Literary Occasions, by V.S. Naipaul

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives; because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling; make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.

–Auden, “At the Grave of Henry James”

Writing is the subject of these various essays collected in a short book of under 200 pages. Some are introductions to Naipaul’s own longer works, and some are introductions to works of others. His Nobel Prize lecture ends things as a “Postscript.”

The entire book, though, is worth the longest entry: Prologue to an Autobiography. Naipaul’s father was a reporter for the Trinidad Guardian. He used the pen name Paul Nye. The Naipaul family was doubly colonial. The British had encouraged/impressed them to transfer from the Raj to another British possession, Trinidad. As Naipaul describes it, his mother’s family was wealthy. Their home’s decor recalled their Hindu traditions. His father had to depend on his relations to support his family, at one point moving back in after having established his own place of residence. He dreamt of literary success. He made of his writing desk a little shrine to his deities: O. Henry and Somerset Maugham. Little V.S. developed his vocation at this holy site.

Naipaul was not an only child, but might as well have been one in this story. It is all about himself and his father, the only ones with writing ambitions, and so the only ones who count. His father’s struggle was not just to write, but by writing to escape his Indian culture and become thoroughly a man of the west. He nearly succeeded.

It was only after V.S. Naipaul had become known through his own writing that another reporter dug out the truth about Naipaul’s father. There was a news story in the Trinidad Guardian: “Reporter Sacrifices Goat to Mollify Hindu Goddess.” Naipaul’s reaction on reading this in 1970, thirty-seven years on: “I was staggered. I had no memory of this incident.” His father, after going too far in print in criticism of his family’s Hindu culture, was encouraged or impressed to perform a tribal ritual to show who he really was, or die a westerner. He submitted. He then wrote about his humiliation in the Trinidad Guardian as though to show that it all had been a lark. As Naipaul found out, the strain had its effect: “He looked in the mirror one day and couldn’t see himself. And he began to scream.” Yet he gave his son, “in the middle of his illness,” a book of English poetry, with the counsel: “Live up to the estate of man, follow truth, be kind and gentle and trust God.”

Naipaul found this all out later, by peeling back layers, by chance meetings, by comparing memories and documents. Nabokov once said, as though to show his self-reliance, that he “differed from Joseph conradically.” Naipaul acknowledges the influence in another essay in the book—here, he shows the influence at work.

He is his father’s son: “He never talked about the nature of his illness. And what is astonishing to me is that, with the vocation, he so accurately transmitted to me—without saying anything about it—his hysteria from the time when I didn’t know him: his fear of extinction. That was his subsidiary gift to me. That fear became mine as well. It was linked with the idea of the vocation: the fear could be combated only by the exercise of the vocation.”

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