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'Between Father And Son: Family Letters' by V.S. Naipaul

Letters reveal relationship between V.S. Naipaul and father

Sunday, March 19, 2000

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

 
 

Between Father And Son: Family Letters

By V.S. Naipaul

Knopf
$26.00

   
 

V.S. Naipaul honored his father’s request from the early 1950s, when they exchanged what was to become a hefty pile of letters between home, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and Oxford, England, where the writer was studying at the University College.

Seepersad Naipaul suggested that his son save their correspondence for future publication and even suggested the title.

It is a series of homely, honest and loving communiques that bear no trace of self-conscious intent or a sense of what lay ahead. And the prosaic quality of the letters makes for surprisingly interesting reading.

The reader sees the now-venerable writer emerging from a precocious boyhood at one of the most celebrated centers of education in the world. In his first days at Oxford, on scholarship, he was all of 17 but already the bundle of contradictions that marks the successful writer. Riddled with self-doubt, he was also assertive about his potential. He dispensed forthright advice, sometimes bluntly, to the man he worshipped, and his father responded in kind.

Seepersad Naipaul was himself a writer, but a strictly professional one, never to be anything more. He made his living at a newspaper, eventually as a page designer, but always striving to sell fiction and stories for radio. Meanwhile, his son was, if not sailing through school, tacking gainfully while drafting and redrafting “The Mystic Masseur,” what would become his first published novel in 1957.

Two years after his father’s death, Naipaul wired home this message: “Novel accepted love Vido.” He was 23. He has followed that with 22 works, almost one a year.

Between his leaving home and those first steps into success, V.S. Naipaul was plagued by money worries, asthma, dietary dissatisfactions and social difficulties. He wrote letters about girls and having trouble getting to know them. He asked for packages of cigarettes and often, with heavy apologies, for small loans. Just as often, he sent money home, sometimes at his father’s request.

Each man encouraged the other to write -- long, frequent letters as well as chapters and drafts and character sketches for stories.

“Write lengthy letters about people,” the elder wrote. “Write me weekly of the men you meet; tell me what you talked [about]; how they talked; and you’ll be amazed to know what a fine array of letters you have written in just a year’s time. Let’s go to work like that. It’s an easy way and a good way; because the thoughts you embody will be free and light and spontaneous -- precious qualities that go to the marrow-bone of good writing.” He finished that letter with this advice, “Keep your centre.”

In a letter much later, Vido wrote, “By the way, let Pa know that I don’t like his I’d’s and we’ve’s. Use the apostrophe as sparingly as possible.”

And from the father: “You say I should write at least 500 words every day. Well, I have started to do so...”

Naipaul included in this collection many letters he wrote to and received from his sister, Kamla, mostly during her years at Banares Hindu University in India. Extremely close and doting, they chided and teased each other for petulance, for an absence of letters and for sexual yearnings.

“You certainly seem to have gone torrid suddenly,” Kamla wrote. “A young Aeneas, eh?” Then, “You are too young to have any particular girl.”

In the matter-of-fact course of all the correspondences, cultural bugaboos surfaced. By being brown, Naipaul discovered British neuroses and his own frustrations over class dictates. He fell for women whom his father pleaded with him against, telling him no good could come of a non-Indian mate.

Naipaul did not make it back to Trinidad, as he had expected to do several times, before his father’s health deteriorated, and on Oct. 10, 1953, he sent this cable home: “He was the best man I knew STOP Everything I owe to him be brave my loves trust me, Vido.” To his mother, later, he wrote, “When you think from what he started, you ought to feel proud.”

The brief window into the Naipauls shows us a family that was unromantic, at times fatalistic and sensitive to the opinions of others and always endearing, from Vido’s occasional spending binge in loneliness and his father’s late-blooming enchantment with orchids.

The father was a thoughtful, original thinker, sweet, apprehensive and adaptive, a man who struggled to stay ahead, whose old car needed constant attention, who seemed to know he would not fulfill his dream to be a recognized writer and whose adoration for Vido was most moving for being unsentimental.

“Be cheerful,” he wrote. “When the time comes, you will get a job. If you don’t get one right away, you have home. ... Home is bright and gay. ... Next week I may have the outside of the house painted. We never forget you for a day.”

When the elder dies, his is a truly poignant absence for the rest of the book.

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