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‘Reading and Writing: A Personal Account’ by V.S. Naipaul ***

I have wanted to read Naipaul’s work for far too long, and came across Reading & Writing: A Personal Account when wandering around my University library.  I wasn’t aware that he had actually written any non-fiction (apparently he’s written lots.  My mistake).  This short work of autobiography, which consists of two essays entitled ‘Reading and Writing’, and ‘The Writer in India’, has been beautifully printed by NYRB, although unfortunately my University’s copy was sans its dust jacket.

5856-_uy450_ss450_Published in 2000, Reading & Writing takes one on a foray into Naipaul’s literary history.  He is a prolific author with many works of fiction and non-fiction under his belt.  Perhaps his most famous work is A House for Mr Biswas, and his choice of subjects for his non-fiction works range from mutinies in India to a book about Eva Peron, the second wife of an Argentinian President.

‘Reading and Writing’ begins: ‘I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer; and then very soon it was a settled ambition’.  His child self, which he goes on to evoke, is rather charming: ‘With me, though, the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham.  I liked to be given a fountain pen and a bottle of Waterman ink and new ruled exercise books (with margins), but I had no wish or need to write anything; and didn’t write anything, not even letters; there was no one to write them to.’  This inherent need to become a writer was fuelled not at his competitive school, but by his father, and the books which he would choose to read to his son: ‘Sometimes he would call me to listen to two or three or four pages, seldom more, of writing he particularly enjoyed.  He read and explained with zest and it was easy for me to like what he liked.  In this unlikely way – considering the background: the racially mixed colonial school, the Asian inwardness at home – I had begun to put together an English literary anthology of my own.’

One gets the sense that Naipaul is rather an honest author, from passages like the following: ‘I didn’t feel competent as a reader until I was twenty-five.  I had by that time spent seven years in England, four of them at Oxford, and I had a little of the social knowledge that was necessary for an understanding of English and European fiction.  I had also made myself a writer, and was able, therefore, to see writing from the other side.  Until then I had read blindly, without judgment, not really knowing how made-up stories were to be assessed.’  He speaks rather candidly at times of problems encountered in the face of writing, and also discusses his inspiration for making himself a more well-rounded author.

‘The Writer in India’ is composed largely of Indian historical moments, but the scope is too wide for the shortness of the essay.  Many fascinating occurrences are mentioned, but are then either moved on from or glossed over, which was a real shame.  Had this essay been lengthened, or fewer things mentioned in more depth, it would provide a far more comprehensive look into the society in which Naipaul grew up, and explain to the reader more of his influences.

This particular tome runs to just 64 pages of rather large print; whilst it does offer Naipaul’s experiences with schooling, childhood reading, writing, and education, it feels perhaps a little too slight to have a great deal of substance.  He does, however, talk about a great deal of subjects: theatre, cinema, Indian ‘epics’, fables and fairytales, schooling, moving to England in order to study at Oxford University, and the effects of colonial rule, amongst others.   Some of the paragraphs are insightful; others not so much.  Regardless, throughout, Naipaul’s writing is fluid and intelligent.

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One From the Archive: ‘Signed, Sealed Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing’ by Nina Sankovitch ****

‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing’ by Nina Sankovitch (Simon & Schuster)

First published in April 2014.

Nina Sankovitch, author of the highly acclaimed memoir Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magic Reading, has decided to explore the art of corresponding by letter in her newest book.  She has chosen to go ‘on a quest through the history of letters and her own personal correspondence to discover and celebrate what is special about the handwritten letter’.

It is utterly charming to write a book about something which seems, to the modern world, to be so quaint, particularly in an age when it is far more likely to type a quick email or contact friends through mediums like Facebook and Twitter, than to settle down with a pen and paper and send off the finished result in the more traditional way, envelope et al.  Those who love to read letter collections – and there are, it seems, many of us scattered around the globe – are sure to find much of interest within Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing.

Throughout, Sankovitch moves from letters written in ancient times, focusing upon those within Greece and Egypt, to the correspondence which exists between famous writers.  We as readers are able to see how letter writing has adapted over time, to fit the changing world – from documenting love and expressing sorrow, to solving the most brutal of crimes and passing trivial notes at school.  She begins her book with rather a sweet personal anecdote, of the moment at which her young son sent her his first letter: ‘He quickly covered an index card with blue marker squiggles, then carefully worked the card into an envelope.  His face serious, he turned and handed me the envelope’.  Sankovitch also writes of the importance of saving letters, believing that they are ‘the history of our lives made solid’, which ‘place us firmly within our history’.

