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Half a Life - V. S. Naipaul

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Author: V. S. Naipaul / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 01 April 2011 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Pan Macmillan / Title: Half a Life / ISBN 13: 9780330522854 / ISBN 10: 0330522854

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      17.09.2005 14:09
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      the last but one novel by the nobel laureate which one doesn't have to have read

      Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, or V.S. Naipaul for short, was born, of Indian ancestry, in Trinidad in 1932. He came to England in 1950 where he spent four years at University College, Oxford, in 1954 he began to write and since then has pursued no other profession. He was knighted in 1990, and is Britain's only living Nobel laureate in literature, having been awarded the prize in October 2001. He has famously said that he has no competitors or rivals.

      He’s written 29 books, fiction and non-fiction; I read two of his books in the 1970s, ‘The Middle Passage, Impressions of Five Societies – British, French and Dutch – in the West Indies and South America’ (non-fiction) and ‘A Flag On The Island’, a collection of Short Stories. After such a long time my recollection is understandably quite vague but I remember enjoying the books. When I came upon the novel ‘Half A Life’ , published in 2001, I thought I could do with some brushing up on the author.

      There is no plot, there are only some stories, but there’s no twisting of different strands; the main protagonist is the Indian William Somerset Chandran whose life we follow up to the age of 41 after reading about his grandfather and father.

      Naipaul switches between the omniscient narrator and two different first-person perspectives, disrupts the chronology and moves Willie across three continents. Does this rather unusual structure help us gain insight, does form express content? One can interpret something into the novel by studying the odd structure, of course, and a lot of critics have done so, but it’s known that Naipaul has been frustrated with the traditional novel for some time and obviously has tried out something new here, in my opinion no extra insight is gained this way.

      The title ‘Half A Life’ points to the fact that the story ends when Willie is 41 years old, it’s a realistic assumption that he’s lived half his life now, if that were all, it would be a bit cheap, though. ‘Half A Life’ is a novel of incompleteness, Willie is never ‘whole’ during the time we know him. His parents are a mix of caste and personality as far from each other as possible, he belongs to neither side. Now the adolescent could feel the urge to find out who he is, but he has no urge, no objectives, no ambitions, he just drifts along.

      When he’s moved from his missionary school in India to a college in London on a scholarship, he studies what he has to but he doesn’t know what for he does so, he doesn’t have an aim. He gets to know some of the immigrants coming to Great Britain after the Second World War and moves in their circles but he doesn’t get involved, he’s rootless and doesn’t grow new roots, he drifts through the three years he’s there.

      He has some sexual encounters, mostly with his friends’ girl-friends but he doesn’t do anything actively to have a firm relationship. Then Ana comes along from a Portuguese speaking country in Africa, although it doesn’t have a name in the novel, it’s clear that Mozambique is meant; Willie decides to follow her there for good, why so, he doesn’t know himself. Mozambique is a half-and half world, a colony struggling for independence, the people Willie meets are half-and-half, too, not fully Portuguese, not fully African, or immigrants from various parts of the world. Willie doesn’t integrate into this society, he remains an outsider. After eighteen years he feels that he has to leave and finally to begin to live his own life. What has caused this insight remains in the dark and also what Willie’s own life will be like and where he’ll live it. With this the story ends; it’s not the type of open ending, however, typical for modern short stories in which the reader is called on to finish the story for themselves, ‘Half A Life’ just ends.

      Imperialism, the loss of the Empire and the consequences for the peoples involved, the fate of individuals caught between different cultures has been the main subject Naipaul has dealt with in his writings all his life, in ‘A Flag On The Island’ partly in a humorous way, in ‘Half A Life’ in a boring way. The novel is short with only 227 pages, it’s easy to read, the style is simple, crude rather, I don’t know why I read it up to the end, it was more an obligation than a pleasure. The more I read about Willie, the less I was interested in him, he has no spark, he doesn’t touch me - what more damning verdict could there be?

      In 2004 after the launch of his last novel ‘Magic Seed’ Naipaul declared that this was likely to be his last book and that he was too old to continue. Maybe he should have had this idea before writing ‘Half A Life’?

      I read a book and think my thoughts, then, when I’ve decided to review it I research on the net and read some reviews to find out if I’m alone with my judgement or if someone shares it. There’s no consensus concerning ‘Half A Life’, the reviews range from enthusiastic over so-so (some parts well done, others flawed) to Paul Theroux’s scathing critique in the Guardian (from 2001), Theroux is disappointed about this underachievement as he’s got the highest regard for Naipaul. He writes, “Earlier in his career ‘Half A Life’ would have been a comedy, but Naipaul has not raised a smile with his writing since the stories in ‘A Flag On The Island’ . . . He finishes with the remark, ‘Without Naipaul’s name on it, ‘Half A Life’ would be turned down in a flash. With his name on it, of course, its trajectory is certain: great reviews, poor sales, and a literary prize.’

