Tell me what you talked

James Wood

  • Letters between a Father and Son by V.S. Naipaul
    Little, Brown, 333 pp, £18.50, October 1999, ISBN 0 316 63988 5

In his essay on laughter, Bergson argues that comedy is chastening, not charitable. Laughter is defined by a certain absence of sympathy, a distance and disinterestedness, the philosopher tells us. A world that contained only pure intelligences would probably still include laughter; a world made up of pure emotionalists probably would not. Bergson appears to have been universalising from the example of Molière, and in so doing produces a description of comedy that is mightily contradicted at almost every station of literature. For literature’s greatest category might be precisely one of sympathetic comedy: in particular, that paradoxical shuffle of condescension and affiliation we are made to feel by Bottom the weaver, or Don Quixote, or Uncle Toby, or Zeno, or Pnin. Such characters have busy souls. They are congested by aspiration, an aspiration that outstrips their insight. They claim to know themselves, but their selves are too dispersed to be known. It is we who know them, because we know at least something about them: that they are self-ignorant. They are rich cavities, into which we pour a kindly offering: if we are the only ones who can provide the knowledge they lack about themselves, then we ourselves have become that lack, have become a part of them.

V.S. Naipaul’s Mr Biswas belongs to this company. Generous, combustible, nobly hysterical, facetious when he would like to be solemn, stoical in resolve but crumbling in practice, free in spirit but actually tied to the train of his destiny by the modesty of his ticket, he is a very affecting comic creation, one of the few enduring characters in postwar British fiction. We watch Biswas become a sign-writer (his first work, for a neighbour, is ‘Idlers Keep Out by Order’), and then a journalist at the Trinidad Sentinel. A dreamer, he likes to read fictional descriptions of bad weather in foreign countries. Eager to write his own stories, he corresponds with the ‘Ideal School of Journalism, Edgware Road, London’, which advises him to write about ‘the Romance of Place-Names (your vicar is likely to prove a mine of colourful information)’. Biswas has a kind of anxious serenity; he is a neurotic stoic: ‘When he got home he mixed and drank some McLean’s Brand Stomach Powder, undressed, got into bed, and began to read Epictetus.’ This delicate sentence is characteristic of Naipaul’s early comic writing: there is the lovely syncromesh of registers, Stomach Powder ennobled by Epictetus (and how nicely the sentence docks at its final, rising word); there is the mock-heroic absurdity of it, and a gentleness which is balanced between rebellion and fatalism: the Stomach Powder, like Biswas’s soul, will keep fizzing even as Epictetus sedates. Above all, there is the sympathetic identification, what Hugh Kenner, speaking of Joyce, calls the Uncle Charles Principle: Naipaul’s description so assumes Biswas’s way of thinking that it comically, pedantically offers the precise brand-name of the stomach powder, just as Biswas would if he were narrating the story. Here Naipaul has become Biswas, as we have, too. Comedy is not distance but proximity.

One of the reasons, doubtless, for Naipaul’s penetration into Biswas’s happy chaos is that the young author, at the novel’s deepest moments, was describing the essence of his father. Letters between a Father and Son, a very moving book, shows us that Naipaul’s father, Seepersad Naipaul, was less naive, much less unlettered, and more worldly than Mr Biswas; but the two men share an ungoverned delightfulness, and are, at the same time, stalked by an ungoverned anxiety. Both are overflowing spirits, breathing the germs of vicarious aspiration over their clever and dutiful sons. This is often a hope, however unwitting, that the son may not resemble the father. Seepersad Naipaul, who had published his stories privately, writes several times to his son that he believes the son will become a great writer; for himself, all he hopes is that he might one day be reputably published by an English firm. The spirit is not unlike that described in A House for Mr Biswas, when Biswas tells his son, Anand: ‘I don’t want you to be like me.’ Anand, Naipaul writes, ‘understood’: ‘Father and son, each saw the other as weak and vulnerable, and each felt a responsibility for the other, a responsibility which, in times of particular pain, was disguised by exaggerated authority on the one side, exaggerated respect on the other.’

Seepersad so dominates this collection of letters that the book rather resembles a double bed of which only one side has been slept in. Seepersad rises off these pages as powerfully as, perhaps more powerfully than, Mr Biswas rises off his; the young Vidia Naipaul, who is a student during the exchange of letters that comprises the book, emerges more intermittently. The letters sent between father and son begin in 1950, when Vidiadhar Naipaul – called Vido by his family – leaves Trinidad for Oxford, and they end in October 1953, when Seepersad dies at the age of 47, from a heart attack. Seepersad Naipaul, called ‘Pa’ in these letters, was a reporter on the Trinidad Guardian when his 17-year-old son left. It was a gravely exciting time for both of them. Seepersad was frustrated in his job, and desperate to find the time to write fiction. As he explains to his son in an early letter,

This is the time I should be writing the things I so long to write. This is the time for me to be myself. When shall I get the chance? I don’t know. I come from work, dead tired. The Guardian is taking all out of me – writing tosh. What price salted fish and things of that sort. Actually that is my assignment for tomorrow! It hurts. Now keep your chin up, and far more important: keep yourself out of mischief.

  Love from Ma and all, Pa.

So in his liberated and intelligent son, Seepersad grounds his own dreams. ‘I have no doubt whatever that you will be a great writer,’ he writes to Vidia, during his first term at Oxford; ‘but do not spoil yourself: beware of undue dissipation of any kind ... You keep your centre.’ Later, he writes: ‘I am often tired after work, and must be in a good mood to get back to work’ – i.e. to writing fiction – ‘after work. It takes all the juice out of a fellow.’ He tells his son that he scribbles down stories at night, in bed. ‘The fact is I feel trapped.’

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