Writing to his eldest son, Vidia, at Oxford in 1950, Seepersad Naipaul observed: "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." Nearly 50 years later, the father's desire has been fulfilled by his son with the publication of V.S. Naipaul's Letters Between a Father and Son
. The collection covers the period between Naipaul's departure from his native Trinidad in 1950 to study at Oxford to the untimely death of his father in 1953 at the age of 47. Alongside the letters between father and son are those between Naipaul and his older sister, Kamla, a student at the Benares Hindu University in India, who is advised by her then-17-year-old brother to "watch your personal effects carefully; the Indians are a thieving lot."
At the heart of the book lie Naipaul's undergraduate life at Oxford and his father's deeply moving support for his son as he strives to maintain his own writing career while Naipaul's literary talent flowers. The minutiae of Naipaul's college life offer a fascinating account of the genesis of the querulous, fussy, and patrician Naipaul of later years. The letters are full of stories of his endless rounds of tea parties, writing for the Oxford journal Isis, flirting with women, and endless requests for cigarettes from home. But the most revealing and moving dimension of the collection is the love and friendship between father and son. Seepersad vents his own literary frustrations upon his son while at the same time assuring Naipaul of his unconditional support: "I feel so darned cocksure that I can produce a novel within six months--if only I had nothing else to do. This is impossible. But I want to give you this chance." Seepersad's sudden death is very affecting, as is Naipaul's telegraphed response home: "Everything I owe to him." This is a deeply revealing collection of one of the most enigmatic writers of the postwar period, and it offers an absorbing insight into Naipaul's early fiction, particularly The Mystic Masseur and Miguel Street. --Jerry Brotton, Amazon.co.uk
From Publishers Weekly
The origin of this book seems to be in a letter from Seepersad Naipaul to young Vido (or Vidia): "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...." Although the correspondence (much of it with sister Kamla--in college in India--as third party) is presented as a portrait of the artist as a young man, it is not always a likable one, resonating with pathos more than prophecy of fame or literary accomplishment. The future novelist (A House for Mr. Biswas, etc.), a Trinidadian of Indian background on scholarship in England in 1950, has left behind a family of diminishing prospects and on the edge of penury. His father, a talented writer stuck in marginal local journalism, soon loses his job after a heart attack. His mother, to everyone's guarded embarrassment, becomes pregnant again. Vido is anguished about his family's condition (there are more young children at home), but knows that returning is suicidal to his ambitions. While he begins making it by selling short fiction to the BBC for overseas broadcast, the Naipauls deteriorate further with the death of Seepersad at 47, in 1953. In an epilogue, V.S. is tasting early success, far removed from the backwater of Trinidad. More memorable than the ambitious son, who is often consumed by anxiety, is the pragmatic father, who assures Vido that he will be "a great writer" and advises him to "beware of undue dissipation," but not to be "a puritan." A terse cable from Vido to his family on his father's death begins, "HE WAS THE BEST MAN I EVER KNEW.... " The family letters are Seepersad's memorial. (Jan.)
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