Form and Content
V. S. Naipaul’s “Prologue to an Autobiography” is a hybrid of memoir and autobiography. In his illuminating foreword to Finding the Center: Two Narratives (1984), Naipaul explains that the book’s first extended essay, “Prologue to an Autobiography” (which had first appeared in Vanity Fair in April, 1983), is “not an autobiography, a story of a life or deeds done”; rather, it is “an account of something less easily seized: my literary beginnings and the imaginative promptings of my many-sided background.” Besides its overall aim, the essay has an autobiographical emphasis in the first of its six numbered sections, which details the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and events attending the composition of Naipaul’s Miguel Street (1959), his first publishable, though not his first published, book. Yet the essay’s preponderant focus on Naipaul’s milieu—geographical, social, and especially familial—bespeaks memoir more than autobiography. Ultimately, the essay’s main subject emerges as Naipaul’s father, Seepersad, from whom the son derived the model of a writer as well as the urges toward pursuit of the literary profession.
Because the work attempts in its seventy-odd pages (22,000 words) to deal with “something less easily seized” than straightforward biography, as well as with a “many-sided background,” its form is not simply chronological or linear, as first might be supposed from the use in the book’s subtitle of the term “narrative.” Possessing a novelistic quality because of vividly and pungently described people and events, the work begins in medias res. After an opening account of Naipaul’s composing in the early 1950’s of the first two chapters of Miguel Street (though the book is never referred to by title in the text), the work flashes forward to the successful writing and publication of three more books and then others in the late 1950’s and following decades. Subsequently it flashes back to a report of salient facts of his father’s life in the first three decades of the...
(The entire section is 851 words.)