In a narrative that moves with dreamlike swiftness from India to England to Africa, Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul has produced his finest novel to date, a bleakly resonant study of the fraudulent bargains that make up an identity.
The son of a Brahmin ascetic and his lower-caste wife, Willie Chandran grows up sensing the hollowness at the core of his father's self-denial and vowing to live more authentically. That search takes him to the immigrant and literary bohemias of 1950s London, to a facile and unsatisfying career as a writer, and at last to a decaying Portugese colony in East Africa, where he finds a happiness he will then be compelled to betray. Brilliantly orchestrated, at once elegiac and devastating in its portraits of colonial grandeur and pretension, Half a Life represents the pinnacle of Naipaul's career.
About the Author
V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He came to England on a scholarship in 1950. He spent four years at University College, Oxford, and began to write, in London, in 1954. He pursued no other profession.
His novels include A House for Mr Biswas, The Mimic Men, Guerrillas, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival. In 1971 he was awarded the Booker Prize for In a Free State. His works of nonfiction, equally acclaimed, include Among the Believers, Beyond Belief, The Masque of Africa, and a trio of books about India: An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now.
In 1990, V.S. Naipaul received a knighthood for services to literature; in 1993, he was the first recipient of the David Cohen British Literature Prize. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001. He lived with his wife Nadira and cat Augustus in Wiltshire, and died in 2018.
Date of Birth:August 17, 1932
Place of Birth:Chaguanas, Trinidad
Education:Queen's Royal College, Trinidad, 1943-48; B.A., University College, Oxford, 1953
Read an Excerpt
A Visit from Somerset Maugham
Willie Chandran asked his father one day, "Why is my middle name Somerset? The boys at school have just found out, and they are mocking me."
His father said without joy, "You were named after a great English writer. I am sure you have seen his books about the house."
"But I haven't read them. Did you admire him so much?"
"I am not sure. Listen, and make up your own mind."
And this was the story Willie Chandran's father began to tell. It took a long time. The story changed as Willie grew up. Things were added, and by the time Willie left India to go to England this was the story he had heard.
The writer (Willie Chandran's father said) came to India to get material for a novel about spirituality. This was in the 1930s. The principal of the maharaja's college brought him to me. I was doing penance for something I had done, and I was living as a mendicant in the outer courtyard of the big temple. It was a very public place, and that was why I had chosen it. My enemies among the maharaja's officials were hounding me, and I felt safer there in the temple courtyard, with the crowds coming and going, than in my office. I was in a state of nerves because of this persecution, and to calm myself I had also taken a vow of silence. This had won me a certain amount of local respect, even renown. People would come to look at me being silent and some would bring me gifts. The state authorities had to respect my vow, and my first thought when I saw the principal with the little old white fellow was that it was a plot to make me talk. This made me very obstinate. People knew that something was afoot and they stood around to watch the encounter. I knew they were on my side. I didn't say anything. The principal and the writer did all the talking. They talked about me and they looked at me while they talked, and I sat and looked through them like someone deaf and blind, and the crowd looked at all three of us.
That was how it began. I said nothing to the great man. It's hard to credit now, but I don't believe I had heard about him when I first saw him. The English literature I knew about was Browning and Shelley and people like that, whom I had studied at the university, for the year or so I was there, before I foolishly gave up English education in response to the mahatma's call, and unfitted myself for life, while watching my friends and enemies growing in prosperity and regard. That, though, is something else. I will tell you about it some other time.
Now I want to go back to the writer. You must believe that I had said nothing to him at all. But then, perhaps eighteen months later, in the travel book the writer brought out there were two or three pages about me. There was a lot more about the temple and the crowds and the clothes they were wearing, and the gifts of coconut and flour and rice they had brought, and the afternoon light on the old stones of the courtyard. Everything the maharaja's headmaster had told him was there, and a few other things besides. Clearly the headmaster had tried to win the admiration of the writer by saying very good things about my various vows of denial. There were also a few lines, perhaps a whole paragraph, describingin the way he had described the stones and the afternoon lightthe serenity and smoothness of my skin.