Sankovitch’s writing style is lovely, and the warmth of her personality can be found in every page.  The way in which she weaves in her own experiences of writing and receiving letters, and the delicious silence which comes between the two, works marvellously.  An avid letter writer as a child, it seems as though she was spurred on to start writing Signed, Sealed, Delivered after unearthing ‘a trove of old letters’ from members of the Seligman family in the shed of her newly purchased house in New York.  Throughout, she sets out the history of each family or person whom she discovers through the art of their correspondence, describing the ways in which the things that they wrote and sent reveal crucial elements about themselves and their personalities.  She sees the importance in every scrap of letter which she encounters, believing that even the tiniest note has a story to tell.  The structure which Sankovitch uses is not a chronological one, but one segment leads wonderfully to another, and the entirety feels well-rounded in consequence.

Sankovitch also portrays the way in which letter writing through history has been able to cross the boundaries set in place by society – to speak about forbidden relationships, and to converse with those of other races in the United States far before the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, for instance.  The social history has been well written and considered, giving each letter and the story which goes with it a good grounding.  The author brings fascinating people to the fore, and the aforementioned Seligman family are a fabulous example of this.  One of the sons, James, whom Sankovitch is particularly fond of, is ‘a sweet and funny and affectionate correspondent’, who touchingly ‘wrote home almost daily’ when he was away.

Rather than becoming overdone in the stories it relates or its gushing love for letter writing, as could so easily have happened in the putting together of such a book, Sankovitch has created a work which is both far-reaching and concise.  Signed, Sealed, Delivered is a lovely piece of praise for something which should be revived – the simple practice of writing letters, which surely means a lot more to its recipient than a hastily composed email or text message.  Hopefully, Sankovitch will inspire far more people to correspond by traditional methods, and will help to bring back the popularity of something which has been so very important to our ancestors for millennia.

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‘The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase’ by Mark Forsyth ****

In his newest non-fiction offering, Mark Forsyth – author of the popular books The Etymologicon and The Horologicon – sets out to explore the ‘big subject’ of rhetoric.  In The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase, he focuses particularly upon the figures of rhetoric – ‘not by saying something different, but by saying it in a different way’ – and the ways in which each can be used.

Forsyth has touched upon the foundations of English language, detailing the history of how rhetoric techniques came about and how they have been used since.  He weaves his way from obvious things like alliteration and antithesis, to the more obscure aposiopesis and adynaton. He states that his aim is to ‘explain the figures of rhetoric’, informing his readers that he has ‘simply adopted the rule of Humpty-Dumpty: When I use a rhetorical term, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’.

Forsyth has split up the text in his new book into short chapters, all of which link into one another.  The theme of connection which is central in The Etymologicon has been used here to good effect, giving the book a great structure.

‘The Elements of Eloquence’ (Icon Books)

Examples are given throughout, and Shakespeare is a common figure of focus.  His writing is cited through the entire book to give examples of almost every rhetorical technique which can be used within the English language, demonstrating everything from paradox to iambic pentameter.  In his characteristic chatty style, Forsyth states such things as: ‘Shakespeare simply knew that people are suckers for alliteration and that it’s pretty damned easy to make something alliterate (or that it’s surprisingly simple to add alliteration)’.  Forsyth also uses examples from a wealth of different sources in the fields of literature and music, from Dickens, Austen, Keats, Tennyson and Wilde to John Lennon, Neil Armstrong and Mick Jagger.

Each entry in The Elements of Eloquence is quite short – bitesize, almost, which makes it a great volume to read a little at a time.  Throughout, Forsyth practices what he preaches.  When writing about parataxis – or ‘Farmer’s English’ – for example, where everything is directly stated in separate, non-linking sentences, he adopts the same style in his description.  When he moves on to speak of how conjunctions can be used to ‘keep your sentence going and going forever’, he demonstrates how this is done.

The Elements of Eloquence is sure to delight word nerds the world over, and it will also greatly appeal to anyone who is interested in the many ways in which our great language can be put together.  It is fascinating and informative, and even grammarians are sure to learn something.

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