Yours etc.

A reading list

The professors will tell you that they trawl through writers’ private papers — diaries, commonplace books, letters, birthday cards, shopping lists — for reasons of serious historical and textual scholarship: to unpick biographical knots, track down obscure allusions, discover the dates of wayward sonnets, and catch half-fledged ideas and images as they wing their way from an author’s imagination to their final perches in published works. All of which is perfectly true. But what really drives scholars into the cobwebbier corners of the archives where such documents are preserved is the same motive that prompts ordinary readers to keep on their bedside tables editions of their favourite writers’ journals and correspondence: spicy voyeuristic thrill.

The human appetite for gossip is so universal, it must have been hard-wired into our brains by natural selection. And when it comes to breakups and meltdowns, affairs and embezzlements, snipes and spats and spurs, Hollywood starlets are amateurs compared to our literary icons (for a recent tidbit of evidence, see “The Mongoose”, Derek Walcott’s already infamous poem about V.S. Naipaul, which made newspaper headlines around the world after he read it at the 2008 Calabash Literary Festival). When novelists and poets describe and discuss the vicissitudes of their own lives (and their peers’), even in dashed-off notes or on the backs of postcards, they naturally deploy the same verbal craft and narrative cunning that go into their formal masterpieces.

And there’s something else. The relationship between reader and writer can feel more intimate than that between spouses, and no less heated for being conducted via the medium of cool paper. Our favourite writers seem able to gaze mercilessly into the sanctuaries of our heads and hearts. They tell us what we are feeling sometimes even before we have felt it. It isn’t surprising that, given the chance, the reader is eager to return that gaze. Hence the long tradition of publishing writers’ letters and diaries, the naked documents usually draped with the respectable veils of introductions and prefaces, annotations and indices.

Naturally, most writers are no more anxious to have their secrets spilled than the rest of us. Published editions of their private papers are generally a posthumous business. That explains why so few volumes of the letters and diaries of Caribbean writers have been published — ours is a relatively young literature, and most of our major authors are still alive and thriving (and guarding the keys to their filing cabinets). In fact, there is only one comprehensive edition of a Caribbean author’s correspondence: Jean Rhys’s Letters 1931–1966 (1984), edited by the British novelists Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly. It is an incomplete selection, opening not long after Rhys published her first novel, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), and closing with a letter to her editor dated 9 March, 1966, announcing the long-last completion of the book she had spent painful years writing:

I’ve dreamt several times that I was going to have a baby — then I woke with relief.

Finally I dreamt that I was looking at the baby in a cradle — such a puny weak thing.

So the book must be finished . . .

“The book,” of course, was Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), the novel that revived her reputation and her fortunes. This welcome success, Wyndham says in his introduction, meant “minor celebrity” and new friends; but “as her social circle grew larger, her correspondence became less revealing: either more formal (she made a point of answering every fan letter she received) or more allusive.”

C.L.R. James also strikes one as the kind of writer who would answer every fan letter. He seems to have enjoyed correspondence as much as he did conversation, and both were crucial modes for his thinking. Over the course of his long life, he must have written thousands of letters — there is no complete catalogue — now scattered across dozens of personal and public archives on at least three continents. Not long after James’s death, Anna Grimshaw compiled a small book titled The C.L.R. James Archive: A Reader’s Guide (1991), published by the C.L.R. James Institute in New York. It is an extensively annotated map to the vast territories of paper he left behind, and it devotes a whole chapter to his letters. “James’s correspondence, wide-ranging and often dense in substance, cannot be considered apart from his other writings,” Grimshaw argues. She lists letters to numerous of James’s friends, to West Indian politicians like Eric Williams, Norman Manley, and Grantley Adams, and political and intellectual figures from around the world — George Padmore, Leonard Woolf, F.R. Leavis, Kwame Nkrumah, George Lamming, David Dabydeen. Only the merest handful of these have been published, scattered across various volumes of James’s collected writings. When a full edition of his correspondence finally appears, as it must, it will be a landmark in Caribbean intellectual life. For the time being, we can whet our appetites with another book that Anna Grimshaw has guided into print: Special Delivery: The Letters of C.L.R. James to Constance Webb, 1939–1948 (1996), which records James’s relationship with the vivacious young American woman he met on a lecture tour in California and later married.

The year after Special Delivery ends, another revealing Caribbean correspondence begins. On 21 September, 1949, the seventeen-year-old Vidia Naipaul sat down at his desk in the west Port of Spain neighbourhood of St James and typed a letter to his elder sister, then at university in India. “Dear Kamla,” it begins, “I wonder what is the matter with this typewriter.” Not Naipaul’s most memorable opening line, by any means, but this is one of the particular charms of the family correspondence collected in Letters Between a Father and Son (1999): the chance to encounter the man later described as the greatest living writer of English prose in his apprentice days — his confidence still unsteady, the mask of his persona yet unfixed, and his sentences still shaded a callow green. Most of the letters here, as the title of the book suggests, were exchanged by Vidia and his father Seepersad after the younger Naipaul left Trinidad for England and Oxford (and, eventually, fame). The most poignant example may be Vidia’s letter of 8 October, 1953. He announces plans to return on holiday, mocks the accent of a Trinidadian he has met in Oxford, and declares a longing for home-cooked roti. “Keep well,” he ends, not knowing that even as he signs this letter his father is already dead — of a heart attack, five days earlier, at the age of forty-seven.

If Caribbean writers’ published correspondence is rare, diaries are practically nonexistent. In his travel books, Naipaul occasionally mentions jotting in notebooks, but working notes for a future book are not the same as an intimate, everyday record of a writer’s life, written for his own consumption (and later, we hope, ours). The closest approximation we have, at least in print, may be Andrew Salkey’s Havana Journal (1971) and Georgetown Journal (1972), covering trips he made to two artists’ congresses, at a time when he was based in London and a wave of post-independence cultural optimism was sweeping across the Caribbean. The latter volume, its original edition still in print after thirty-six years, ought to be in the luggage of every writer travelling to Georgetown in August 2008 for Carifesta X. The Caribbean Writers’ and Artists’ Convention that Salkey attended in 1970 was Carifesta’s very germ. Salkey’s wry account of newly republican Guyana, his detailed transcriptions of long conversations with fellow writers and artists, preserve evidence of a fervent hopefulness for the Caribbean future that did not survive the 1970s. That’s the best reason to keep a diary: to help you remember things you have lost.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2008