      I’m with Theroux. And I’ll read ‘A Flag On The Island’ again.

      V.S. Naipaul
      Half A Life
      (2001)
      227 pages
      Picador
      Cover price 5.99 GBP

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        20.02.2002 20:58
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        Trinidadian author V.S. Naipaul has released another book entitled Half a Life. He was awarded the Nobel Prize award for works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories. In addition to this prestigious and exclusive award, V.S. Naipaul has also been awarded the UK's most extravagant and worthy award, The Booker Prize for his 1971 piece, In A Free State. Half A Life is based in the 1950; it is created from a collection of Naipaul own personal experiences as a Trinidadian Indian moving to the white populated centre of London. As you can image, his relationship to the book is strong and the emotions and experiences that he projects through this work as parallel to none other. Half a Life can be separated and looked upon in three different lights. The first light and section being the development of the protagonist, the father filled with regret; the second light being the actual revelations of the protagonist i.e. Willie Chandran in society of London. How he studied and his psychological experiences. The third section is the success and progression of the protagonist, his joy, and the third the protagonists later years living in Africa at the helm of colonialism. The novel boldly opens, 'Willie Chandran asked his father one, "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?' Naipaul throughout the novel masterfully exchanges his litera
        ture from first person to third person throughout the novel. The way in which he does is concealed by different phrases and characteristics of the characters so as the reader is caught up in the element of the moment and the transition from first to third person is almost invisible. The father begins by telling of how he became the ideal for a character in a novel entitled the Razor's Edge written by Somerset Maugham's. This is the consequence that the father faced for his listening of the call for sacrifice by Mahatma Gandhi. The father is puzzled and intrigued by the prospect, in an attempt to obey the call, the father marries a low cast women, form a tribe lesser than his. Thus giving up his Brahmin heritage a high caste tribe in the eyes of society. This is the only way the father sees how he can sacrifice to Mahatma Gandhi. Clouded by his need to sacrifice, the father ultimately makes the wrong decision, marrying for sacrifice and not for love. Naipaul demonstrates his clear understanding of the familial situation as he does in his fictionalised biography of his late father entitled A House For Mr Biswas. In retrospect and looking back on his actions, the father is annoyed and frustrated at his actions. He turned his back on a high caste heritage to marry a lesser woman. This is through his eyes, whereas the woman feels that she has been tricked into a strong bond between man and wife. The resentment builds between the couple, only escalating with the introduction of children who inevitably catch the hatred in the air. The bitterness and regret in the family is paramount. The third is perhaps the most intriguing and fascinating part. Here we delve in the mind of Naipaul, his reality and the way that he views human nature. Written in the third person, Willie Chandran resides in a home in London. He is unfulfilled and seeks and longs for something more in life. He yearns to escape the reality of his own life. His
        home life is difficult and he is surprised to find himself eventually re-creating himself and his unaware family. He structures his family into a category of the English class system and begins to write and describe himself as being part of a happy Canadian family that goes to the coast and the beach for their vacation. But here the brilliance of Naipaul shines through, his understanding of human nature and how everything we do in life has an inevitable consequence. What would happen if we were to completely reinvent ourselves? Many of us have dreamt of going to a far away foreign country, and completely transforming ourselves to fit into a certain style that our imagination has constructed. Not necessarily a stereotype but more an individual style. This is all part of our human nature. How we view ourselves from our own eyes, how we are never truly satisfied with ourselves and strive o through our eyes, improve ourselves. Chandran finds himself not even understanding himself. He excludes himself from society and sheers from social interactivity. He cannot live fully even under this reinvention of himself, thus he lives only Half A Life, his other half deeply imbedded in his psyche and his roots. Willie's father fortunately finds him a scholarship to a university in London. Again he starts to rewrite himself and the context of which he was brought up. Rather than belonging to a traditional Indian family, Willie exchanges the father of his reality for one that was not a Brahmin and one that did not marry a woman from a low caste tribe. Percy Cato is character that Chandran comes across who he can strongly relate to. Percy is a man of very mixed background; African, Indian and European are his roots. He too camouflages the realities of his mixed world. He makes up stories of his father not being a psychical heavy labourer but instead he is a respectable pillar of the community; a literate clerk working honourably in Panama. Born in Pa
        nama, and a faint Jamaican accent, Percy lives his half-life with the phrase, 'I am the only black man or Jamaican or West Indian you'll meet in England who knows nothing about cricket.' Marcus is perhaps a more powerful character; he is strong in his beliefs, his biggest desire, a wish to have grandchildren who are completely white and also to have an account at the notorious Coutts, the Queen's bank. Willie meets Ana, a mestizo who he desperately clings to until the day that he decides to leave her in exchange for an African prostitute called Graça. This final part of the story is told in first person, Willie to his sister who married a German man. Willie's sexual adventures are true and the language is not disguised but rather elevated. Naipaul doe not sheer from frank description of Willie's sexual exploits. Chandran is unfulfilled when frequenting prostitutes. He seeks for something more in life. Something fresh and new. Graça is that, all is what he believes to be that. After years of involving himself only with peoples of mixed race of prostitutes of African race he finally finds someone that makes him feel more than just half a life. Half A Life is a staggering portrait of someone struggling with his or her inheritance. But it is not just that. It is not a novel based of someone shy or refusal of their ancestors and roots instead it is a story of beware. One that warns, a story of a man clouded by misjudgement. Willie rewrites himself and suffers the psychological consequences. Caged by his madness and seemingly despair, Willie's life is fused with that of other halves such as Marcus. Naipaul cries out, in this realisation piece. Unhappy with your life is something more deadly and self-destroying than could originally be imagine. We all want something more in life, more than we were given by whoever we believe to be our created, Naipaul simply warns of the spiritual and menta
        l malfunctions that could distort the lives of its victims, unaware and shamed, wanting someone else's identity; You will live; Half A Life.

