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Naipaul Writes Home

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Avid readers of Naipaul's works will also be interested in the personality revealed in these letters. Critics will find much to dislike. His observation in a letter to Kamla that "Deo is chasing penniless men, Phoolo niggers, and Tara douglas"; his anxiety that "nearly every other man one meets in this country is homosexual"; his contempt for the still-too-Trinidadian Solomon Lutchman, with his accent and gauche manner; his righteous conviction regarding his own superior judgment--all will seem familiar from the narrative persona on display in the later, bleaker works of Naipaul. But there are also times, even if they are fewer in number, when Naipaul surprises--for example, in his criticism of British colonial policy in Kenya or with his complaints about the dullness of life in England.

About the Author

S. Shankar
S. Shankar is author of the novel A Map of Where I Live (Heinemann) and the forthcoming volume of criticism Textual...

These letters will no doubt come to be widely used by scholars looking for biographical justification for readings of specific works, A House for Mr. Biswas certainly (as Aitken notes in his introduction), but also many others. Indeed, one wonders whether such a prod to scholars was not one of the motivations in compiling the volume. Is it too much to see here something of an author in the twilight of his career putting his literary affairs in order through the auspices of his literary agent, in the desire to help insure continued relevance and readership?

Be that as it may, one of the reasons to commend this volume is precisely its relationship to one of the most controversial literary reputations of our times. It is that literary aspect that carries the most interesting theme of these letters, their portrayal of the life of an aspiring writer. There are two such lives here, really--Naipaul's and that of his father. Seepersad Naipaul, a journalist for much of his life, also had ambitions of being a fiction writer. He had a few stories published and a few read over BBC radio, but as the years passed and he found himself unable to escape the constrictions of family life in Trinidad, it was really in his young and talented son that Seepersad's hopes and ambitions settled. This volume records both Seepersad's eager hope for himself and his determination on behalf of his son. One of the most poignant moments in these letters is when he writes to his son in England: "I feel so darned cocksure that I can produce a novel within six months--if only I had nothing else to do. This is impossible. But I want to give you just this chance. When your university studies are over, if you do get a good job, all well and good; if you do not, you have not got to worry one little bit. You will come home--and do what I am longing to do now: just write.... I mean nothing but literary success will make you happy." At other times the father sends the son notes on editing, or recommends books to him, or encourages him to do what our age, alas, has perfected only too well, to "network."

These letters show us something all too rare. They hold up for view all the small things of the writing life in its earliest stages--the little joy and the obscure success as well as the petty jealousy and the tired compromise. Of such small things too is a great literary reputation such as V.S. Naipaul's--troubling and paradoxical in its very greatness--made.

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