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Thursday Book: The heroism of self-belief in the face of adversity

Letters Between a Father and Son by VS Naipaul (Little, Brown, pounds 18.99)
MOST OF us would cringe at the idea of letters we wrote home at 18 being published. Not so VS Naipaul, who left the Trinidad of his birth to take up a scholarship at Oxford at the beginning of the Fifties. This book collects the correspondence, principally over his three years at University College, between himself (revealed for the first time as "Vido" to family and friends), his father, Seepersad, a journalist in Port of Spain, and his elder sister, Kamla, who was at university in India.

So both title and attribution are subtly misleading, begging the question of whether the book is a tribute to the beloved father, who died in 1953, or the product of a peculiar self-centredness on the part of his son. 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, its witness to a time when the struggling father could not know that, like him, both his sons (the younger, Shiva, too) were to live by the pen, but also achieve the fame that eluded him.

VS Naipaul was of the Windrush generation of migrants, of whom Caryl Phillips has said: "They expected to be accepted, but they hoped to be loved." The cruel shock of reality was to scar many.

Naipaul arrived writing poetry, wrote assiduously at Oxford, and graduated on the brink of being a published writer. Yet, in an interview five years ago, he spoke of his great "wretchedness" at that time, culminating in a suicide attempt. Money worries are a topic of every letter. Shall he replace holed socks or eat? Could not the family send him cigarettes? There was also the loneliness.

The editor warns readers not to expect an "Oxford" book. But this is Oxford alright - the bad old Fifties' Oxford of someone who was neither from a British public school, nor white, trying to find a foothold. In the college which seemed "more of a club than anything else", Naipaul tried to make friends. After a term, he confesses: "No friends so far. Something, it seems, is wrong with me."

At first he assumes the problem is his lack of cash to buy drinks. A few begin to show an interest. After a while, he is writing to his sister: "Nearly every other man one meets in this country is homosexual." Only after three years does he admit: "This country is hot with racial prejudices."

To a youth raised in a pressure-cooker of competition, it was too much. Like Anand, the son in his brilliant tragi-comic fictional tribute to his father, A House for Mister Biswas, Naipaul forfeited his childhood to the contest for a coveted island scholarship - the passport to better things. The colonial legacy was the race to defeat the odds of a world weighted against you.

"Keep your centre" is Seepersad's refrain to the faraway son beset not only by social exclusion, but by such self-imposed burdens as "the responsibility of deserving affection". Despite these insecurities, the son heroically kept faith with the idea of becoming a writer. Fortunately for us, he failed to get the job in concrete he is trying for at the end of the book. Crucially, the BBC World Service and the British Council were fostering the idea that literature mattered.

After Pa's death, Vido both immortalised his father in his own novel and published his short stories. The letters now reveal that Seepersad dreamed of a shared volume bearing both their names. If anything, this was it: the volume which now goes out under the single, best-known name. And what of his sister, Kamla? Nothing is more eloquent here than the understated influence of the women, including Ma and Naipaul's first wife, Pat - an influence visible in his new ability to sign off his letters with expressed affection.

In a way, the book is a window on to an emotional and social Jurassic Park. But then correspondence such as this is a thing of the past, and therefore doubly precious. The buttoned-up tone of the letters makes their record of love, some cruelty and much courage all the more moving.

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. For, as families go, the Naipauls of Nepaul Street, Port of Spain, have been a pretty remarkable lot.

Paula Burnett