V.S. Naipaul -- a family built of letters

January 09, 2000|By Alane Mason | Alane Mason,Special to the Sun

"Between Father and Son: Family Letters," by V.S. Naipaul. Alfred A. Knopf. 297 pages. $26.

Born of a Hindu Indian family in Trinidad, educated at Oxford, V.S. Naipaul is the author of 12 novels and 10 books of nonfiction. Between those two poles of birth and education his career as a writer has been strung -- for he has been celebrated as much for his unromantic, insider's eye on the former colonies of the British empire as for his breadth of vision, his eloquence and seriousness.

"Between Father and Son" collects the letters of the young Naipaul and various members of his family during the long years of his absence from home after he left for Oxford in 1950 on a competitive and much-prized Trinidad government scholarship. The grant money hardly covered living expenses, let alone travel back to Trinidad.

Lack of money is a recurrent theme of the letters, as young Vidia (Vido to his family) struggles to make friends without the funds to buy them drinks and tea. Generous about the weather, caustic about the people (Oxford's "superficial young women" and "asses in droves"), the ambitious writer-in-progress is prone to fits of lassitude, anxiety and depression; cocky about his achievements -- especially literary ones -- downcast by any rejection; warily observant of an England "hot with racial prejudices."

Yet Vidia's letters home are not really the point of the story. More poignant and compelling are his family's letters to him, particularly those of his winsome father, Seepersad Naipaul, working as a journalist for the Trinidad Guardian and inconsistantly nurturing his own ambitions as a writer.

"Pa's" writing advice is often comically ordinary, yet there is also something extraordinary and moving about his sense of alliance with his son, as if only in making a combined front might they breach the empire's fort of literary reputation and money-making. Pa asks his son's help in publishing his stories, sends them to him needing to be retyped and naively proposes that if they fall short of book length, Vido might add a few of his own. Above all, Pa offers unshakeable moral support for the writing life: "Your work is cut out. I stand back of you."

Together with Vidia's sister Kamla's admonitions to "stop dreaming" and "learn to be practical," to remember his mother's birthday and write more often; with Vidia's numerous pleas for smuggled cigarettes (his mother tries to hide them in a bag of sugar that bursts en route); his father's notes about needed car repairs, manure for the roses, money anticipated or splurged and his daughters' wayward modernity; and third-party messages, gossip,and complaints about high-handed cousins, the overall effect is not that of a literary exchange, but of listening in on a telephone party line.

That is a good deal of the book's charm, but also of its incompleteness: One wants to know how various subplots of the family soap opera will turn out: Will Kamla get married? When will Vidia ever come home, and what will his return be like? What will happen to his younger siblings? How will Pa's book eventually get published?

Turn immediately to Naipaul's other work for contexts and clues. The voice of Naipaul's recent, "mature" work -- confident, distanced, rather austere -- might make you miss the moody, insecure and affectionate lad of his letters home. Surely you will miss Pa, who did not live to read these books and witness his son's success. One feels certain that no father could be prouder.

Alane Mason is an editor at W.W. Norton. She is a contributor to Commonweal and has an essay in "Beyond the Godfather," an anthology of writing by and about Italian-Americans.

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