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.’

It is the varieties of Seepersad’s vicariousness that make him so full of comedy and pathos. Though Vidia’s letters are often warm, they are rarely needy; there is never a doubt in our minds that it is this teenaged son, the eldest son, who has the greater power – the power to excite, to impress, and to disappoint his father. In one sense, then, Vidia outgrew his father before he himself grew up; and if this is the case, then he had always outgrown his father, because his father’s emotional need of him had always been more acute than his of his father. Seepersad’s letters are fulsome where his son’s are controlled, for which Pa apologises: ‘Sometimes in my letter you’ll find me spouting a lot of talk; if you should find them absurd, forget them as so many banalities.’ Commenting ruefully on Vidia’s successes as a student writer, Pa exclaims: ‘My God! At your age I could hardly manage to write a good letter.’

This outgrowing of his father naturally produces at times a stiff loneliness, as when Vidia writes to his sister that his parents’ devotion to him makes him feel both loved and sad: ‘One feels too weak to be caring about such a big responsibility – the responsibility of deserving affection.’ At other times, that loneliness – or perhaps ‘singleness’ is the better word – erupts into a slightly grotesque hypertrophy of authority, in which the teenager feels impelled to instruct his father: ‘By the way, let Pa know that I don’t like his I’d’s and we’ve’s. Use the apostrophe as sparingly as possible,’ the 18-year-old writes to his mother. More often, Vidia’s letters contain both warm respect for his father and the beginning of a necessary objectification of Pa, a novelist’s weaning, in which the young man begins to see his father as others might – as a character. He writes home: ‘If I didn’t know the man, I would have said: what a delightful father to have.’

It is because Pa’s warmth is so large and universal that it burns off all family chills. When Vidia intimates that he has become close to an Englishwoman, his father, after warning against mixed marriages, concludes his letter: ‘the only thing that matters to me – and to all of us at home – is your happiness.’ In some respects Seepersad Naipaul must have been an ideal father: on the one hand, he existed to be outgrown, and knew it; and yet on the other, his support of his seven children was absolute, and could never be outgrown, or even rivalled. His love was greater than his authority: thus he was never paternally ex officio, but always instead a kind of civilian in fatherhood, an amateur at paternity.

Like most parents who give their children opportunities they have never had, Pa lives through his son’s experiences, urging him to write long, detailed letters about daily life at Oxford, and especially about his encounters with ‘big-shots’ (Pa’s characteristic word, a word equally characteristically eschewed by Vidia). What is delightful about the father who lives in these pages, however, is that unlike most ambitious parents, he does not squeeze his son for guilt. Quite the opposite. He does not envy his son his experiences, or reproach him for them, but instead identifies with them so strongly that he shares them, takes them over. It is Pa who is really in Oxford, arranging meetings with prominent people. Thus, one of the greatest comic elements in Pa’s personality is that he lives vicariously through his son’s experiences while giving plentiful advice about the very experiences he has never had. ‘Don’t be scared of being an artist. D.H. Lawrence was an artist through and through,’ he cheers his son on. When Vidia tells him that he has not succeeded in meeting Professor Radhakrishnan, who taught Eastern Religions at Oxford, Pa replies with a bustle of recommendations:

I do hope you did succeed in meeting Radhakrishnan again. To get the notice of such men a ‘rebuff’ or two is a cheap price for the privilege of an interview. And it is always the best to be quite frank about your position with such people. You could have said, in order to make conversation: ‘My father has always looked upon you as one of the greatest minds of modern India. He has often said he never understood Hinduism so well as when he read your book, The Heart of Hindustan.’ And you would have broken the ice, as they say. Contacts, Vido, contacts all the time. Let me go on. Suppose you had a fairly good chat with this great scholar, you could have described the experience of the incident to me in a letter – in a long letter, if that was necessary. I’d have delighted in the reading of such a letter, and I’d have kept it with other letters of yours. Write me weekly of the men you meet; tell me what you talked; how they talked.

