Epistles of Empathy, England


Family Letters: Between Father and Son

By V.S. Naipaul

Alfred A. Knopf

278 pp. $26


Epistles of Empathy, England



In 1950, Seepersad Naipaul wrote to his son Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, "Your letters are charming in their spontaneity. If you could write me letters about things and people--especially people--at Oxford, I could compile them in a book: Letters Between a Father and Son, or My Oxford Letters." Family Letters: Between Father and Son, a moving collection of the Naipaul family's written correspondence, is the realization of the elder Naipaul's suggestion.

V.S. Naipaul, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990, is now considered a giant in postcolonial fiction, having won almost every major literary award except the Nobel Prize. Born in Trinidad to West Indian parents in 1932, "Vido," as he is called in the book, was able to secure a prestigious Trinidad government scholarship in 1948, which he used to fund four years of study at Oxford University. Family Letters documents Naipaul's life spanning a period from just before his departure for England, to the critical acclaim following the 1957 publication of Naipaul's first book, The Mystic Masseur.

More than a look at Vido's life alone, Family Letters provides a vivid portrait of Vido's father, a journalist who never fulfills his dream to be a writer, and the unique bond between father and son. Seeing each other as peers and fellow writers in spite of their biological relationship, Vido and Seepersad alternatively offer each other encouragement, criticism and advice in a way that forms a striking contrast to Vido's more candid exchanges with his older sister Kamla, or his oft-exasperated advice to his younger sister Sati.

As such, these letters form a touching picture of two writers who are good at giving advice but bad at taking their own. Vido's father, ever the concerned parent, advises, "Don't be afraid of being an artist. D.H. Lawrence was an artist through and through; and, for the time being at any rate, you should think as Lawrence. Remember what he used to say, 'Art for my own sake. If I want to write, I write--and if I don't want to, I won't.'" Reciprocating his father's cheerleading, Vido spends much of his letters earnestly bolstering his father's insecurities, including a tirade that begins, "You have enough material for a hundred stories. For Heaven's sake, start writing them. You can write and you know it. Stop making excuses."

In these letters we see the material for V.S. Naipaul's most famous book, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), an account of Indian lives in Trinidad that was clearly based on the experiences of Naipaul's father, as well as of his own. But Family Letters provides additional glimpses into Vido's early preoccupation with themes that would later fill his travel writing and fiction, including alienation and the tenuous relationship between the Third World and its Old World colonizers.

As a South Asian from Trinidad traveling abroad, Naipaul is particularly aware of difficulties that accompany this diaspora. Consoling his mother over the growing incidence of affairs among Trinidad Hindus, for instance, Vido writes, "The reason is this: the old Hindus married their daughters off at an early age. We have grown modern--we decide to let them choose, but at the same time our Hindu prudery is struck by the grossness of a courtship in a Western way. We put our foot down. Result: clandestine intrigues. Marriage is always the solution."

Between such analyses, the book provides a compelling portrait of a young Naipaul driven by a tremendous desire to succeed, who nevertheless vacillates between prideful confidence and fear of the future. He rejects financial help from his family but must turn to them after a reckless spending spree in Spain; he works himself so hard that he is constantly ill and even suffers a nervous breakdown; he becomes depressed following the rejection of his first book by the publishers. These details remind us beyond doubt that there is a fallible human being who exists behind the mystique of the writer.

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