Writing to the real Mr Biswas

Letters Between a Father and Son
October 22, 1999

Last year, the eminent writer V. S. Naipaul - who holds two honorary degrees from Oxford University - created something of a stir by telling an Indian magazine how much he had "hated" his time as a student at Oxford in the early 1950s. "I didn't go to Oxford to be at Oxford. I went to get free time. But it was wretched. I was too well prepared. I was far more intelligent than most of the people in my college or on my course... There was a kind of solitude and despair. I wouldn't wish anyone to go through it, really."

His former tutor at University College, Peter Bayley, whom the young Naipaul regarded as a friend, commented to The Sunday Times: "I do not think he has quite forgiven us for giving him a second-class degree. But all this stuff about despair is rather odd. He always used to be around our house, eating cinnamon toast and chatting with my family. He was never an outsider, no matter how he may recall it."

As anyone who has read him attentively will agree, Naipaul is a very complex man. This collection of letters between himself and his immediate family in Trinidad (especially his father), written mainly between 1950 and 1953 when he was studying English at Oxford, reveals an even more fascinating figure than the Naipaul who emerges from his limpid autobiographical writings in Finding the Centre, The Enigma of Arrival and various essays and interviews - not to mention Paul Theroux's recent, notorious memoir of his (former) friendship with Naipaul, Sir Vidia's Shadow . The fact that Naipaul is deliberately disengaged from the new book only adds to its compelling interest: "It entertains me to reflect that this is a book he will never read," remarks his agent Gillon Aitken, who briefly but effectively introduces the letters and supplies them with (minimal) notes.

What is immediately clear is that Naipaul's recollection of Oxford given in 1998 is entirely consistent with his feelings at the time. In September 1951, aged 19, he writes to his elder sister: "I wonder if many people have been alone as I have been for the past year, and for most of my 'years of awareness' as a matter of fact. The point is I find people - especially these bright young sparks at Oxford - quite insipid and their conversation and company tedious. I am too old for this place. In Oxford all the boys play at being grown-up. It is most distressing."

And again, in 1954, after taking his degree, he tells his mother: "Oxford is perhaps the best university in the world from many points of view. At the same time it is a treacherous place that insulates you from the world around. You forget that people outside are perhaps even stupider than Oxford people, and incredibly coarser."

It sounds arrogant, and it certainly was intended to be; but the young Naipaul, a brilliant student from a tiny British colony, always had a lot of pride, which was bound to lead to abrasion with an Oxford still complacent with imperial certainties. More important - because it affected the course of English literature - is that this same intense feeling of contempt, directed at Trinidadian coarseness, would soon give the penurious, 25-year-old Naipaul the energy to begin constructing a novel that is one of the most sensitive, moving, and above all comic novels ever written: A House for Mr Biswas . Reading the Naipaul correspondence made me read the novel for the fifth or sixth time, and I was not disappointed, once more marvelling at the conviction of the unfamiliar mid-century Trinidad world that Naipaul's exquisite control of language conjures into living reality. It is the kind of almost-miraculous achievement that tempts one to speak of "genius".

A House for Mr Biswas is the story of one man's lifelong struggle to create meaning and permanence out of demeaning poverty and insignificance. Naipaul has never made any secret of the fact that Mr Biswas was based on his father, Seepersad Naipaul, an ill-paid Port of Spain journalist and writer who died of a heart attack in 1953, and on his father's conflict with his large clan of Hindu relatives and in-laws, ranging from wealthy landowners and businessmen to agricultural labourers. In his own preface to a second edition of the novel, Naipaul wrote: "The original idea was simple, even formal: to tell the story of a man like my father ... In the writing the book changed. It became the story of a man's search for a house and all that the possession of one's own house implies."

What the letters now suggest is how Naipaul's imagination worked upon his experience as a child to produce a fiction that both captures and transcends the life of his father. This book will undoubtedly provide a treasure trove of insights into Naipaul and his Trinidad stories for future critics and biographers.

The links between life and art range from the obvious to the most subtle of nuances. In 1952, for instance, anxious to get his son started on a book, Naipaul's father writes jestingly: "Be realistic, (with) humour where this comes in pat, but don't make it deliberately so. If you are at a loss for a theme, take me for it. Begin: 'He sat before the little table writing down the animal counterpart of all his wife's family. He was very analytical about it. He wanted to be correct; went to work like a scientist. He wrote, The She Fox', then 'The Scorpion'; at the end of five minutes he produced a list which read as follows: ..."

Some of the funniest and most poignant passages in Naipaul's novel involve these very animal names, which Mr Biswas relishes using in revenge for the humiliations heaped upon him by his marriage into a wealthy, orthodox and philistine family.

A few months later, after Naipaul admits to his father that he has suffered a nervous breakdown at Oxford, his father writes back sympathetically: "I should know a good deal about it, for I was the victim of a neurosis myself many years ago. You will perhaps remember our sojourn in Chase Village..."

In the novel, this small remark is developed into a gripping night scene with a tropical storm, in which Mr Biswas temporarily loses his sanity and has to be physically rescued from the village by his wife's family.

Then, running through the letters, there is the barely controlled antipathy between Naipaul and his maternal relatives settled in England, one of whom became a lecturer in mathematics at London University. As an impoverished, lonely student he depended upon their hospitality from time to time - while at the same time, like his father in Trinidad, detesting his dependence. This uncle, he tells his father disgustedly in what proved to be his last letter to him, "is a technician, the worst type of the modern barbarian - the man who thinks he has the right to pronounce on all things because of a limited excellence". In the novel, Mr Biswas is forced to listen politely to a puffed-up young doctor from his wife's family, who has just returned from Europe and has an opinion on everything from modern art to rice planting.

The dominant note in the letters is, however, the understanding, solicitude and affection shown by the father to the son and, for the most part, vice versa. Naipaul's father may not have had the literary talent of his son but he lived his life and raised his family of seven children with fortitude and as much integrity as he could muster in hard circumstances. As Vidia movingly consoles his mother from Oxford: "I had always looked upon my life as a continuation of his - a continuation which, I hoped, would also be a fulfilment. It still is, but I have to abandon the idea of growing older in Pa's company; and I have to get the strength to stand alone."

The profound truth is, that only through the death of his beloved father, was V. S. Naipaul freed to write his great book about the immortal Mr Biswas.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES , is editor (with Krishna Dutta) of Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore .

Letters Between a Father and Son

Author - V. S. Naipaul
ISBN - 0 316 63988 5
Publisher - Little, Brown
Price - £18.99
Pages - 333

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