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 twentieth century.
Subtle and complex, the work’s structure is a combination of pendulum and spiral. The essay continually oscillates between past and future, causes and effects, Trinidad and India, the Caribbean and England, father (or family) and son. Concurrently, the essay repeatedly cycles back to facts and events, giving them a new perspective or revealing underlying determinants by the disclosure of new information, much of which Naipaul himself discovered only later in life. The concluding paragraph of the work, for example, cycles back to its opening paragraphs, which deal with Naipaul’s use of a British Broadcasting Corporation office, typewriter, and script paper to begin composing Miguel Street; in the essay’s final paragraph, however, that event is given an emotionally resonant depth, for Naipaul reveals the startling facts that his father had died the previous year and that his family back in Trinidad was in distress.
The transition between the beginning of each numbered section and the end of the preceding one is careful, whether implicit or explicit, and contributes to the sense of order and sequence in the essay’s overall structure. For example, the third section’s beginning reference to Naipaul’s seeing the real person, Bogart, who served as the basis for the fictional portrait in the first chapter of Miguel Street, stresses temporal terminology: “after twenty-seven years . . . again.” This reference to time implicitly connects with the statement in the second section’s last paragraph that “to write, it was necessary to go back” in time and place. The fourth section’s opening paragraphs, about Naipaul’s knowledge of family, regional, and world history, are implicitly linked with the third section’s concluding reminiscences of Bogart’s and a Mayan peasant’s religious rituals being made meaningless because they were devoid of historical knowledge and foundation. Explicitly, the end of the first section and beginning of the second are linked by repetition of the key word “ambition” (important throughout the essay), suggesting the genesis of Naipaul’s career from Seepersad’s life, work, and encouragement. Similarly, the end of the fourth section and beginning of the fifth are linked by repetition of the word “pundit,” in its East Indian sense, suggesting that Seepersad’s religious vocation, appointed in childhood, was in a sense realized by the special and sanctified career of writing, enabled by the journalistic guru (Naipaul’s word) Gault MacGowan.
Many of the essay’s topics and themes occur elsewhere in Naipaul’s fiction and nonfiction. Such themes include the sources, motives, and techniques of writing; the degree of correspondence between art and life; the tension between colonial and colonizer; the dynamics of kinship relationships (including that of father and son); Trinidad society; the interest of individuals’ defining traits and eccentricities; the psychological and intellectual effects of the physical environment on the individual; individuals’ diversity in their attempts to mold their lives, and the results of these attempts; and the impact of East Indian culture on East Indian emigrants to Trinidad. Overarching and implicit throughout the essay is the topic of knowledge: how well an individual understands his environment (for example, geography) or his past (its people, events, or documents).
Cudjoe, Selwyn R. “V. S. Naipaul and the Question of Identity,” in Voices from Under: Black Narrative in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1984. Edited by William Luis.
Healy, J. J. “Fiction, Voice, and the Rough Ground of Feeling: V. S. Naipaul After Twenty-five Years,” in University of Toronto Quarterly. LV (Fall, 1985), pp. 45-63.
Huston, Larry Alan. “From Autobiography to Politics: The Development of V. S. Naipaul’s Fiction,” in Dissertation Abstracts International. XLIV (January, 1984), p. 2154A.
Padhi, Bibhu. “Naipaul on Naipaul and the Novel,” in Modern Fiction Studies. XXX (Autumn, 1984), pp. 455-465.