It is hard to imagine that Pa could seriously be advising his proud, anxious, precocious son to ‘break the ice’ in this absurdly voluble manner. But Pa is serious, and that is his comedy, and his poignancy. Nothing in A House for Mr Biswas is quite as fine as this letter. Pa’s advice is hopelessly misguided; but he acts with the busy authority of one who has already been in this situation himself. He burrows his way into that Oxford room, and sets himself up in place of his son. And there is nothing especially oppressive about this, because his identification with his son has such a fantastic quality. It is as if Pa, in dispensing advice so freely and confidently, has already lived, in a previous incarnation, the experiences he so longs to hear about; his son is his avatar. And, of course, Pa has really lived these experiences, because he has imagined them so many times. There is a nobility in this, a mental triumph. Pa is the victor of systems, because his fantasy is an army, running on a thousand legs.

So Pa may be ‘trapped’, but he is also free, because he is most himself when travelling out of himself. His cry to Vidia – ‘This is the time for me to be myself’ – is anguishing. Yet such a man could probably never discover himself, or merge with himself, or ‘find’ himself, as if his singleness were a mislaid object. His self is a traffic of identifications and imaginings. He does not know himself because his intelligence is poured not into self-scrutiny but into self-fantasy, not into self-gathering but into self-dispersing. His identity is identification – identification with possibility. With great tenderness, Naipaul caught this aspect of his father in A House for Mr Biswas, in which Biswas daydreams while reading the novels of Hall Caine and Marie Corelli, and tries to use the word ‘bower’ because he found it in Wordsworth (by way of the Royal Reader). The sadness clouding that novel is that one is always oneself even when one does not know it; freedom is always qualified, a shout between two murmurs. This is literally evidenced by a habit of Pa’s which Vidia fondly recalls in a letter to his ‘darling Ma’. In it, her son reflects on his growing likeness to his father: ‘Perhaps you know Pa’s habit of getting up at 5 or so in the morning, making a row to get everybody else up, and then going back to sleep. Well, I have no one to make a row with, but I get up sometimes at 5, and then go back to sleep too.’ It is a fitting vision of freedom’s chink, opened and shared with everyone else in the family, whether they want it or not. Pa reminds one here not only of Biswas, but of another great fictional fantasist, optimist and father, Sam Pollit in Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children, who ‘was always anxious for morning’.

Pa is a seething optimist, and he practises a corrective kind of vicariousness, in which he tells his somewhat depressive son to maintain postures and emotions that he himself has never mastered. ‘Do not allow depression to have too much of a hold on you. If this mood visits you at times regard it as a passing phase and never give way to it.’ Pa himself was clearly given to depression and anxiety, like his son. But for a father writing to a son, there are always two chins to keep up: he consoles Vidia in July 1952, when he learns that Vidia’s novel has been rejected. ‘People like us are like corks thrown on water: we may go down momentarily; but we simply must pop up again.’ And he urges Vidia to do what he himself lacks time or discipline to do, which is to keep writing. Alluding to the author of numerous how-to-write books (one can imagine Vidia’s youthful shudders), he implores: ‘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.’

The son who caught these balloons of aspiration and advice in Oxford seems at first unrelated to his emotionally ragged Pa. He tends to hoard himself where his father spreads himself. While his father is animally generous to all, Vidia can be royally haughty to others. ‘I met Ruth,’ he writes in September 1950. ‘She gave me a very unpleasant afternoon. I think she is a stupid, self-pitying shrew. A most detestable woman.’ While Pa is uncertain, burying his fragility in a muff of warm advice, Vidia seems adamantine, extraordinarily confident and penetrating for his years. While his father is lavish with banality, Vidia’s letters are defined by the thrift of their omissions. One has a sense of a young man reserving the self for his work, and sharing only his dilutions with his family. (Naipaul wrote several novels while at Oxford.)