That was how I became famous. Not in India, where there is a lot of jealousy, but abroad. And the jealousy turned to rage when the writer's famous novel came out during the war, and foreign critics began to see in me the spiritual source of The Razor's Edge.
My persecution stopped. The writerto the general surprise, an anti-imperialisthad, in his first Indian book, the book of travel notes, written flatteringly of the maharaja and his state and his officials, including the principal of the college. So the attitude of everybody changed. They pretended to see me as the writer had seen me: the man of high caste, high in the maharaja's revenue service, from a line of people who had performed sacred rituals for the ruler, turning his back on a glittering career, and living as a mendicant on the alms of the poorest of the poor.
It became hard for me to step out of that role. One day the maharaja himself sent me his good wishes by one of the palace secretaries. This worried me a lot. I had been hoping that after a time there might be other religious excitements in the city, and I would be allowed to go away, and work out my own way of life. But when during an important religious festival the maharaja himself came barebacked in the hot afternoon sun as a kind of penitent and with his own hand made me offerings of coconuts and cloth which a liveried courtiera scoundrel whom I knew only too wellhad brought, I recognised that breaking out had become impossible, and I settled down to live the strange life that fate had bestowed on me.
I began to attract visitors from abroad. They were principally friends of the famous writer. They came from England to ï¬find what the writer had found. They came with letters from the writer. Sometimes they came with letters from the maharaja's high officials. Sometimes they came with letters from people who had previously visited me. Some of them were writers, and months or weeks after they had visited there were little articles about their visits in the London magazines. With these visitors I went over this new version of my life so often that I became quite at ease with it. Sometimes we talked about the people who had visited, and the people with me would say with satisfaction, "I know him. He's a very good friend." Or words like that. So that for five months, from November to March, the time of our winter or "cold weather," as the English people said, to distinguish the Indian season from the English season, I felt I had become a social figure, someone at the periphery of a little foreign web of acquaintances and gossip.
It sometimes happens that when you make a slip of the tongue you don't want to correct it. You try to pretend that what you said was what you meant. And then it often happens that you begin to see that there is some truth in your error. You begin to see, for instance, that to subtract from someone's good name can also be said to detract from that name. In some such way, contemplating the strange life that had been forced on me by that meeting with the great English writer, I began to see that it was a way of life that for some years I had been dreaming of: the wish to renounce, hide, run away from the mess I had made of my life.
I must go back. We come from a line of priests. We were attached to a certain temple. I do not know when the temple was built or which ruler built it or for how long we have been attached to it; we are not people with that kind of knowledge. We of the temple priesthood and our families made a community. At one time I suppose we would have been a very rich and prosperous community, served in various ways by the people whom we served. But when the Muslims conquered the land we all became poor. The people we served could no longer support us. Things became worse when the British came. There was law, but the population increased. There were far too many of us in the temple community. This was what my grandfather told me. All the complicated rules of the community held, but there was actually very little to eat. People became thin and weak and fell ill easily. What a fate for our priestly community! I didn't like hearing the stories my grandfather told of that time, in the 1890s.
My grandfather was skin and bones when he decided he had to leave the temple and the community. He thought he would go to the big town where the maharaja's palace was and where there was a famous temple. He made such preparations as he could, saving up little portions of rice and flour and oil, and putting aside one small coin and then another. He told no one anything. When the day came he got up very early, in the dark, and began to walk to where the railway station was. It was very many miles away. He walked for three days. He walked among people who were very poor. He was more wretched than most of them, but there were people who saw that he was a starving young priest and offered him alms and shelter. At last he came to the railway station. He told me that he was by this time so frightened and lost, so close to the end of his strength and courage, that he was noticing nothing of the world outside. The train came in the afternoon. He had a memory of crowd and noise, and then it was night. He had never travelled by train before, but all the time he was looking inward.