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          15.02.2002 22:17
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          From my knowledge of VS Naipaul's personal life 'Half A Life' seems autobiographical.Sir Vidia is a complex person.He was born and raised in Trinindad.He received his education in England.He is very patrician.Yet his writing is rooted in indic tendencies.Yet he claims no nationality as his own. To get to the book.As usual the sentences are short and pithy.That is Sir Vidia's hallmark.The story is about Willie Chandran named after William Somerset Maugham,the novelist.Willie's imaginative ways cause his father,an iconoclast in an indian hamlet to send him to England.Here he takes a degree and also assumes the company of men and women.He befriends a typical Notting Hill set and writes a novel.He then proceeds to have a livein relationship with one of his readers on an African estate. Though good to read I found the book somewhat self-indulgent.As usual!

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            16.11.2001 05:03
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            HALF A LIFE is the latest novel of the Trinidadian author V.S. Naipaul, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for works that ‘compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories’. (Naipaul was quoted as being surprised and honoured at receiving the prize, saying that ‘it is a great tribute to England, my home, and to India, home of my ancestors’ [while neglecting mention of Trinidad, his birthplace]). Naipaul also received the Booker Prize in 1971 for his book IN A FREE STATE, amongst other awards. As in many of his other novels, HALF A LIFE draws heavily from Naipaul’s personal experiences, in particular his experience as a Trinidadian Indian immigrating to the old imperial centre, London, in the 1950’s. One might divide HALF A LIFE into four sections: the first being the story of the protagonist’s father, the second as the experiences of the protagonist, Willie Chandran, in India and his early experiences at university in London, the third the protagonist’s latter experiences and successes in London and the final section is Chandran’s life in an African nation in the last throes of colonialism. The novel opens thus: ‘Willie Chandran asked his father one, “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 remainder of the first section is told in the fi
            rst person (Naipaul slips seamlessly from third to first person a number of times in the novel – I didn’t even notice the transition at first). The father begins by telling how he became the model for a character in Somerset Maugham’s novel THE RAZOR’S EDGE, the indirect result of heeding the call of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s call for ‘sacrifice’ compels the father to sacrifice in the only way he feels he can – by turning his back on his high-caste Brahmin heritage and marrying a ‘tribal’, low-caste woman. This ill-fated union causes the father much regret and resentment, as do the children that issue from it. Here again we can see Naipaul’s masterful and fascinating painting of familial relations, although this element plays a much smaller role than it does in his lengthier (and excellent) novel A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS (in part a fictionalised biography of Naipaul’s father). The father’s idea of ‘sacrifice’ ends up creating much bitterness in his wife, his son and himself. The second section of the novel begins the development of the protagonist, Willie Chandran (in the third person). Willie’s ‘difficult’ home-life impels him to begin to re-invent himself (and his family), first in his English composition class, for which his writes about himself as being part of a happy Canadian family, which goes to the beach for its holidays. Willie’s re-invention continues through-out the novel, and seems to be part of the notion of ‘half a life’, to which the title refers. Willie is often uncomfortable around other people as a result of this re-invention and his apparent inability to ‘live fully’ also stems partially from this ‘rewriting of his self’. Willie’s father is later able to gain him a scholarship to university in London, where his begins rewriting his identity. One detail he re-invents is—ra
