Voices from the Past
Winder, Robert, New Statesman (1996)
If any writer was going to breathe a last gasp into the epistolary tradition it was likely to be V S Naipaul.
You do not even need to open the covers of this handsome book to know that it is a rare and precious one. Volumes of letters are a dying breed. For centuries, senior writers have left fat bundles of correspondence in desk drawers as a gift to their future biographers, but in modern times the telephone has swept all that away. Hardly anyone writes letters any more, and the collected answerphone messages of even the greatest writers are not likely to be of any very vibrant literary interest. ("Hi, it's me, sorry I'm late, got held up, see you in a bit - Salman"). The recent surge in fax and e-mail might throw up fresh mounds of publishable material, but these remain throwaway methods of communication, lacking in the sense of earnest dedication that makes letters so appealing and private.
But if any modern writer was going to breathe a last gasp into the epistolary tradition, it was always likely to be V S Naipaul. This is partly an accident of geography - he left Trinidad and went to Oxford when he was 17, and letters home were the only way to keep in touch with his family. The displacements of postwar migration in this case fuelled a last flaring of the letter-writing urge. But it is also a matter of Naipaul's own unusual character. At a time when most authors like to boast, in potted biographies, of the stints they have put in as gardeners, dustmen, convicts, mercenaries, drug addicts or firefighters, Naipaul insists - in a phrase that looks like a contractual obligation - that "he has followed no other profession". He set out to be a writer at a young age and has never seen himself as anything else, and in these youthful letters to his father and sister we are afforded a good glimpse of him flexing his muscles, or at least working on his pose, arranging and admiring his literary features in the mirror of his pages.
The letters tell a story of Naipaul's years at University College, Oxford, and they begin sweetly. The would-be writer wastes no time in affecting what he sees as a stylish world-weariness ("I was 19 on holiday, and - oh, I feel old!") and establishing his refinement by sneering at dullard contemporaries ("there are asses in droves here"). Some of his precocious snobbery is comical, merely the clever foolishness of a young man trying to seem lordly. "Gone are the days of aristocrats," he writes. "Nearly everybody comes to Oxford on a state grant. Naturally the place goes down." But as the letters proceed the note of haughty disdain crystallises into a hallmark. "So she killed herself for love!" he writes, learning of a suicide. "The world is none the poorer, I think, for her death." Many of the letters are circulars ("Dear Everybody") - enough in itself to suggest a man for whom letter-writing was an obligation to be discharged as quickly, and rarely, as possible. Many of his notes home are merely apologetic pledges to write more soon.
There are charming childish touches. Naipaul repeatedly begs his parents to send him cigarettes and extra money, and self-lovingly keeps them abreast of his new attainments: "My table manners," he declares, "have improved tremendously." Not everything goes so well. To his sister Kamla he writes that he tried out as a cox in a rowing eight, but has been dropped: "I don't mind terribly. It simply means that I have found one more thing to be not good at." In a pleasant if minor literary scoop, we are even granted the first published work of Naipaul's younger brother, Shiva: "I am behaving a very good boy," he writes from Trinidad. "I send you 1,100 kisses."
The book grows sober as it circles its central relationship in the letters between Naipaul and his father ("Pa"). It was a marvellous relationship, full of pride and purpose, and one can see the roots of Naipaul's own probing and meticulous style in his father's kind, careful prose. …