Many years ago, when I was about the age that V.S. Naipaul was when he departed Trinidad for England, I would borrow books by him from the library of an erstwhile colonial club in Kuala Lumpur. In a building constructed during the time of the British, A House for Mr. Biswas sat on a shelf whose other books were mostly by writers like Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling. Thinking back now, it seems to me both incongruous and fitting that Naipaul–to the best of my recollection pretty much the only writer not European or North American–should be in such company in such a place. Naipaul’s most recent book, Between Father and Son, a collection of family letters from the years leading up to the time of his earliest published works, continues to add to this paradox of his life’s work.
Reflecting on the time in which these letters were written, Naipaul wrote many years ago in “Prologue to an Autobiography” that the “career” of a writer wasn’t possible in Trinidad. So he had to leave where he was born and travel to England, to Oxford University, to pursue the vocation of writing. All this was a good half-century ago. In the intervening period, Naipaul has succeeded in making a career for himself. Indeed, his prodigious talent has been so repeatedly on display, and so celebrated, that it might be inadequate to call it, anymore, a career. It has long since grown to something of canonical proportions. Naipaul’s works–the novels as well as the travel books–have by now attained one pinnacle of contemporary literary success: a regular and uncontested place on college syllabuses around the world.
Were this all, it would be much. But Naipaul’s highbrow reputation has been complemented by a reach extending well into the middlebrow. In 1981 he was featured on the cover of Newsweek–and not because he had embroiled himself in some tawdry public scandal or had found himself under the death sentence of a powerful Muslim cleric. It was the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. Naipaul had just published an account of his travels through four non-Arabic Islamic countries, including Iran, titled Among the Believers. With great alacrity, he ascended to the level of an expert on Islam, indeed, on all matters Third World. “If any person is qualified to judge among cultures,” declared James Michaels in an editorial in no less a publication than Forbes, “Naipaul is. He was born in Trinidad in 1932, the grandson of Hindu immigrants from India, lives in England and has probed the Muslim, Latin and African worlds…. And for entertaining and enlightening reading, get any Naipaul book.”
One would be wise, however, to tarry a moment before succumbing to Michaels’s hustle and rushing to the closest bookstore. Entertaining? Perhaps. Enlightening? The matter needs serious consideration, for Naipaul has faced his most severe criticism from much farther-flung quarters for his abrasive commentary on the countries that he has written about.
It is customary to make a distinction between Naipaul’s early, comic novels–epitomized by his one indisputable masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas–and the novels and travel books that succeeded them. In novels like A Bend in the River and Guerrillas and travel books like An Area of Darkness and India: A Wounded Civilization, the comedy is replaced by a far more somber sensibility. And where his disparagement of Caribbean society is blunted somewhat by humor in the earlier works, his discontent with colonial and postcolonial societies later appears without relief.
About India, Naipaul wrote breezily in A Wounded Civilization that “the poverty of the land is reflected in the poverty of the mind; it would be calamitous if it were otherwise.” And then he made the astounding declaration in the essay “Conrad’s Darkness” that “Conrad–sixty years before, in the time of a great peace–had been everywhere before me.” In voicing such opinions, Naipaul shows himself–there is no other way to put it–to be willfully contrarian. What else could lead a man of his background and pretensions to assert that Conrad had traveled–for example, in the Congo of the disastrous Belgian colonial rule–“in the time of a great peace”?! Not surprisingly, these views have not endeared Naipaul to many of his fellow postcolonials, and such different writers and critics as George Lamming, Salman Rushdie and A. Sivanandan have voiced their disapproval in the past. In this context, Naipaul’s opinions also offer a telling contrast to those of peers like Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer.
In the past decade, beginning with his third travel book on India, A Million Mutinies Now (1990), Naipaul has been by some measures showing signs of mellowing. He opened Beyond Belief, his 1998 sequel to Among the Believers, by writing, “This is a book about people. It is not a book of opinion.”
A travel book by Naipaul not larded with his opinions? It seemed too good to be true. And the very next paragraph of Beyond Belief proceeded to show it was:
Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters…. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved…. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism.
This is the kind of breathtakingly generalized and opinionated commentary with which we were already familiar. If Naipaul recedes somewhat into the background in the rest of the book, it is not because he now has no opinions to offer but rather because he has found a new way to offer them, with a posture of self-effacement that made his views seem more palatable and less strident.
It is true, however, that Naipaul’s opinions on the Third World have evolved from earlier days. The clearest expression of this change is to be seen in a talk titled “Our Universal Civilization,” given at the Manhattan Institute in 1991 and later published in The New York Review of Books. Naipaul propounds in it that a universal civilization beginning in Europe has now spread all over the world. “So much is contained in it,” the author declares: “the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.” If the Third World was earlier “limited,” “restricted,” “half-formed” (his preferred terms), now it is “fixed” and “rigid.” If it was beyond hope before, it generates hope now only because it might–hope against hope!–acquire the “universal civilization,” become more like the West. This is the dismal prospect that Naipaul has held out for the Third World in more recent years, in the midst of the ubiquitous “globalization”: Emulate the West in every respect and be saved, or prepare to “blow away.” In all too many ways, this assurance does not seem substantively different from the compact made by the colonial masters in Naipaul’s “time of a great peace.”
It is in this context–the context of the life and work of this singular but dubious chronicler of the Third World–that the publication of Between Father and Son, a collection of the correspondence between the young V.S. Naipaul and, mostly, his father, acquires its main significance. The letters begin in 1949, a few months before Naipaul’s departure for England on a scholarship–the very departure that would give him a chance at that vocation of writing he deemed impossible in the colonial society of Trinidad. They end in 1957, a few years after the death of his father. Aside from the correspondence between father (Seepersad) and son, there are letters from and to an elder sister, Kamla, in college in India during the early part of this period; other siblings; and Naipaul’s mother. The letters have been edited by Gillon Aitken, Naipaul’s literary agent.
Naipaul is still in Trinidad, a 17-year-old student, when the letters begin. When they end, he is securely ensconced in England, a writer and married to Pat, his English wife. The letters chronicle the transformation of the former into the latter. One of the commendable aspects of the book is its narrative force, surprising in a volume that is, after all, a collection of letters. Naipaul’s metamorphosis is not without its drama, and though the letters are arranged chronologically, some of the credit for this must surely go to Aitken. A crucial contribution is the decision to include a “postscript” of letters, which take us past the death of Seepersad to the successful publication of Naipaul’s first book (The Mystic Masseur). The postscript redeems what would have been otherwise a story of defeat and failure. Between Father and Son is a revelation when it comes to the narrative possibilities in the compilation of letters.
Another engaging aspect of the collection is its depiction of lives led in a time of cataclysmic change in the colonial world. Nineteen forty-nine is only two years after the independence of India, and 1957 only one year before the Federation of the British West Indies came into existence. The letters resolutely ignore such political events–events that will be the flesh and bone of Naipaul’s future works–but perhaps precisely because of this they serve to remind us of the ordinary lives that were led in the midst of these extraordinary events. Seepersad was not a wealthy man, and the collection’s chronicle of the movement of hopeful members of the family, pleading letters, much-needed money and parcels of shirts, books and food between Trinidad, England and India will be easily recognized by immigrants in similar straits now. At the same time, these details–ships, not planes; letters, not e-mail!–serve to remind us how much indeed the colonial world and the experience of immigration has changed in fifty years.
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.
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.