Prologue to an Autobiography Essay - Critical Context

V. S. Naipaul

Critical Context

Besides its polished prose, astute ideas about and observations of humanity, and artistry as memoir, “Prologue to an Autobiography” has important connections with Naipaul’s other works. With regard to Naipaul’s fiction, the essay sheds light on the autobiographical material in The Mystic Masseur (1957), Miguel Street, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), The Mimic Men (1967), and The Enigma of Arrival (1987)—particularly on the second and third of these books. Further, it contains exceptionally keen analysis of the technique and construction of Miguel Street, and by extension general comments on these matters. The essay’s crucial theme of self-realization and the corresponding fear of extinction is strongly manifested in individuals’ struggles in The Suffrage of Elvira (1958) and Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion (1963), as well as all the other aforementioned novels.

Glancingly, the essay touches on specific travel and historical material in Naipaul’s nonfiction books The Loss of El Dorado: A History (1969), The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies—British, French and Dutch—in the West Indies and South America (1962), and An Area of Darkness: An Experience of India (1964). More broadly, in these and other nonfiction books by Naipaul about his travels, experiences, and observations in Third World cultures, he adopts, as he does in “Prologue to an Autobiography,” an unobtrusive, almost self-effacing posture. Nevertheless, the reader is continually aware (partly from the use of first person) that the various phenomena of experience are being registered on and by a particular human being, who is often addressed by people met in his travels. With sensitivity, philosophical musing, irony, and a sharp eye for characterizing or symbolic detail, Naipaul’s experiences are transmuted by lucid prose into art that is abiding because of the unforgettable human beings it records.