In the morning they came to the big town. He asked his way to the big temple and he stayed there, moving about the temple courtyard to avoid the sun. In the evening, after the temple prayers, there was a distribution of consecrated food. He was not left out of that. It was not a great deal, but it was more than he had been living on. He tried to behave as though he were a pilgrim. No one asked questions, and that was the way he lived for the first few days. But then he was noticed. He was questioned. He told his story. The temple officials didn't throw him out. It was one of these officials, a kindly man, who suggested to my grandfather that he could become a letter-writer. He provided the simple equipment, the pen and nibs and ink and paper, and my grandfather went and sat with the other letter-writers on the pavement outside the courts near the maharaja's palace.
Most of the letter-writers there wrote in English. They did petitions of various sorts for people, and helped with various government forms. My grandfather knew no English. He knew Hindi and the language of his region. There were many people in the town who had run away from the famine area and wanted to get news to their families. So there was work for my grandfather and no one was jealous of him. People were also attracted to him because of the priestly clothes he wore. He was able after a while to make a fair living. He gave up skulking about the temple courtyard in the evenings. He found a proper room, and he sent for his family. With his letter-writing work, and with his friendships at the temple, he got to know more and more people, and so in time he was able to get a respectable job as a clerk in the maharaja's palace.
That kind of job was secure. The pay wasn't very good, but nobody ever got dismissed, and people treated you with regard. My father fell easily into that way of life. He learned English and got his diplomas from the secondary school, and was soon much higher in the government than his father. He became one of the maharaja's secretaries. There were very many of those. They wore an impressive livery, and in the town they were treated like little gods. I believe my father wished me to continue in that way, to continue the climb he had begun. For my father it was as though he had rediscovered something of the security of the temple community from which my grandfather had had to flee.
But there was some little imp of rebellion in me. Perhaps I had heard my grandfather tell too often of his flight and his fear of the unknown, only looking inward during those terrible days and not able to see what was around him. My grandfather grew angrier as he grew older. He said then that in his temple community they had been very foolish. They had seen the disaster coming but had done nothing about it. He himself, he said, had left it to the last moment to run away; which was why, when he came to the big town, he had had to skulk about the temple courtyard like a half-starved animal. These were terrible words for him to use. His anger infected me. I began to have some idea that this life we were all living in the big town around the maharaja and his palace couldn't last, that this security was also false. When I thought like that I could panic, because I couldn't see what I could do to protect myself against that breakdown.
I suppose I was ripe for political action. India was full of politics. But the independence movement didn't exist in the maharaja's state. It was illegal. And though we knew of the great names and the great doings outside we saw them at a distance.
I was now at the university. The plan was that I should get a BA degree and then perhaps get a scholarship from the maharaja to do medicine or engineering. Then I was to marry the daughter of the principal of the maharaja's college. All of that was settled. I let it happen, but felt detached from it. I became idler and idler at the university. I didn't understand the BA course. I didn't understand The Mayor of Casterbridge. I couldn't understand the people or the story and didn't know what period the book was set in. Shakespeare was better, but I didn't know what to make of Shelley and Keats and Wordsworth. When I read those poets I wanted to say, "But this is just a pack of lies. No one feels like that." The professor made us copy down his notes. He dictated them, pages and pages, and what I mainly remember is that, because he was dictating notes and wanted them to be brief, and because he wanted us to copy down these notes exactly, he never spoke the name Wordsworth. He always said W, speaking just the initial, never Wordsworth. W did this, W wrote that...
Reading Group Guide
“ A masterpiece . . . and a potent distillation of the author’s work to date.” —The New York Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Half a Life, V. S. Naipaul’s first novel since the exultantly acclaimed A Way in the World.
1. The novel begins with Willie’s question to his father about why he was named after the English novelist W. Somerset Maugham. If a name is a crucial piece of a person’s identity, how useful is the information Willie receives? How does Maugham come across in his responses to Willie’s and his father’s letters?
