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the Complete Review
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Half a Life


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To purchase Half a Life

Title: Half a Life
Author: V.S.Naipaul
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 211 pages
Availability: Half a Life
Half a Life - UK
Half a Life - Canada
La Moitié d'une vie - France
Ein halbes Leben - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : odd, half-successful fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly B+ 11/2001 Diane Mehta
Berliner Zeitung . 16/3/2002 Renée Zucker
Christian Science Monitor A 25/10/2001 Ron Charles
Daily Telegraph . 17/9/2001 Robert Hanks
Daily Telegraph . 10/9/2001 Jonathan Bate
The Economist . 18/10/2001 .
Evening Standard A 17/9/2001 Rachel Cusk
The Guardian F 1/9/2001 Paul Theroux
The Independent . 15/9/2001 Paula Burnett
London Rev. of Books . 6/9/2001 Frank Kermode
The LA Times A+ 21/10/2001 Lee Siegel
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 17/8/2002 Georg Sütterlin
The New Republic A 5/11/2001 James Wood
The New Statesman A 1/10/2001 James Wood
The NY Rev. of Books B 1/11/2001 J.M.Coetzee
The NY Times A+ 16/10/2001 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. B 28/10/2001 Michael Gorra
The Observer . 26/8/2001 Jason Cowley
Salon . 6/12/2001 Chris Colin
The Spectator . 6/10/2001 Patrick Marnham
TLS A 21/9/2001 Amit Chaudhuri
Wall St. Journal B 26/10/2001 Jamie James
The Washington Post . 21/10/2001 Jonathan Yardley

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus -- though almost all (except Theroux in The Guardian) find aspects of it good. Opinions range all over the place -- including regarding which section (India, England, Africa) is best and which worst.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Half a Life has a few problems, including some stilted dialogue and a scrambled, distracting chronology. But Naipaul's style is so frank it seems intimate, and the awful characters are studied and well crafted. Behind the matter-of-fact style is a cuttingly ironic view of human relations, and occasionally the author's voice simply overwhelms his narrator's." - Diane Mehta, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Ein halbes Leben ist ein kostbarer Roman, ein klassischer Schatz, der nicht beim ersten Anschauen schillert, sondern in tiefer, echter Schönheit erstrahlt, wenn man sich hineinbegeben hat." - Renée Zucker, Berliner Zeitung

  • "At just 200 pages, Half a Life is a story of remarkable economy, at once exotic and familiar, where wit and despair rumble beneath the surface. Naipaul writes with the haunting efficiency of an ancient legend -- a brisk accumulation of simple actions and conversations that accrue to build something powerful and unsettling." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Half a Life is a deeply discomforting, even dismaying book; but it is also a book of uncommon elegance, subtlety and intelligence." - Robert Hanks, Daily Telegraph

  • "Naipaul is usually a finely understated writer, but in this book he is hardly subtle in splitting up his halves." - Jonathan Bate, Daily Telegraph

  • "Sir Vidia writes knowingly about Africa, and his sentences are cool and precise. But the author's charmless, loveless eye brings this effort crashing down." - The Economist

  • "This is brilliant, affecting stuff: the novel's melancholy drama is played out on the furthest margins of fiction, where things are recollected rather than observed. The half of life that Naipaul delineates here is the half that is composed of pure pointlessness. Its shadowy other, where joy and fulfilment and meaning lie, is implied but not assured." - Rachel Cusk, Evening Standard

  • "The novel ends nowhere. It is about nothing, just an assortment of Naipaul situations and remarks. Anyone who does not know his work will find it clumsy, unbelievable, badly written, wilful and weird. I do, too, but it is calculatedly weird and clumsy. Every unsatisfactory bit of the book is deliberate -- the odd structure, the implausible situations, the stilted dialogue, the harsh tone, the apparent clichés." - Paul Theroux, The Guardian

  • "Naipaul writes a prose as clean as a stripped wand, but however plain the language, the ideas it delivers are not. The book strikes echoes from his Booker Prize winner of 30 years ago, In a Free State, but it is a new and troubling story." - Paula Burnett, The Independent

  • "Half a Life, a masterpiece of implicitness, is explicitly concerned with drawing out the metaphysical-private while keeping it embedded in society and history. This small, sparely written tale embodies a fragile idea of freedom, a vision of human life disentangling itself from the encumbrances of time and place." - Lee Siegel, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Einmal mehr beeindruckt Naipauls glasklare Sprache. Es gibt nicht viele Autoren, die so viel sagen und gleichzeitig so leicht lesbar sind." - Georg Sütterlin, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Naipaul is at his most contradictory, both radical and almost pathologically fatalistic, in his new novel. (...) This is a book that ruthlessly analyzes damage, but never breathes an undamaged air -- and thus seems itself damaged. It seems at once a depiction, and a document, of damage. Its undeniable power arises from its evocation of a sense of waste" - James Wood, The New Republic

