Writing ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’

Of all my books A House for Mr. Biswas is the one closest to me. It is the most personal, created out of what I saw and felt as a child. It also contains, I believe, some of my funniest writing. I began as a comic writer and still consider myself one. In middle age now, I have no higher literary ambition than to write a piece of comedy that might complement or match this early book.

The book took three years to write. It felt like a career; and there was a short period, toward the end of the writing, when I do believe I knew all or much of the book by heart. The labor ended; the book began to recede. And I found that I was unwilling to reenter the world I had created, unwilling to expose myself again to the emotions that lay below the comedy. I became nervous of the book. I haven’t read it since I passed the proofs in May 1961.

My first direct contact with the book since the proofreading came two years ago, in 1981. I was in Cyprus, in the house of a friend. Late one evening the radio was turned on, to the BBC World Service. I was expecting a news bulletin. Instead, an installment of my book was announced. The previous year the book had been serialized on the BBC in England as “A Book at Bedtime.” The serialization was now being repeated on the World Service. I listened. And in no time, though the installment was comic, though the book had inevitably been much abridged, and the linking words were not always mine, I was in tears, swamped by the emotions I had tried to shield myself from for twenty years.

Lacrimae rerum, “the tears of things,” the tears in things: to the feeling for the things written about—the passions and nerves of my early life—there was added a feeling for the time of the writing—the ambition, the tenacity, the innocence, My literary ambition had grown out of my early life; the two were intertwined; the tears were for a double innocence.

When I was eleven, in 1943, in Trinidad, in a setting and family circumstances like those described in the book, I decided to be a writer. The ambition was given me by my father. In Trinidad, a small agricultural colony, where nearly everyone was poor and most people were uneducated, he had made himself into a journalist. At a certain stage—not for money or fame (there was no local market), but out of some private need—he had begun to write short stories. Not formally educated, a nibbler of books rather than a reader, my father worshiped writing and writers. He made the vocation of the writer seem the noblest in the world; and I decided to be that noble thing.

I had no gift. At least, I was aware of none. I had no precocious way with words, no …

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