But Vidia does reveal himself in time, and the reader is able to discern an anxiety and pride that seem reminiscent of his father’s. Gillon Aitken’s skilful editing and placing of these letters allow us to trace a journey from the rim of things to the uncomfortable centre. Vidia set out from Trinidad in August 1950, by way of New York. ‘For the first time in my life people are calling me sir at every min.,’ he reports to his family. ‘It quite took my breath away. I was free and I was honoured.’ This young man already has an incipient aristocratic liberty of mind, while his father has laboured all his life for his small supplement of liberty. The difference derives in part from the fact that Vidia, unlike his father, is able to feel free on so little freedom. The passing respect of a black porter suffices, because such gestures are essential to Vidia’s sense of life, but not to his sense of self. Pa’s political metabolism is, by comparison, inefficient; his sense of freedom too clumsy and massive to be nourishing. There are too many wants to please. Vidia’s wants are superbly narrow: he wants to be respectfully left alone, so that he can concentrate his self-originated freedom, and convert it into fiction.

In other words, Vidia is a much more efficient fantasist than his father, which is one definition of a novelist as opposed to a daydreamer. In July 1951, after he has been a year at Oxford, Vidia asks his father not to send money, because

the discipline, you know, of not having anyone but yourself to depend on is quite good, especially for a man like me. I discover in myself all types of aristocratic traits, without, you know too well, the means to keep them alive. Whenever I go into a new town, I go into the best hotel, just to feel comfortable, sit in the lounge, read all the newspapers ... and drink coffee. I like comfort. And whereas in Trinidad, I was tremendously shy of going even into a Civil Service Office, now I go everywhere, firmly believing that I have as much right to be there as anybody else. That is the one good thing Oxford has done for me.

He needed only a year at Oxford to set himself up.

Vidia’s descriptions are always precise, concrete, often evocative. In December 1950, he sees his first snow, and writing home, says: ‘The closest thing I have seen to it in Trinidad is the stuff that gathers in a refrigerator.’ Naipaul is always relevant. T.S. Eliot refers to the necessity of ‘relevant intensity’ in good style. Pa, of course, has the trick of irrelevant intensity down to a tee. He has a reverence for useless details, which hang off his letters like sloths. He thus has the mind of a writer – a willingness to take pains with detail – but the eye of a solipsist: he sees only what is relevant to himself. He is always itemising costs, especially those involving the car (‘Battery is giving way after 18 months’ use and I need a tyre and tube,’ he writes to his son). He tells Vidia that he has recently lost his glasses ‘at Forest Reserve oilfield, and replacing them has meant $34’. When Vidia sends him a copy of Isis with one of his pieces in it, Pa praises him, but quickly gets absorbed in questions of subediting: ‘the by-line to the article “Literary Schizophrenia” might have given the page a better appearance if it had been placed, say, midway into the middle column – and boxed.’

Pa is helplessly theatrical, but Vidia learns to perform at Oxford, to act a part. Again, one has the impression of a true self, a writing self, kept in the wings. About a social occasion, Vidia writes: ‘I performed (that’s the way I usually do things) no blunders.’ His letters are streaked with anxiety and pride, but one has to search for the stains of vulnerability. In his first few weeks, he writes: ‘The people here accept me.’ But the ghost of a rather harder assimilation appears four months later, in a letter to his sister, Kamla: ‘my English pronunciation is improving by the humiliating process of error and snigger.’ When the dean of his college generalises about ‘Indians’, Naipaul tells his father: ‘I took this all in good humour.’ Vacations were often difficult for Naipaul. He was very poor (‘literally penniless ... the man at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford bought me regular teas’), and very lonely. One can only scrape the crust of desolation that is hinted at in this sentence: ‘I spent Christmas Day at my boarding house. There was a little party given by the housekeeper. Terribly dull.’

