Despite the implications of the marital misadventures of a certain gentleman from Thebes, a fellow who wed with all too little forethought, there is not much evidence that a mother exerts a more telling influence over a son than a father. Just as often—I would guess more often—the father is the more significant figure, for good and ill. Having a father who is benevolent or unjust, honorable or corrupt, cheerful or grim, a success or a failure in life, can, along with so many other things, weigh in heavily on the outlook, the ambition, the confidence, and the ultimate fate of a son. The kind of father one gets, of course, comes under that large and scientifically untrackable category known as the luck of the draw.

V. S. Naipaul, in this regard, drew very luckily indeed. His father, Seepersad Naipaul (1906–53), a man of the most modest worldly success, was entirely honorable, generous, selfless, and filled with good sense,...


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