A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul.

2016 edition of A House for Mr Biswas.
A House for Mr Biswas is an early novel by the British-Trinidadian author V. S. Naipaul, who is on so many 'Top 100' lists I've been meaning to read him for ages! The novel was first published in 1961 and was the novel that brought him worldwide acclaim.

The novel follows the life of Mr. Biswas - Mohun Biswas - in Trinidad from his birth to his death. From the start he is regarded as very unlucky. Naipaul describes his birth:
At once, though it was night and the way lonely, she [his mother] left the hut and walked to the next village, where the was a hedge of cactus. She brought back leaves of cactus, cut them into strips and hung a strip over every door, every window, every aperture through which an evil spirit might enter the hut.
But the midwife said, "Whatever you do, this boy will eat up his own mother and father."
The next morning, when in the bright light it seemed that all evil spirits had surely left the earth, the pundit came, a small, thin man with a sharp satirical face and a dismissing manner. Bissoondaye seated him on the string bed, from which the old man had been turned out, and told him what happened.
"Hm. Born in the wrong way. At midnight, you said."
Bissoondaye had no means of telling the time, but both she and the midwife had assumed that it was midnight, the inauspicious hour.
Abruptly, as Bissoondaye sat before him with bowed and covered head, the pundit brightened, "Oh, well. It doesn't matter. There are always ways and means of getting over these unhappy things." He undid his red bundle and took out his astrological almanac, a sheaf of loose thick leaves, long and narrow, between the boards. The leaves were brown with age and their musty smell was mixed with that of the red ochre sandalwood paste that had been splattered on them. The pundit lifted a leaf, read a little, wet his forefinger on his tongue and lifted another leaf.
At last he said, "First of all, the features of this unfortunate boy. He will have good teeth, but they will be rather wide, and there will be spaces between them. I suppose you know what that means. The boy will be a lecher and a spendthrift. Possibly a liar as well. It is hard to be sure about those gaps between the teeth. They night mean only one of those things, or they might mean all three.
"What about the six fingers, pundit?"
"That's a shocking sign, of course. The only thing I can advise is to keep him away from trees and water. Particularly water." 
Some of the signs the pundit (also spelled pandit - a Brahmin scholar) come true: one day the young Mohun sees a stream for the first time and, entranced, he allows a calf to wander off. He hides, fearing he will be punished, and his parents think he's missing. His father, believing him to be lost in the water, tries to save Mohun and drowns in the attempt. For this Mohun is sent to live with his aunt and uncle, the first house that is not truly his own, and he finds himself again being moved around from place to place until he is married to Shama, and this turns quickly into an unhappy marriage. Mr. Biswas, still living in someone else's house, finds his wife's family overbearing and he is constantly oppressed by those around him: her family, his, his employment, even his children, and he seeks solace in reading the classics (particularly Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus) and dreaming of the day he will build a house of his own.

There is a touch of Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens in this classic: Biswas is not, it must be admitted, wholly likeable, though he is at times endearing. His strife ranges from the comic to the tragic, and throughout the book he is regarded as an outcast. But that does not stop him from being worn down, he still tries to better himself (often with bad spirit) and fulfil his dreams. For its breadth A House for Mr Biswas is a 20th Century epic, very impressive and hard to put down. I'm looking forward to reading more V. S. Naipaul!

Comments

  1. i've seen his books on the shelf and have wondered about them... i've read some bio material that regarded him as egoistic and hard to get along with... but this sounds like a pretty good novel and Fred (at Fred's Place blog) says he doesn't read bios of authors because it interferes with the reading experience; still, i do place some weight on knowing something about the writers i read, but i think Fred has a point, also...

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    1. I don't know anything about Naipaul I'm afraid. As for reading bios... well, I'm actually just finishing a Thomas Hardy biography. I think biographical criticism can be very overdone - e.g. someone in Hardy's life inspired the schoolmaster for Jude the Obscure, but one has to ask - does it matter? Looking into that fact, I think, would be a pointless distraction. On the other hand, I like the insight biographies give, they're a curiosity and often have a bit of lit crit in them. Your chap Fred makes a very good point, but I still think biographies have a place somewhere. I certainly agree that they are by no means necessary for the reading experience, far from it I think :)

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  2. Naipaul has not been a favorite, either in terms of his personality or his writings. I read this for my undergrad degree and many a times I felt he belittled his Indian roots in an attempt to sound like an Englishman. I am not saying that as a culture we do not have room for improvement, but I really believed that Naipul would have easily traded his conscious and soul to the devil, to be not an Indian. His essays also left me feeling the same. I am glad you liked the book, and maybe one day I will go back and read it when I have more kinder feelings towards him.

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    1. That's very sad. All I knew before your comment is that he was born in Trinidad and came to Britain - I did see something uncomfortable in the way Indian culture was portrayed in the book and now you've commented I guess I see why that was. It's a bit disappointing. I do want to read some more of his works and I'll keep that in mind. I may check out his essays too.

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