Review of Between Father and Son
Family letters by V.S. Naipaul: Edited by Gillon Aitken New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000 By Prem Misir
Guyana Chronicle
October 14, 2001

THE Nobel Prize for Literature 2001 was last week awarded to Vidya Naipaul.

The Nobel Prize for Literature has eluded V.S. Naipaul for several years now. Internationally acclaimed as a literary force in this century, the following attest to the sweep of his works:

* "A Tolstoyan spirit...The so-called Third World has produced no more brilliant literary artist."......John Updike, The New Yorker

"He is our Conrad."......John Leonard, New York Times

* "The best novelist now writing in England."......Karl Miller, New York Review of Books

* "The sweep of Naipaul's imagination, the brilliant fictional frame that expresses it, are in my view without equal today."......Elizabeth Hardwick, New York Times Book Review

* One of the few contemporary writers of whom we can speak in terms of greatness."......Mel Gussow, Newsday

The book `Between Father And Son: Family Letters’, V.S. Naipaul, edited by Gillon Aitken on V.S. Naipaul, portrays an incisive dedication of father to son and son to father, through their letters.

The letters embrace just over three years, beginning from V.S. Naipaul's trip to University College, Oxford, on a Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) Government scholarship in 1950, culminating at the point at which he completed his studies. It must be penetratingly nostalgic for foreign students studying abroad, particularly in England, at a time when migrant infrastructures were not yet as established as they are today. The book will connect them to their early years in England.

Some problematic, but quite typical scenarios for them then, might have included: reluctance, both subtle and overt, of fellow homelanders to receive them as lodgers during short holiday periods when little money might have been available; the yearning to return home periodically during severe bouts of homesickness; and the daily impact of a dramatic physical, albeit, superficial separation from loving and caring extended families in the home country.

Also, some of these foreign students, at that time, might have found an affinity with a particular element of Naipaul's experience, when his father amicably mandated him to write every week, and/or to reply to each letter immediately. Some foreign students' parents, possibly fathers, might have insisted on weekly letters, and even ensured that that task was effected through the tone of their (parents') letters. In any case, many foreign students must have dutifully complied.

In Naipaul's Oxford years, on the one hand, we see glimpses of a longing for his family and the natural beauty of his homeland, and on the other, we see Naipaul's negativism attributed to Trinidad and Tobago in terms of it not being big enough to accommodate his ambitions and provide opportunities.

Naipaul argued that if he settled in Trinidad and Tobago, he would be constrained too much by intellectual starvation. Naipaul added that education should produce a mind that can adjust to the humanities, and that people who are educated should be able to transform the social graces into 'mental' graces. Naipaul, probably, felt that this was not the case with education outcomes in Trinidad and Tobago. Today, many students acquire degrees without a tinge of social consciousness. Naipual may say, under this condition, that education through a degree, has not produced an educated mind.

His definition of an intellectual environment, either, was that it was totally inadequate, or did not yet evolve in Trinidad and Tobago. Naipaul's father, at one time, even referred to Trinidad and Tobago as a 'hole'. The young Naipaul, probably, felt that his country of birth could not measure up to his career capacity as a writer.

Subsequent heavy migrations to North America and England from the 1950s

might have affirmed the problems of eking out a living in some of these

Caribbean countries. In that sense, the young Naipaul might have

appropriately interpreted the economic and social prospects of the T&T


His nostalgic feelings are captured, thus: "...I feel nostalgic for home. Do you know what I long for? I long for the nights that will fall blackly, suddenly, without warning. I long for a violent shower of rain at night. I long to hear the tinny tattoo of heavy raindrops on a roof, or the drops of rain on the broad leaves of that wonderful plant, the wild tannia. But in short, I long for home, or perhaps, the homely atmosphere. And I miss my bicycle rides, and the sea, and the pit at Rialto, and the sort of cigarettes I used to smoke, to everyone's scandal..."

The book Between Father And Son does secure the linkages between two worlds apart against a background of dislocation and isolation; apart not only in terms of physical distance, but certainly, also, in relation to Indo-Caribbean cultural systems and institutions. Perhaps, the genesis of this book can be discerned through a letter from V.S.

Naipaul's father (Seepersad Naipaul). Seepersad Naipaul wrote:

"...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. What think you? Just here Kamla seems useless. You can do it, I'm sure. If you can bring the same quality of spontaneity in

whatever you write, everything you write will have a sparkle. I believe

this free flow in one's written thought is due largely to absence of


Constantly in letters from both father and son, we see an endless outpouring of words of wisdom, reassuring each other, on the process of

becoming a writer. The caring advice of Seepersad Naipaul to his son in

pursuit of a career in writing, punctuates the entire book, showing the

father's unbroken umbilical link with his son. The father writes to his son:

"...Now I know that if I am writing about Rapooche, I am for the moment Rapooche himself. I must therefore know Rapooche, be Rapooche. In a sense, I am wholly myself; and yet I am wholly the character I am trying to portray...In a moment, one can make oneself whatever one wants oneself to be...Do you recollect what Cecil Hunte has said on the importance of note-taking - of jotting down your impressions of people and things (and I'd add of capturing a mood)? It would be a God-send to you if you adopted this as a habit. You will find these jottings most useful some time, somewhere. You will have your characters ready to hand ...Write on WI themes; not only fiction, but go in for factual writing also. These must be something better than ordinary descriptive journalism. They must have literary value..."

Through actual advisement on writing, his father, as a parent, disseminated an enormous amount of family values akin to the

Caribbean culture which served to sustain the young Naipaul's linkage

with his family in T&T.

The young Naipaul reciprocated after his father's sudden death with "...Pa would like to hear this'. He didn't know, for instance, that my translations in the examination were the best in the year. In a way I had always looked upon my life as a continuation of his - a continuation which, I hoped, would also be a fulfillment. It still is;..."

Naipaul's mother in a letter to him, advocates endogamy and ethnic cleavage in marriage., thus:

"...Well, this is one thing I am begging you not to do: don't marry a

white girl, please don't. Mamie told me that the girls are just crazy

over the boys that go to England to study, they feel that they are very

rich, and when you marry them your life is done with, I don't say you

will do it. Your aim should be your study, nothing else. I suppose there are plenty of Indian girls in England studying. If you marry one of them only when you are through with your education, I shall be very pleased..."

But endogamy and traces of ethnic cleavage, as expressed by Naipaul's mother, may not be due to ethnocentrism, but to her singular method of sustaining East Indian culture. On the other side, when Naipaul was courting his wife-to-be - Patricia Ann Hale -, a white girl, her father was totally opposed to his daughter's relationship with V.S. Naipaul.

Naipaul's father, however, definitively believes that interracial marriages fail not because of the temperaments of the two parties concerned, but because of the attitude displayed to them by friends on both sides.

Seepersad Naipaul's dedication as a writer saw the writer's life as a life of the mind. Achieving this would mean a person is living a noble life, according to the elder Naipaul. His son's career resonates with this belief.

The letters show the father constantly experiencing a life of broken ambitions as a writer and his son on the portal of a distinguished literary career. These two different experiences provided the raw materials for V.S. Naipaul's classic work, A House For Mr. Biswas. The letters really capture absorption with several concerns, two of which were: concern for his pa, ma, and his siblings, especially Kamla, his eldest sister; and to become a literary titan.