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the Complete Review
the complete review - letters

Between Father and Son


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To purchase Between Father and Son

Title: Between Father and Son
Author: V.S.Naipaul
Genre: Letters
Written: (1999)
Length: 285 pages
Availability: Between Father and Son - US
Letters Between a Father and Son - UK
Letters Between a Father and Son - Canada
Briefe zwischen Vater und Sohn - Deutschland
  • US title: Between Father and Son (Family Letters)
  • UK title: Letters Between a Father and Son
  • Edited by Gillon Aitken
  • Written between 1949 and 1957

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Our Assessment:

B- : often touching view of Naipaul's family and formative years, but presented without adequate supporting material

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 9//10/1999 Allan Massie
The Independent . 23/12/1999 Paula Burnett
London Rev. of Books . 11/11/1999 James Wood
The Nation . 28/2/2000 S. Shankar
National Review . 7/2/2000 Francis X. Rocca
The New Criterion . 3/2000 Joseph Epstein
The New Republic . 29/5/2000 Caryl Phillips
The NY Rev. of Books . 20/1/2000 Pankaj Mishra
The NY Times . 28/1/2000 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/1/2000 Abraham Verghese
The Observer . 17/10/1999 Adam Mars-Jones
Salon . 18/1/2000 Akash Kapur
TLS . 1/11/1999 Michael Gorra
World Lit. Today . Summer/2000 Bruce King

  Review Consensus:

  Enthusiastic. Find it charming and illuminating (if also in part quite boring). Lots of comparisons to A House for Mr. Biswas. And lots of cheers for dad-Seepersad.
  Many of the reviews also go on long rants about Naipaul himself.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The characters of the three principal correspondents and also of the mother (Ma) and a younger sister (Sati) come across vividly and charmingly. (...) Last year Paul Theroux published Sir Vidiaís Shadow, which many read as a character assassination of Naipaul. This book is a charming corrective." - Allan Massie, Daily Telegraph

  • "In fact, as the pages of family details turn, the unfolding story makes riveting reading. It appeals not for its literariness or wit but for its ordinariness (...) There are titbits here for Naipaul scholars, but the book is above all a profoundly human document and, in the light of the family's history, the record of a minor miracle. What emerges is the heroism of self-belief, despite the attrition of circumstances." - Paula Burnett, The Independent

  • "The letters chronicle the transformation of the former into the latter. One of the commendable aspects of the book is its narrative force, surprising in a volume that is, after all, a collection of letters. Naipaul's metamorphosis is not without its drama, and though the letters are arranged chronologically, some of the credit for this must surely go to Aitken." - S. Shankar, The Nation

  • "These letters record Seepersad Naipaul's generosity to his family with advice, encouragement, and material support. To his eldest son, they show, he gave something even rarer: a sense of purpose." - Francis X. Rocca, National Review

  • "Between Father and Son chronicles the story of an extraordinarily sweet relationship, but the one place that it can be said to have a more strictly literary significance is here, on the subject of what I have called the young V. S. Naipaulís early depression." - Joseph Epstein, The New Criterion

  • "The real hero of these letters, in the end, is Seepersad Naipaul. By turns naive, desperate, and irresponsible, he believed both in literature and in people. He was determined and generous. He was ambitious and sympathetic." - Caryl Phillips, The New Republic

  • "Like most collections of a writer's youthful correspondence, this volume of letters between V. S. Naipaul, then a college student on scholarship at Oxford, and his family back home in Trinidad draws a telling portrait of the artist as a young man. At the same time, the book provides a fascinating map to the autobiographical underpinnings of what is arguably Mr. Naipaul's finest novel, A House for Mr. Biswas" - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Entertaining as these letters are, a long family correspondence, even that of the Naipaul family, can at times be tedious. But still, for V. S. Naipaul fans and particularly for future biographers and scholars, the correspondence is a treasure. (...) But what I found most poignant in this correspondence was the way it mirrored the themes of the South Asian diaspora." - Abraham Verghese, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In effect, this is not a literary correspondence, but a family correspondence between literary people, both rivalrous and mutually dependent. Letter writing was their only resource when separated, and it's hardly surprising that so much of the book should be given over to repetitive questions (why hasn't Kamla/ Vidia/ Pa written ?)." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "Readers familiar with his work will turn to this book expecting the familiar cold detachment and the usual larger-than-life account of the writer's quest for artistic purity. But Between Father and Son is something quite different: a portrait of the artist as a human being." - Akash Kupar, Salon

  • "(T)he letters themselves are consistently articulate, interesting, moving and, in many places, powerful. It may be badly put together, but the book as a whole is invaluable." - Michael Gorra, Times Literary Supplement

  • "While the outlines of the Naipaul family story are known from his novels and autobiographical essays, the details are unexpected." - Bruce King, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       First the title. In one of the first letters included in this collection, with young Vido just arrived in Oxford, far from home, his father wrote to him:

