent abroad and receives two notches as a sign of education. He is much more. He feels and he thinks. Some people, alas, feel more and think more than others, and they suffer. It is no good thinking that the sensitive man is happier or greater. No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it, and it requires peace of mind to do this." During this period, he meets Pat Hale, his future wife: "She shares my literary tastes, and I have found my friendship with her most stimulating." To Pa: "A recovery from a mental breakdown is a protracted affair, and I can really write now and say confidentially that the worst is over." He resolves to study hard: "I want to come on top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language." He wins top honors at Oxford.
Pa suffers a heart attack and loses his newspaper job. Pa: "I have been trying a get a job, but for the same reason that the Guardian no longer wants me, nobody wants me." Pa, 47, dies a broken man. Vido's cable: "He was the best man I knew. Everything I owe to him. Be brave, my loves. Trust me."
The letters disclose Vido's rising disdain for Trinidad: "I got some Trinidad papers, read them, and found them hilariously absurd. I never realised before that the Guardian was so badly written, that our Trinidad worthies were so absurd, that Trinidad is the most amusing island that ever dotted a sea." To his Ma, a year after his father's death: "I don't see myself fitting into the Trinidad way of life. I think I shall die if I had to spend the rest of my life in Trinidad. The place is too small, the values are all wrong, and the people are petty. Ideally I would like first of all to arrange for some sort of job in India or elsewhere, and then come home for a vacation. It is much better for me to spend two more months in this country getting a job than returning home to eat lotuses.Do not imagine I am enjoying staying in this country. This country is hot with racial prejudices, and I certainly don't wish to stay here. My antipathy to a prolonged stay in this country is as great as my fear of Trinidad. I hope you understand my position now, and I think you will stop believing that you have seen the last of me." To Kamla: "I don't want to see anybody who is coming from Trinidad, and I will be glad if you ask them to keep away; because the time has now come where I am finding it increasingly difficult to be polite to people I don't like, and I can't bear hypocrisy." Years later, when Naipaul first visited the land of his ancestors, his disdain for India was just as trenchant and direct; however, his early reputation as a curmudgeon has recently receded.
To Kamla: "My dearest Kamla, I know that we have both been given a raw deal in life, you a much rawer one than me; but I beg you, can we look upon ourselves as partners in this business of looking after the family. You won't have to hold out for much longer. Look, I am going to be a success as a writer. I know that. I have gambled all my future on that possibility."
The final pages include a two-word cable sent to Kamla: "Novel accepted."