Prologue to an Autobiography Critical Essays

V. S. Naipaul


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1273 words.)