V. S. Naipaul is perhaps the most famous emigre writer since Vladimir Nabokov, and though he always spoke and wrote English, his self-imposed exile to England from his native Trinidad represented a cultural shift as profound as learning to think in another language. In this moving, novel-like correspondence, we witness the great writer's early transformation from an expatriate adrift to a world-renowned man of letters.
The letters collected here illuminate with unalloyed candor the relationship between a sacrificing father and his determined son as they encourage each other to persevere with their writing. For though his father's literary aspirations would go unrealized, Naipaul's triumphant career would ultimately vindicate his beloved mentor's legacy.
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March 12, 2001
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Excerpt from Between Father and Son by V. S. Naipaul
The task of introducing this extraordinary and moving correspondence is a delicate one. In these letters between a father and a son, the older man worn down by the cares of a large family and the distress of unfulfilled ambitions, the younger on the threshold of a broad and brilliant literary career, lies some of the raw material of one of the finest and most enduring novels of the twentieth century: V. S. Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas. Yet the letters also celebrate Seepersad Naipaul's achievement as a writer, not merely in the genesis and evolution of his single published novel, The Adventures of Gurudeva; but also, and perhaps more strikingly, in revealing the dedication of the true artist. For Seepersad Naipaul (Pa), the life of the mind -- the writer's life -- was everything: to record the ways of men and women, with a shrewd, comical and kindly eye, and to do that from within his own originality, was to live nobly. In his elder son, Vidia, he found a miraculous echo to this belief -- miraculous, because there is no sense of a son's following in his father's footsteps, or of a father's urging that he might do so. There is a sense, rather, of the two men's being in step, neither embarrassed by any of the implications of the generation that divided them -- and Vidia only seventeen when the present correspondence opens. The difference in their ages, and the fact of Seepersad's early death, have allowed Vidia to acknowledge the debt he owes to his father, and he has embraced the opportunity to do so in manifold ways in his work. In this correspondence, the reader will recognize the subtle, and unwitting, repayment of a father's debt to his son. . . . GILLON AITKEN
September 21, 1949 -- September 22, 1950: Port of Spain to Oxford
September 21, 1949
Dear Kamla [Naipaul's elder sister],
I wonder what is the matter with this typewriter. It looks all right now, though. I am enclosing some cuttings which, I am sure, will delight you. You will note that I went after all to the Old Boys' Association Dinner. I can count those hours as among the most painful I have ever spent. In the first place, I have no table manners; in the second, I had no food. Special arrangements, I was informed after the dinner, had been made for me, but these appeared to have been limited to serving me potatoes in various ways -- now fried, now boiled. I had told the manager to bring me some corn soup instead of the turtle soup that the others were having. He ignored this and the waiter brought up to me a plateful of a green slime. This was the turtle soup. I was nauseated and annoyed and told the man to take it away. This, I was told, was a gross breach of etiquette. So I had bread and butter and ice-cold water for the first two eating rounds. The menu was in French. What you would call stewed chicken they called 'Poulet Saute Renaissance'. Coffee was 'moka'. I had rather expected that to be some exotic Russian dish. Dessert included something called 'Pomme Surprise'. This literally means 'surprised apple', and the younger Hannays, who was next to me, told me it was an apple pudding done in a surprise manner. The thing came. I ate it. It was fine. But I tasted no apple. 'That,' Hannays told me, 'is the surprise.'
I have just finished filling out the application forms for entrance to the University; I had some pictures of myself taken. I had always thought that, though not attractive, I was not ugly. This picture undeceived me. I never knew my face was fat. The picture said so. I looked at the Asiatic on the paper and thought that an Indian from India could look no more Indian than I did. My face would give anyone the idea that I was a two-hundred-pounder. I had hoped to send up a striking intellectual pose to the University people, but look what they have got. And I even paid two dollars for a re-touched picture.
I am all right. I am actually reading once more. I decided to start preparing myself for next year by a thorough knowledge of the nineteenth-century novel. I read the Butler book [Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh (1903)]; I think it is not half as good as Maugham's Of Human Bondage. The construction is clumsy. Butler has stressed too much on passing religious conflicts; is too concerned with proving his theory of heredity. I then went on to Jane Austen. I had read so much in praise of her. I went to the library and got Emma. It has an introduction by Monica Dickens, which extolled the book as the finest Austen ever wrote. Frankly, the introduction proved better reading than the book itself. Jane Austen appears to be essentially a writer for women; if she had lived in our age she would undoubtedly have been a leading contributor to the women's papers. Her work really bored me. It is mere gossip. It could appeal to a female audience.