Both father and son, then, were keeping brave faces, but Vidia was under the greater pressure, because while Pa believed in his own optimism, Vidia did not. Pa’s brave face was a face; Vidia’s was a mask, and a desperately important one. At times, the young Naipaul can seem hard on his less educated family, but that is because he has been so hard on himself. When a cousin writes to him as ‘Mr Vido Naipaul, Oxford University, London, England’, Naipaul sounds a tone that is familiar to his later readers: ‘It is very flattering to be addressed Mr Naipaul, Oxford University, and have letters reach you. But think of the colossal ignorance.’ The arc of his development and escape from Trinidad, so fought for, will not become the casual doorway of some idle relative. If his father’s watchword is the heuristic ‘Contacts, Vido, contacts,’ Vidia’s is the militant ‘Vigilance, Vido, vigilance.’ His confidence, and what can seem like arrogance, are no more than the units of his desperation, as a letter sent at the end of his first term artlessly reveals. Reviewing some of the essays he has written during the term, he tells his father that ‘they do read quite well.’ But then he adds: ‘I want to come top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.’

Still, Naipaul’s letters are by no means all carapace and control. His family, and especially his abundant father, provoke his warmth. When Pa develops a passion for growing orchids, Vidia smiles: ‘Well, it is mad, perhaps, but I like it,’ he writes in September 1951. ‘I approve, if my approval helps at all, that is!’ His family had been sending him food parcels, and had been hiding contraband cigarettes in tins of sugar: ‘What amateur and immature Customs-dodgers you are, my dear people ... there were these incriminating cigarette packets sitting so obviously, so loudly begging to be sent, that I am surprised that you have not been rounded up for questioning.’ And when Naipaul is lonely, he softens into homesickness: ‘I feel nostalgia for home. Do you know what I long for? I long for the nights that 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.’ At such moments, the son is quite the equal in charm of his father.

Over the Christmas vacation of 1951-52, Naipaul, again lonely and homesick, suffered some sort of nervous collapse. In response, family knots are tightened, and letters become warmer than ever. Pa worries about Vidia’s depressions, and responds characteristically: ‘I’m sending you by sea mail the book You and Your Nerves. I think it will help you resolve a good many of your worries. Most of the things over which we worry are really no true cause of worry at all.’ But there were true family worries surfacing. Vidia had mentioned his English girlfriend and was making it clear that he could not live in Trinidad. ‘I don’t want to break your heart,’ he writes to his father in September 1952, ‘but I hope I never come back to Trinidad, not to live, that is, though I certainly want to see you and everybody else as often as I can. But Trinidad, as you know, has nothing to offer me.’

Then in February 1953, Pa collapsed from a heart attack. Vidia’s elder sister, Kamla, writes to Vidia that the reason for the illness is that Pa has been worrying about her and Vidia: a vicarious heart attack. She adds that ‘Pa’s greatest worry is that he cannot get his stories published ... Now will you, in the name of Pa’s life, see immediately to his short stories and write him a nice, cheering letter.’ Naipaul’s letter to his father is heartbreaking, so exemplary are its tenderness and concern, and yet so poignant the sense it imparts of the son holding the damaged egg of his father’s soul in his all-powerful hands: ‘You should not have thought I was uninterested in your writing,’ says Vidia to his father. ‘You ought to know that I am perhaps more keen on your work than anyone else is. And, furthermore, as I have often told you, you have the necessary talent ... Please have courage and try to trust me.’

Pa was severely weakened by his attack. He was let go from the newspaper at the end of July 1953. Much of his old buoyancy had absconded. The rush and rattle of his language, the fine hazard of his paternity, the quick sorties of his emotions – all this faded away. He was no longer the man who had once included at the end of a letter to Vidia, this jumble of passions: ‘Next week I might have the outside of the house painted. We never forget you for a day.’ Depleted though he was, however, Pa had not lost his talent for Pyrrhic persistence. In June 1953, he urged Vidia to sell his father’s stories in London, and added: ‘If my own matter is not enough to make a normal-size book, what about adding your own stories? The by-line would thus be – By Seepersad and Vidia Naipaul. I don’t know. It’s up to you.’ Seepersad lived to hear Vidia read one of his father’s stories on the radio, in July. He died in October 1953, and his son sent this telegram home: ‘He Was the Best Man I Knew Stop Everything I Owe to Him Be Brave My Loves Trust Me – Vido.’