Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1273
Imparting an apparent casualness, a ruminative tone, and the irony of delayed disclosures and discoveries, the essay’s cyclical, spiral form is repeatedly used to convey many of the work’s themes. For example, Naipaul mentions anxiety (another key iterative word in the essay) in the first section’s first paragraph, in reference to beginning Miguel Street. After seven pages describing the real Bogart’s life story as known up to that juncture, Naipaul returns to his starting point, now revealing that he had already had two failed attempts at novels, which deepens the reader’s understanding of the intensity of that anxiety. Moreover, after references in intervening sections to Seepersad’s troubled mind and life, in the essay’s final two paragraphs Naipaul discloses his belief that his father had transmitted not only the ambition to write but also a profound anxiety that necessitated and was associated with writing. Further, Naipaul’s revelation in these paragraphs of then-current family distress completes his unfolding of the anxiety mentioned in the essay’s first paragraph.
Other spiral revelations (listed here in their order of first occurrence in section 2 of the work), are numerous. Seepersad’s newspaper beat in Chaguanas, Trinidad, is revealed forty-two pages later in section 6 as a cause of Seepersad’s passionate love-hate relationship with his in-laws, the Tiwaris, since his stories required him to become in effect the family’s publicist, both laudatory and condemnatory. Having made passing mention of a “gift one year of a very small book of English poetry,” his only token of contact with his absent father, Naipaul reveals fifty pages later that this book is one of his few surviving mementos of his father. The newly revealed details of author, title, price, and inscription suggest Seepersad’s poverty, bequeathed love of literature and writing, and admirable moral values. The letters that six-year-old Naipaul found in his father’s desk and cherished as uncomprehended magical documents, with their impressive raised letterhead, are revealed forty-eight pages later as “brusque” correspondence rebuffing Seepersad’s appeals for reinstatement in his old job on the Trinidad Guardian newspaper. First mentioned only casually, Seepersad’s unused British passport that the young Naipaul found in his father’s desk is shown forty-five pages later to have been representative of the timidity that prevented Naipaul’s father from escaping a circumscribed, saddening, and at times mentally unbalancing life in Trinidad. The ledger containing Seepersad’s newspaper articles, which the young Naipaul found and venerated as one of his central childhood books, is revealed thirty-six pages later, at the end of section 5, as significantly incomplete as an icon of his father’s elevation, writing career, and family history.
One thematic function of the essay’s structure is its mimetic representation of both Naipaul’s disjointed past life and his discovery and recovery of his personal history. In section 2, explaining that order existed only in his school life, Naipaul says, “But my family life . . . was jumbled, without sequence. The sequence I have given it here has come to me only with the writing of this piece.” Intertwined with the topic of self-knowledge, and also suggested by the essay’s structure, is the theme of the relationship between the literary vocation and the author’s roots. After explaining the parallel between his own life and the Miguel Street narrator’s escape (though a college scholarship to England) from the confinement of Trinidad, in a typical, forceful, and ironic antithesis Naipaul says: “To become a writer . . . I had thought it necessary to leave. Actually to write, it was necessary to go back. It was the beginning of knowledge.” The pivotal word “back,” important for Naipaul’s self-discovery, the realization of his writing career, and the essay’s structure, is repeated in the essay’s last staccato sentences (again helping to create its cyclical, spiral form): “In my eleventh month in London I wrote about Bogart. I wrote my book; I wrote another. I began to go back.”
In much of the essay, as in his other nonfiction and fiction, Naipaul is an ironist. Besides the irony in Naipaul’s discovery that return rather than flight or escape is required for his writing career, explicit and implicit ironies cluster around Bogart and Seepersad. For example, because Naipaul does not know what has become of Bogart when he composes the first chapter of Miguel Street, he feels free to invent a surprising, “cruel,” and satiric conclusion to this story. When he meets Bogart twenty-seven years later, however, Naipaul learns that life has imitated art, for Bogart indeed fled Trinidad for sensual reasons and virtually became the bigamist of the fictional story’s end.
A devastatingly ironic episode in Seepersad’s life, one which contributed to his mental breakdown, concerned the newspaper coverage of vampire bats in Trinidad. Cyclically, Naipaul mentions in section 5 that this coverage got editor MacGowan and reporter Seepersad in trouble, and later in sections 5 and 6 explains the difficulties of MacGowan and Seepersad, respectively. MacGowan came into even sharper conflict with his publishers, who were irritated by what they considered MacGowan’s discouragement of the tourist trade and were shortly to discharge the editor because of such contention. Because of pressure and threats from anonymous Kali worshipers (who may have included his own kin), Seepersad suffered the humiliation of having to abandon, temporarily but publicly, his enlightened, reform-minded Hinduism and perform an old-fashioned animal sacrifice to Kali, whom devotees were superstitiously (in Seepersad’s published view) attempting to appease in order to end the bats’ attacks on cattle. Explicitly, Naipaul notes the irony that Seepersad, trained to be a pundit, for the first time performed a religious ritual— unwillingly. A further implicit irony is that Seepersad’s early newspaper columns, as mentioned twelve pages earlier in the essay, had been signed with the pen name “The Pundit.”
Naipaul’s prose style, elegant though not ornate (as is customary in both his nonfiction and fiction), is artfully used to express irony, reserve, control, intensity, and reflectiveness. One of the essay’s most prominent stylistic features, antithesis, recurs within sentences or between them, expressing the ironic contrast between expectation and outcome, the conflict between one value system and another, or the tension between one of a number of oppositions in Naipaul’s life and world.
Naipaul’s sentences have a notable balance, marked by a semicolon between main parts, which suggests both the essay’s artful symmetry and a continual thoughtful weighing or balancing. Naipaul’s distinctive use of anaphora contributes similar effects. The frequent parenthetical material in sentences, often punctuated with dashes, is used for reflective qualification as well as irony.
Related to the sentence structure’s suggestion of reserve and control in the essay’s tone is Naipaul’s striking suppression of the colorful Trinidad vernacular that so enlivens his first four novels but is merely alluded to when Naipaul explains that an aunt, in providing oral family history, used English and referred to a “galvanize roof.” This reserve is also suggested by Naipaul’s never directly naming his father in the essay; only in a quoted newspaper article is the name Seepersad used.
Yet the essay is by no means without vividness and intensity. Naipaul’s preference for short sentences (often five or six words) at climactic points within his paragraphs creates stylistic vigor and impact, while a number of devices (additions punctuated by semicolons, series sentences, various kinds of parenthesis) are used to provide vivid, novelistic details. In his emphasis on particularity, Naipaul shows an affinity with Charles Dickens’ work, some of which (as he mentions in the essay) Seepersad had read to him in childhood.
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