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Going Postal 

Letters to Mr. Biswas

Wednesday, Apr 19 2000

In the fall of 1949, V.S. Naipaul left his native Trinidad to go to Oxford University on a government scholarship. He was 18 years old and wanted to be a writer. His father, Seepersad Naipaul, a journalist at the Trinidad Guardian, also wanted to be a writer -- which is to say, a writer of fiction. He wrote short stories. The younger Naipaul was beginning to write short stories too. His new book, Between Father and Son: Family Letters is, above all, the record of their mutual encouragement. It is also a moving testimonial to family love. Naipaul‘s older sister Kamla, herself on a government scholarship abroad, features heavily in the correspondence, and Naipaul’s mother and other family members occasionally weigh in.

It‘s much easier to be clear about things when you’re a 20-year-old student than it is when you‘re the 44-year-old father of seven children, which is probably why Seepersad comes through less vividly than his son in the letters. Throughout the correspondence, even as he struggles to put together a collection of short stories, the senior Naipaul clings to the belief that if he can’t make it as a writer, his son will surely do it for him.

”As soon as you can, get working on a novel . . . ,“ he instructs the younger Naipaul in one letter. ”If you are at a loss for a theme, take me for it.“ In A House for Mr. Biswas, a novel about a Trinidadian journalist written a decade later, Naipaul finally took his father up on his suggestion. Seepersad Naipaul may have failed to become famous as a writer himself, but, thanks to his son, he is at the center of a novel considered by many to be one of the greatest of the century.

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There were two things Naipaul needed to do while he was at Oxford: pass his exams and prove himself a writer. The first he did convincingly; the second took him two years past graduation, when his first novel, The Mystic Masseur, was accepted for publication. ”This is the letter I have been longing to write home ever since I left Trinidad,“ Naipaul writes to his family, announcing the book‘s publication. Unfortunately, his moment of triumph is bittersweet. By then, his father has already died, aged 47, of a heart attack.

Naipaul had not had an easy time at Oxford. He was poor, his family was overseas, and he was often socially isolated. On the long vacations, he was sometimes left alone for months at a time while his colleagues went home to their families. Naipaul used this time to study and write, but the loneliness, and the weight of familial expectation, could be crushing. His need to receive letters from home, and his family’s need to receive them in return, was both a comfort and a burden. He rarely had enough money to throw parties -- de rigueur for the student wishing to gain social acceptance -- and many of the letters concern themselves with the minutiae of food parcels and his family‘s ongoing attempt to keep him supplied with cheap cigarettes by smuggling them (without much success) inside packages of Trinidadian sugar.

At one point during his stay at Oxford, Naipaul evidently suffered something like a nervous breakdown. The episode remains cloudy, probably because of who Naipaul was writing to: There are certain things one does not say to one’s father, or even to one‘s sister, and the range of subjects touched on in these letters is, in fact, fairly narrow. Naipaul does give some descriptions of his surroundings, and dwells frequently on the strangeness of English weather (snow was entirely new to him), but there’s a whiff of dutifulness to the writing:

Now all England is preparing to subside into the mellowing tones of autumn, and the countryside will seem scorched into a brown-red haze; then lorries and motor cars will kick up whirlpools of dead yellow and brown leaves. The English autumn is definitely the most beautiful thing I have experienced, and I look forward to taking walks in Oxford during the term that comes in seven weeks.

One notable absence in these letters is any detailed writing about Naipaul‘s friends. As he is preparing to leave university, he announces: ”Now that the time is drawing near for my day of departure from Oxford, I am discarding all my English friends and acquaintances. I shall spend the rest of my life trying to forget that I came from Oxford.“ Naipaul is a man who is always washing his hands of everything, and he started early. One tastes here the harsh condemnatory bitterness -- never fully explained or accounted for -- that colors so much of his writing, even as it adds to its undoubted power. In fact, one tastes it everywhere in this correspondence. In his dismissive appraisal of Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad, for instance, or in his enthusiastic endorsement of a book that describes India as ”a wretched country, full of pompous mediocrity, with no future,“ and that refuses ”to mention the ’spiritualness‘ that impresses another kind of visitor.“ It’s hard, reading those words (written when Naipaul was 18), not to be reminded of An Area of Darkness, the book Naipaul himself wrote about India in 1964, or any of the other books of brilliant but severe travel writing that have made him such a controversial figure. In another letter Naipaul writes:

I have just received a letter from Kamla. It contains news of the suicide of a girl I never knew, but whose fame had spread even to me -- the Muddem girl. So she killed herself for love! One reason is as good as any other. The world is none the poorer, I think, for her death.

In these harsh lines one can already hear the cadences of the chilling opening sentence of his 1979 novel, A Bend in the River. (”The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.“) That Naipaul wrote them when he was a mere 20 years of age suggests that writers are indeed born and not made.

Ultimately, Naipaul‘s time at Oxford was about more than trying to live up to family expectations and become a writer. It was also about becoming something other than a Trinidad-born Indian, or ”barefoot colonial,“ as he once referred to himself. ”Whenever I go into a new town,“ he writes to his father in 1951,

I go into the best hotel, just to feel comfortable, sit in the lounge, read all the newspapers, borrowed from clerks who are usually very obliging, and drink coffee. I like comfort. And, whereas in Trinidad, I was tremendously shy of going even into a Civil Service Office, now I go everywhere, firmly believing that I have as much right to be there as anybody else.

Though there is scant mention of racism in these letters, it is something the young Naipaul must have suffered from, and one has to admire his determination to claim his rights in the dominant society. Few poor, dark-skinned students sat in the lounges of the best English hotels in 1951, and I don’t suppose very many do now. Naipaul may have claimed that he was going to spend the rest of his life forgetting that he ever went to Oxford, but it could be argued that, on the contrary, he has spent the rest of his life trying to forget that he was born in Trinidad.

Naipaul‘s lowly origins -- born on a small Caribbean island of, in his view, little cultural or geopolitical significance -- seem to have put him in a rage that continues unabated to this day. Oxford was a shock, and it opened up a vast gulf between who he had been and who he wanted to be. His letters to his father, and to his sister Kamla, movingly record his struggle to construct a bridge between those two points.

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