2. How does Willie’s father become a holy man? What is comical, and what is reprehensible, in the choices he makes? Is he a person trapped in circumstances beyond his control, or might he have done things differently? What is the source of his narcissism? Considering that in Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, the holy man is believed by his Western admirers to be a person of true integrity, why does Naipaul portray this character as a fraud?
3. Naipaul has written about India’s caste system in several of his nonfiction books. How does he recreate the social world of a caste-based culture in this novel? Why does he choose to root the circumstances of a novel about identity–or the lack of it–in a character’s half-hearted effort to rebel against the caste system? Given the feelings he expresses for his wife and child on pages 32 and 33, is Willie’s father a racist at heart, despite his admiration for Gandhi?
4. Willie has a painful love for his mother and despises his father. Why do his mother and sister seem immune to the sense of shame that Willie’s father has passed along to his son? What are the effects, in Willie’s later life, of this internalized shame?
5. What do the stories that Willie writes while in school [pp. 38—45] communicate to the reader? Which of them is the most powerful? Does Willie’s creativity spring solely from his hatred for his father? In his “Prologue to an Autobiography,” Naipaul wrote, “To become a writer, that noble thing, I had thought it necessary to leave [home]. Actually to write, it was necessary to go back. It was the beginning of self-knowledge.” How does this statement relate to Willie’s brief writing career?
6. What is the reason for Willie’s lack of knowledge about the world? How does he adapt to life in London? What point is Naipaul making about the insular world from which Willie comes?
7. How does it change his outlook when Willie realizes that a culture’s rules are largely “make-believe,” and that “he was free to present himself as he wished. He could, as it were, write his own revolution” [p. 57]? What difference does this new sense of freedom make for his life in the immigrant community in London? How does he attempt to remake himself? How successful is he in shedding his past?
8. Is it significant that Willie’s first book is, “in substance . . . like the story Willie had heard over many years from his father” [p. 96]? How is Willie like his father, and in what ways does his life, as it develops throughout the novel, mirror his father’s life?
9. What is the effect on Willie of his father’s letter telling him of Sarojini’s “international marriage” [pp. 105—06]? What do Sarojini’s letters, and the way she conducts her own life, say about her? Why is she so different from her brother?
10. In the aftermath of his book’s publication, Willie believes, “All that he had now was an idea–and it was like a belief in magic–that one day something would happen, an illumination would come to him, and he would be taken by a series of events to the place he should go. What he had to do was to hold himself in readiness, to recognise the moment” [p. 114]. What sort of revelation is this? Is Willie’s passivity simply the deepest expression of his character, or can it be attributed to his status as an exile who has willingly cut himself off from his past?
11. Is Ana’s letter the sign Willie has been waiting for? Is Ana’s plantation “the place he should go” [p. 114]? Why does Ana choose Willie? Why does he attempt to keep the truth of his background from her? Why, in the end, does he decide to leave her? Is he unable to face the political changes, as well as the violence, that may come to Ana’s part of the world?
12. In Half a Life, Willie moves from India to an unnamed country in East Africa; both are areas about which Naipaul has written at length. If you have read Naipaul’s nonfiction travel writing, or any his novels set in Africa, what is familiar or unfamiliar about his treatment of India and Africa in this novel? How does Willie’s life in Africa differ from his family’s life in India? Why is race such a preoccupation in the plantation society in which Willie moves?
13. Willie’s friend Percy Cato comes from a similar colonial background and is also of mixed blood, as is the tile worker Willie observes at work in the Portuguese seafood restaurant. How does Willie compare with Percy? Why is Willie so moved at the sight of the persecuted tile worker that he thinks to himself, “Who will rescue that man? Who will avenge him?” [p. 155]
14. What is notable about Naipaul’s writing style in Half a Life? How does the novel’s structure reflect Naipaul’s themes of time, memory, and the retelling of experience? Why does the novel end where it does?