Voices from the past. If any writer was going to breathe a last gasp into the epistolary tradition it was likely to be V S Naipaul. Robert Winder reads the letters of a cold and clear-eyed prophet

Letters Between a Father and Son

V S Naipaul <em>Little, Brown, 333pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 03166398

You do not even need to open the covers of this handsome book to know that it is a rare and precious one. Volumes of letters are a dying breed. For centuries, senior writers have left fat bundles of correspondence in desk drawers as a gift to their future biographers, but in modern times the telephone has swept all that away. Hardly anyone writes letters any more, and the collected answerphone messages of even the greatest writers are not likely to be of any very vibrant literary interest. ("Hi, it's me, sorry I'm late, got held up, see you in a bit - Salman"). The recent surge in fax and e-mail might throw up fresh mounds of publishable material, but these remain throwaway methods of communication, lacking in the sense of earnest dedication that makes letters so appealing and private.

But if any modern writer was going to breathe a last gasp into the epistolary tradition, it was always likely to be V S Naipaul. This is partly an accident of geography - he left Trinidad and went to Oxford when he was 17, and letters home were the only way to keep in touch with his family. The displacements of postwar migration in this case fuelled a last flaring of the letter-writing urge. But it is also a matter of Naipaul's own unusual character. At a time when most authors like to boast, in potted biographies, of the stints they have put in as gardeners, dustmen, convicts, mercenaries, drug addicts or firefighters, Naipaul insists - in a phrase that looks like a contractual obligation - that "he has followed no other profession". He set out to be a writer at a young age and has never seen himself as anything else, and in these youthful letters to his father and sister we are afforded a good glimpse of him flexing his muscles, or at least working on his pose, arranging and admiring his literary features in the mirror of his pages.

The letters tell a story of Naipaul's years at University College, Oxford, and they begin sweetly. The would-be writer wastes no time in affecting what he sees as a stylish world-weariness ("I was 19 on holiday, and - oh, I feel old!") and establishing his refinement by sneering at dullard contemporaries ("there are asses in droves here"). Some of his precocious snobbery is comical, merely the clever foolishness of a young man trying to seem lordly. "Gone are the days of aristocrats," he writes. "Nearly everybody comes to Oxford on a state grant. Naturally the place goes down." But as the letters proceed the note of haughty disdain crystallises into a hallmark. "So she killed herself for love!" he writes, learning of a suicide. "The world is none the poorer, I think, for her death." Many of the letters are circulars ("Dear Everybody") - enough in itself to suggest a man for whom letter- writing was an obligation to be discharged as quickly, and rarely, as possible. Many of his notes home are merely apologetic pledges to write more soon.

There are charming childish touches. Naipaul repeatedly begs his parents to send him cigarettes and extra money, and self-lovingly keeps them abreast of his new attainments: "My table manners," he declares, "have improved tremendously." Not everything goes so well. To his sister Kamla he writes that he tried out as a cox in a rowing eight, but has been dropped: "I don't mind terribly. It simply means that I have found one more thing to be not good at." In a pleasant if minor literary scoop, we are even granted the first published work of Naipaul's younger brother, Shiva: "I am behaving a very good boy," he writes from Trinidad. "I send you 1,100 kisses."

The book grows sober as it circles its central relationship in the letters between Naipaul and his father ("Pa"). It was a marvellous relationship, full of pride and purpose, and one can see the roots of Naipaul's own probing and meticulous style in his father's kind, careful prose. But it develops into a harrowing tale. The father's justified pride in his son is reciprocated more eagerly in theory than in practice, and we can hardly help wincing as Pa's letters throb with the desire for heartier or more assiduous responses from his boy. Pa, like Mr Biswas in Naipaul's novel, works at the Trinidad Guardian but has literary dreams. In 1951 he sends Naipaul a story he has written, hoping that his son can help him find a publisher in England (Naipaul has already become a celebrity in Trinidad, contributing stories to the BBC's Caribbean Voices - back home the family hunches round the radio, trying to locate his voice in the faraway crackle).

Naipaul never mentions it. Six months later - six months later - Pa picks up the nerve to ask his son whether he has got anywhere with it. Naipaul replies that he has not sent it to the BBC yet; he is "trying to patch it up for radio". It probably wasn't a deliberate insult, but one can't help shivering at the hurt it must have caused. A few months earlier, Pa had been going round his newspaper office in Port of Spain waving the Oxford student newspaper on which Naipaul worked, and saying proudly: "I think we have a future sub in the making." In a common enough motif, we see the son beginning to outstrip the father, and as Pa grows more plaintive, the fastidious Vidia withdraws. It is a sad sight.

The story is given a tragic twist by an accidentally mislaid envelope. In 1952 a young English woman writes to Naipaul, and the college porter thoughtfully re-routes her letter to Trinidad. The family reads it, is shocked, and Pa (overreacting) writes urging his son not to marry a white girl. It's a shaming moment, but Naipaul, dismayed by this racist reflex, reacts cruelly. "I don't want to break your heart," he writes, in his cold new manner. "But I hope I never come back to Trinidad." It is a low blow, which perhaps contributed, a few months later, to Pa's heart attack; Naipaul's sister writes that the attack was provoked by "worrying about you and I" and pleads: "Will you, in the name of Pa's life, see immediately to his short stories." Naipaul remains imperturbable. In a mysterious non sequitur, he writes: "If I try to hawk your book around, I wouldn't be doing you a favour. I would be trying to sell stuff that deserves to be published." It is as if he is embarrassed by his father, reluctant to risk his new-found reputation as a dandyish Oxford intellectual.

The final sorrowful twist comes when Pa, no longer able to work, is forced to write to Naipaul begging him to shoulder some of the family's financial burden. It is a moving plea: "I am not good any longer for hard work," he writes. "And one or two must work to see the younger members of the household through."

But Naipaul is unmoved. He replies, explaining why it is impossible for him to return to Trinidad, but this news arrives too late. Naipaul's father dies before the letter arrives. Naipaul sends a heartfelt cable: "Everything I owed to him stop" - but within weeks has the effrontery to write to his put-upon sister: "As soon as you read this letter I would like you to see what you can do about sending me some money."

The family's feelings on the matter are not recorded, and Naipaul does have the grace to apologise later (when they have sent the money). Off he goes to London, where he writes The Mystic Masseur and launches himself on the world. One could hardly wish he had done otherwise, and we have to be grateful for a book which explores so clearly and gracefully the ambiguous virtues of self-absorption. Naipaul knew he would immortalise his father through his work, even if it meant short-changing him in his life. It is not a pretty thing, but that's literature for you.