            ther than his father being a Brahmin and a mother a member of a ‘backwards’ caste, half-educated at a Christian missionary school—that he is a Christian Indian belonging to an ancient Christian community in India (there do indeed exist such communities in India). In fact, he is actually commissioned to do a piece on India’s ‘old’ Christian communities versus its newer ‘missionary’ Christian communities for the BBC [here is another autobiographic fact, that Naipaul worked for the BBC during his early years in London]. Through his work with the BBC and through his university, Willie meets other people whose life stories echo his own woes of mixed birth and ethnic/cultural ‘displacement’. One such person is Percy Cato, a Jamaican of mixed parentage (Indian, African, European) who is not, strictly-speaking, Jamaican, as he was born and bred in Panama (‘I am the only black man or Jamaican or West Indian you’ll meet in England who knows nothing about cricket.’). Percy also re-invents his past, making his father a literate clerk in Panama rather than a heavy-labourer. Another is Marcus, the son of a [black] West Indian who went to live in West Africa as part of the Back to Africa movement, whose fondest desire is to have grandchildren who look completely white (claiming that ‘the Negro gene is recessive’), and whose second greatest desire to be the first black man to have an account at Coutts, the Queen’s bank (though it is not clear that they don’t already have black clients…). Willie struggles in London, attending bohemian parties, and is frustrated both with trying to write a book and to overcome self-doubt in his sexual adventures (had mainly with the girl-friends of his friends). He is finally ‘rescued’ from his careening despair by Ana, one of the erstwhile fans of his poorly-received sole publication. Ana is another ‘mestizo’,
            of mixed Portuguese and African blood. Willie clings to Ana, eventually following her back to her unnamed Africa homeland [very probably Mozambique] to live for eighteen years on her father’s crumbling estate. One day he slips on their marble stairs and after waking up in a military hospital tells Ana that, ‘I am going to leave you…I can’t live your life any more. I want to live my own.’ The final section of the novel is told once again in the first person, by Willie to his sister (who has married a German), of his life in Africa with Ana. They live in an estate manor, socialising almost only with other ‘mixed breeds’, Portuguese ‘tainted’ with African blood, who are accepted as second-class citizen by the pure Portuguese colonists during the colonial government (and again are not accepted by the ‘native’ post-colonial regime). The re-occurrence of persons of mixed blood is another of the ‘halves’ of HALF A LIFE. Willie begins frequenting African prostitutes, even though they do not really satisfy him, until he meets Graça, with whom he begins to have an undisguised affair. Willie thinks at first that during his time with Graça that he is truly living, but his despair is never far from him. Willie’s sexual encounters, both in London and in Africa, are narrated with an unusual frankness. But they are far from being erotic, titillating descriptions, rather they are written with a hard and weary honesty – somewhat reminiscent of the tone of some of J.M. Coetzee’s work (particularly of his 1999 Booker-Award winning novel DISGRACE). Despite his neglecting to mention Trinidad on receiving his Nobel Prize, Naipaul has written some excellent books which give a lively and colourful picture of Trinidad—if you like HALF A LIFE, I recommend (of his Trinidad volumes) A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS (a longish novel mentioned earlier) and THE SUFFRAGE OF ELVI
            RA (a short novel). If you enjoy the Africa section of the book, I also recommend his novel A BEND IN THE RIVER, which chronicles the life of an Indian shopkeeper in an Africa village as the country undergoes a revolution. Don’t read HALF A LIFE expecting a facile story of man whose struggles with his inheritance and identity before achieving a happy acceptance of ‘who he really is’. ‘Everything goes on a bias,’ Willie observes, ‘The world should stop, but it goes on.’ It is an intimate and direct account of the bitter ironies and despair of a half-borrowed life. Naipaul paints a starkly realistic portrait of what it is to be someone who staunchly refuses to accept what he has been given to be, who tries to take on the identity of what he feels he should be and thus lives but ‘half a life’.

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            In a corner of India untouched by anti-colonial agitation Willy Chandran's father stood at odds with the world - aspiring to greatness whilst living out the dreary life marked out for him by his ancestors. In an attempt to defy his past, he marries a low-caste woman only to find himself at the mercy of his own fury.