This miscellany of essays and reviews is a pendant to the 2001 Nobel laureate’s recent Between Father and Son: Family Letters (2000) and The Writer and the World (2002).
The contents, introduced and edited by novelist Pankaj Mishra, appear in microcosm in the 1998 prologue, “Reading and Writing,” which briefly surveys Naipaul’s upbringing in his native Trinidad, accession to understanding of his family’s Indian heritage, and early literary enthusiasms and efforts. Further information (and, unfortunately, numbing repetition) appears in three personal essays capped by a lengthy, fascinating “Fragment of an Autobiography” (1982), which is very informative about the use Naipaul made of neighbors and acquaintances as models for characters in his first book, Miguel Street, and the powerful influence of his father Seepersad, a hardworking journalist and modestly gifted writer of short stories whose inability to realize his literary goals condemned him to increasing and debilitating “hysteria . . . [and] fear of extinction.” There follow forewords to his father’s single published book and to a later edition of Naipual’s 1961 masterpiece A House for Mr. Biswas. Next, thoughtful reviews of “Indian Autobiographies” (including Mohandas Ghandi’s) and of a new biography of Rudyard Kipling (whom Naipaul greatly admired), followed by “Conrad’s Darkness and Mine,” a penetrating analysis of the blending of romance and realism in the work of the writer to whom Naipaul is perhaps most indebted and akin. Finally, a postscript consisting of Naipaul’s Nobel acceptance speech (“Two Worlds”), which repeats biographical details already present in preceding pages, but does re-emphasize the outsider’s “caste sense” that made him feel alienated from the “worlds” of literary culture and a career-long reliance on “intuition” as opposed to agendas or ideologies (“I have no guiding political idea”). The writing is, as expected, consistently eloquent and astute—but even sympathetic readers will grow weary of hammer-blow repetitions of the same central points.
Naipaul is still Naipaul. But he isn’t especially well served by a very uneven volume that really seems to have been hastily assembled rather than carefully edited.