Your letters are charming in their spontaneity. If you could write me letters about things and people -- especially people -- at Oxford, I could compile them in a book: LETTERS BETWEEN A FATHER AND SON, or MY OXFORD LETTERS.
       Which vaguely explains the British title given to this collection (Letters Between a Father and Son). The American publishers went further, somehow coming up with Between Father and Son -- though at least adding the more accurate subtitle describing them as Family Letters.
       The collection doesn't consist solely of letters between father and son. In fact, the final dozen or so missives date from after dad's death, and there are others which are neither written by nor addressed to V.S. But V.S. -- and his relationship with his father -- is definitely the focal point of the collection.
       Three far flung correspondents dominate the book. There is Seepersad, V.S.'s father, back in Trinidad, raising the large family and struggling to be a writer. There is Vidia, gone to England to study at Oxford. And there is Vido's sister Kamla, studying at Benares Hindu University in India for most of the period covered in the book.
       The letters are often unremarkable. There is lots of wondering why more letters aren't being written and lots of excuses (especially by V.S.) why more can't be sent. There is lots of discussion about money, and promises to send small but vital amounts back and forth. There are requests for things to be sent -- V.S. wants cigarettes (remaining stunningly ignorant for quite a while of the obvious fact that the duty that has to be paid on imported cigarettes will pretty much equal the high tax he would pay if he bought the cigarettes in England), while dad asks for books, newspapers, and other odds and ends. Care packages of sugar and other Trinidadian necessities also are sent to England.
       There is also much to do about the writerly ambitions of the two Naipaul men. Both write a lot, and manage to publish here and there -- and even get their stories broadcast on the BBC. V.S. also works for some Oxford publications (Isis among them), while dad works for a Trinidadian newspaper, and each shares some of their experiences in these positions.
       V.S. describes some of his academic efforts and successes, trips he takes, girls he is (generally very briefly) entangled with -- but it is almost all very cursory, slim pickings from over the years. Those unfamiliar with Naipaul's biography might have a hard time with many of the details, and extensive annotations would certainly have been useful. V.S.'s future first wife, Patricia, is occasionally mentioned, but the whole nature of their relationship remains largely unclear. Other figures also pass in and out of the correspondence, but beyond the family relationships there isn't much explanation of who these people are and their roles in V.S.'s (or his father's, or sister's) life.
       There are some footnotes, usefully identifying the figures that crop up (though practically never in much detail) and clarifying certain references. But the editorial involvement (or rather lack thereof) in elucidating the texts is best exemplified by the frivolous note (apropos of Naipaul's cricket successes): "No attempt will be made to explain the mysteries of cricket." Unfortunately, no attempt is made to explain most of the other mysteries in the letters either. Gillon Aitken's editorial policy of "non-intrusion, permitting the sequence of letters to tell its own story", while a laudable notion, seems taken to too far an extreme.
       The book is fairly poor as a stand-in for biography (or autobiography), even of just V.S.'s Oxford years -- there is just too little information, and there are too many gaps. Among the few biographical notes of interest are his job applications. He apparently seriously considered working for, among others, the Western India Match Company and the Cement and Concrete Association.
       The one thing that this letter-collection does do well is demonstrate the importance of the influence of the father on the son's ambitions as a writer. Seepersad was always supportive, and though relatively unsuccessful as an author himself, he also set an example for his son.
       In an early letter Seepersad writes to V.S.: "I have no doubt whatever that you will be a great writer", and he never wavers in this conviction. When writing about writing Seepersad treats V.S. like a peer: there is paternal pride, as well, but he writes as one author to another.
       V.S.'s own first efforts, and his failures and successes, are occasionally well-documented. In 1951 he writes to his sister:
I am afraid I have become a writer. The more I write, the more I want to write. And I don't enjoy writing. You see characters begin to live in your mind.
       But there are relatively few such insights between the many mundane matters that make up the bulk of the content of the letters.
       There are other points of interest in the letters, but these too are generally only partially told tales. For example, Kamla's troubles in Benares, and her engagement, are presented in dribs and drabs, but we never learn the whole story. The other siblings occasionally pop up as well, but never are fully fleshed out.
       There are also entertaining bits of Naipaul-bombast -- though there are far too few of these flashes. Still, it is fun to read how Jane Austen is dismissed as terribly boring -- "essentially a writer for women" -- and English food isn't appreciated ("a calamity and a tragedy").
       A few opinions are of particular interest, such as V.S.'s comment on Beverly Nichols' 1946 book, Verdict on India:
He went to India in 1945, and saw a wretched country, full of pompous mediocrity, with no future. He saw the filth; refused to mention the 'spiritualness' that impresses another kind of visitor. Of course the Indians did not like the book, but I think he was telling the truth.
       Naipaul eventually ventured to India as well, writing several controversial books. This excerpt suggests his mind was already made up about what he would find there long before he went.

       Letter-collections generally don't make for great literature, and these certainly don't. They give the reader a bit more insight into V.S.Naipaul and how he became the writer he is, but they stand too separate from biography to offer more than some limited insights. If all the missing details were filled in then this might be a marvelous biographical record; as is, it is of quite limited interest, useful mainly in providing a view of V.S.'s family life, and especially his father and sister.

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Between Father and Son: Reviews: V.S.Naipaul: Other books by V.S.Naipaul under review: Books about V.S. Naipaul under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He attended University College, Oxford. In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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