  • "Half a Life confirms Naipaul's stature as the greatest living analyst of the colonial and post-colonial dilemma; and those who have never approved of that analysis, and have objected over the years to what they see as Naipaul's fatalism, snobbery or even racism, may find in this book the surprise of a submerged radicalism, a willingness to see things from the eyes of the disadvantaged." - James Wood, The New Statesman

  • "Half a Life is the story of the progress of a man from a loveless beginning to a solitary end that may turn out not to be a true end, just a plateau of rest and recuperation. The experiences that mark his progress are sexual in nature. (...) Half a Life does not give the impression of having been carefully worked over, and the technical weaknesses that result are not negligible." - J.M.Coetzee, The New York Review of Books

  • "(O)ne of those rare books that stands as both a small masterpiece in its own right and as a potent distillation of the author's work to date" - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "The very fissures in its structure, its change from voice to voice, transform Half a Life into a meditation on the difficulties of building a coherent self, suggesting that there is always an unrealized and true self that remains separate from the conditions under which we live." - Michael Gorra, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Half a Life reads as a study in estrangement and inner exile. (...) In this strange, languorous, often painful new novel it is not the Africans, but the settlers whose lives seem most incomplete, who are displaced both from their cultural heritage and from themselves. It is they who are the true Conradian grotesques, wandering restlessly without home or hope." - Jason Cowley, The Observer

  • "Half a Life is full of sharp stories. Nobody describes prolonged discomfort with quite so many funny, sad moments. Naipaul writes simply and gently. (...) What's greatest about Half a Life is, of all things, its pacing." - Chris Colin, Salon

  • "(A)n unexpectedly topical book since it links Europe and Asia in a bitter political struggle and depicts some of the consequences of political decline, loss of control, post-colonial weakness, personal confusion and self-hatred, the melancholy litany of themes that support the life of Naipaul's silhouetted characters." - Patrick Marnham, The Spectator

  • "This short novel, then, captures in miniature the exceptional trajectory of Naipaul's oeuvre; the figure of the father, the life of the writer, and, finally, an enquiry into the origins of the colonial landscape itself (.....) Half a Life is not one of Naipaul's major undertakings, but I don't think it was meant to be. It is intended to give us yet another perspective on his corpus, in which one detail illuminates another." - Amit Chaudhuri, Times Literary Supplement

  • "This short novel is a fitting, if slight, postscriptural flourish to the career soon to be apotheosized in Stockholm, a partly autobiographical resume of many of the principal themes of his fiction.(...) It's possible that there is some obscure authorial intent in the curiously abrupt ending, but it reads more like laziness." - Jamie James, Wall Street Journal

  • "On the one hand it is a continuation of his preoccupation with the innumerable questions raised by cultural and racial identity; on the other hand its spare, melancholy, elusive, somewhat heavily ironic tone contrasts with the more animated quality of his best fiction (A House for Mr. Biswas, for example), and the graphic sex with which its final sections are filled is a stark departure from his almost priggish treatment of the subject previously." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

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:

       Half a Life is, mainly, the story of Willie Somerset Chandran. It is an odd tale, moving from India to England to Africa, and it is oddly told. The novel begins with an omniscient narrator, but after half a page Naipaul switches to the first person, allowing Willie's father to recount the story of the origins of Willie's unlikely name, as well as his own pathetic, misled life. As the chapter ends -- this story completed -- Naipaul switches back to an omniscient narrator. (Near the end of the novel, Naipaul again allows one of the characters (Willie himself this time) to tell his own tale, jumping back to the first person (and, again, back in time).)
       Storytelling is an important part of the novel, and much of it is expertly done by Naipaul. The opening chapter is a nice tour de force, a story told over a decade's time, shifting and changing as it was told and retold over those years yet fundamentally as set down here. Willie's father complains that he "unfitted" himself for life by abandoning his education ("in response to the mahatma's call"). Though from a good family, with a promising future, he became a mendicant -- the only escape he could see for a foolish predicament he got himself into. Not only that, he also takes a vow of silence -- rendering him unable to explain himself, or to tell his tale.
       Silence, of course, easily passes for wisdom, and Willie's father chances to impress a visiting writer -- Somerset Maugham. So much so that Maugham recounts their meeting in a travel book he subsequent publishes, and eventually -- so Willie's father -- "foreign critics began to see in me the spiritual source of The Razor's Edge".
       Willie's father got himself into this situation by turning his back on family and tradition and looking to "marry the lowest person I could find". At university there is a "backward" caste student he has his eyes on. Not because she is attractive or appealing, but because she fits his image of the sacrifice he wants to make. He winds up marrying her, and he even makes something of his life (through his oddly found fame), but it is, understandably, a family history that shocks and disappoints young Willie.
       The next chapter in the novel (numbered 2 but titled "The First Chapter") focusses on Willie's schooldays, and then his escape to England, to study. Here, too, stories are important, a form of communication in the household where Willie (like his father before him) does not feel he can express things directly. Willie writes several compositions which are lauded at school but which outrage and disappoint his actual audience -- his father. (Similarly, hearing his father's life-story led Willie to tell his father he despised him. Cathartic the tales may be, but they tend not to please their audiences.)
       Willie escapes to England, eager just "to get away from what he knew". Despite not having finished his own mission-school education, despite already being twenty, he gets a scholarship to "a college of education for mature students". The world he enters is a completely foreign one. He fumbles -- for friendship, for sex, for acceptance -- and achieves at least a measure of most of these.
       Willie also writes a book, and is able to publish it. It is not a success, and critical reception of it is poor. Willie is willing to abandon this ambition, this possibility:

Willie thought, "Let the book die. Let it fade away. Let me not be reminded of it. I will write no more. This book was not something I should have done, anyway. It was artificial and false. (...)"
       With no plans for the future as his scholarship comes to an end, Willie takes up with Ana and follows her to the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Here again Naipaul makes a radical cut and jump: "He stayed for eighteen years", Naipaul tells us, and jumps from the beginning to the end of that period, when Willie finally gives up on this life and on Ana. He goes to Germany, where his sister, Sarojini, is living -- and there relates the story of his nearly two decades in Africa, Naipaul again allowing one of his characters (Willie) to tell his own story in his own voice -- and allowing him to finish the novel, too, not bringing the story full circle back to the present. It is an odd set of leaps, and yet effective.
       Half a Life is a novel of incompleteness. In India Willie's parents are a mix of caste and personality that doesn't make for anything approaching a whole. Willie's father sets the example for the son of a half-lived life, and Willie follows in those same footsteps. He has no firm objectives, no clear ambitions. There are moments of promise. In England:
Willie began to understand that he was free to present himself as he wished. He could, as it were, write his own revolution. The possibilities were dizzying. He could, within reason, remake himself and his past and his ancestry.
       And yet ultimately he can't take advantage of the opportunity. Most promisingly, perhaps, he finds he could become a writer, a story-teller, but he allows this ambition to be thwarted. He chooses finally simply to flee again, into a world that is entirely fragmentary.
       Mozambique is, at best, a "half-and-half world". The ambition of the people there, the ideal they strive for is Portugal. They are not fully Portuguese -- often children or grandchildren, like Willie, of some mixed sort of marriage, or simply emigrants, neither truly native in the country they left or the country live in. It is Ana's life Willie finds himself living, more than his own. After eighteen years he is done with it.
       Still only just over forty when the book ends, plausibly still only half-way through life, there might be hope for Willie. But that is not Naipaul's concern: his focus is on the past, on what Willie became and was.
       It is, in fact, difficult not to see Willie as some alter-Naipaul, perhaps the very person Naipaul always feared he might become. Not as brilliant, without the supportive family, from India rather than Trinidad, Willie seems something of a lesser Naipaul. But his experiences in England, especially, suggest what might have been. Willie seems an unlikely author, but he does manage to get published and he could have chosen to continue down that path; instead he dismisses the possibility. Naipaul, of course, embraced it -- but perhaps the choice, indeed the life, was not as clear as it now seems in retrospect. (Allowing Willie to again be a storyteller -- to narrate, in the first person, (to author, one can even suggest) the final section of the novel suggests that possibly that is where Naipaul sees Willie's future, that that is where, after only half-living for so long, he must turn to try to fill in the void of his life.)

       Parts of Half a Life are excellent. Willie's father's story is a marvelous beginning, and many scenes from Willie's student life in England and his half-life in Africa are also very nicely done. Parts of the novel, however, also seem too hurried, with detail dissolving over sudden large stretches of time -- as if, in part, Naipaul had lost patience with the book. There are some neat character sketches, but they too often don't seem fully integrated into the narrative -- appropriate, perhaps, as the way one comes across and then loses sight of people in real life, but sticking oddly out in work of fiction like this.
       Naipaul writes very well, and he presents his story well (even with the shifts in first and third person, and past and present). One wishes there were more to it (though perhaps that is too much to expect in a work so focussed on presenting only Half a Life), but even as is it is certainly worthwhile.

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Reviews: 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:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete 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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© 2001-2009 the complete review

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