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A House for Mr Biswas (1961)

by V. S. Naipaul

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3,467693,748 (3.76)303
Fiction. Literature. HTML:The early masterpiece of V. S. Naipaul's brilliant career, A House for Mr. Biswas is an unforgettable story inspired by Naipaul's father that has been hailed as one of the twentieth century's finest novels.
In his forty-six short years, Mr. Mohun Biswas has been fighting against destiny to achieve some semblance of independence, only to face a lifetime of calamity. Shuttled from one residence to another after the drowning death of his father, for which he is inadvertently responsible, Mr. Biswas yearns for a place he can call home. But when he marries into the domineering Tulsi family on whom he indignantly becomes dependent, Mr. Biswas embarks on an arduousâ??and endlessâ??struggle to weaken their hold over him and purchase a house of his own. A heartrending, dark comedy of manners, A House for Mr. Biswas masterfully evokes a man's quest for autonomy against an emblematic post-colonial c… (more)
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English (66)  Dutch (2)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (69)
Showing 1-5 of 66 (next | show all)
A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul is one of the finest books I've ever read. With beautiful prose, dark humour, and an almost eerie gift for capturing personalities, I find it no surprise that Naipaul is a Nobel Prize winner, and that his books are beloved.

Mr. Mohun Biswas, whose parents emigrated from India to Trinidad, is a simple man in most respects. He is intelligent, a worrier, short of temper, with a non-stop commentary on how the world in general has wronged him. He begrudges his in-laws their home and takes no interest in the fact that they provide him with free board, and that they lessen his perennial penury. What Mr. Biswas wants more than anything is his own house, one that he owns, one where he can be king of the castle. He has no idea how to go about attaining his desire; he tries once, but has a house built so poorly, so inexpertly, that it falls down in the first wind and rain storm it encounters. The house is representative of Mr. Biswas's life - he is forever doing things in half-measures and failing to understand that without passion, he is never going to attain his dreams. His life, like his house, collapses in a series of mishaps which are mainly his own fault.

Mr. Biswas has opportunities. In turn, he becomes a pundit (a Caribbean usage of the word pandit, meaning Hindu priest), a shopkeeper, and a journalist, but with his sense of entitlement and deep-rooted ability to mess up everything he is given, his careers fail, his pocketbook suffers, and he and his family practically become itinerant, nomads of the desert of rooms and houses belonging to somebody else.

A House for Mr. Biswas succeeds because the title character, while feckless and annoying, deeply selfish and ungrateful, is also the underdog. Everybody cheers for the underdog. Even as we often despise Mr. Biswas and his actions, we keep hoping that next time he will succeed - his career will take a swing towards the positive; he'll be able to buy that house he dreams of. So we follow him, impatient with his mannerisms but still wishing him well.

What I in particular liked about this book was its slow pace. A brief side note here - I have always had difficulty reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, because his stories take forever to unfold. My daughter, who spent some time living in Latin America, really loves Garcia Marquez, because she says that the people in this overheated countries move slowly, get things done slowly, and so she understands the snail's pace of GGM, and loves his books the more for them. I think I may finally have understood what my daughter told me all those years ago. The employees at the newspaper where Mr. Biswas is employed go home for lunch and a long afternoon nap and return to work when the day begins to cool, because it's too hot to act in any other fashion. So the book is paced, taking longer than I usually like to explain things, because that's the way life unfolds in the tropics, turtle-slow and suffering the heat.

A House for Mr. Biswas entered that rare category for me: the instant favourite. It's in a class by itself, and I can't wait to read more of his novels. ( )
  ahef1963 | May 8, 2024 |
Mohun Biswas was a character to be admired for his attempts to be true to himself and not be swallowed up in his aunt's or wife's families, but he so frequently let his anger and desperation destroy his chances to actually achieve any autonomy. ( )
  snash | Apr 12, 2024 |
How to describe this book? It wasn't a hard read at all, but it was a bit tedious (for me) before all was said and done. The juxtaposition of Mr. Biswas's insecurity and pomposity, the petty intrigues of the Tulsi family, the graphic depiction of the Hindu poor in Trinidad in the early 20th century are the stars of the novel. Mohun Biswas was not a likeable character, but somehow I liked him in spite of himself. His early tribulations were not of his making, but many of his later ones were. He tried so hard to establish an identity free of all the noise around him, but in the end, the identity he established was not really accepted by anyone. He was always on the outside looking in and he never really liked what he saw. Having a house of his own was the only way he could assert himself in a world that was often out of his control. The home he finally got was as full of eccentricities and issues and problems as Mr. Biswas himself was, but somehow he found comfort with it and achieved a modicum of happiness. Beautiful writing, but damn I really like a real plot and this wasn't it. I don't regret the time it took to read it, but I can't say that it was my cup of tea. ( )
  AliceAnna | Feb 4, 2024 |
I cannot call myself an admirer or a detractor at this point. It's the only thing I've read. I did think, honestly, that he needed a good editor; I thought the book was too long by about 25-30%. It's hard when the protagonist is not entirely a likeable character. Sympathetic in many ways and interesting, to be sure, but not particularly likeable. And many--if not most--of the people in the book are the same: you understand them and can sympathize with them, but it's hard to like them. I also thought that I never really truly got to know any of them, perhaps especially Mohun.
For all the history, for all the stories, for all the interactions, I never felt like I truly understood him and for that I blame Naipaul. He was more interested in putting his characters in a situation and seeing what would happen than he was in helping me truly understand them. Even the background story about Mohun's birth and childhood didn't help. As a result, even after 560 pages, I didn't really find myself invested in the story and didn't care a great deal about any of the characters.I don't mind so much if the characters are not likeable. That I can live with. But if the author doesn't develop them fully enough for me to have some investment in what happens to them, then I don't think he's done his "job."
I guess on some level I think it's a responsibility of the author to create a world where I care what happens in some fashion to the people the story is about. Case in point: I just read a book of short stories by Rubem Fonseca. A complete change of pace; didn't find any of the characters in the stories "likeable." I'm also not a big fan of the violence that pervaded the stories. But he's a smart and clever writer and he made me care what happened to a lot of the people he wrote about. He developed them in a dozen or two dozen pages more than I truly felt Naipaul managed, even after 5. Who knows? Maybe I'm just not clever enough to "get" him. ( )
  Gypsy_Boy | Aug 26, 2023 |
The life of Mohun Biswas was very difficult to read. His only success in life is that he marries well. Nothing else goes as planned for him. From birth, Biswas was a marked man, a hapless man. The Tulsi family he marries into is influential, but brutal towards Biswas; constantly mocking and ridiculing him. Imposter syndrome follows him wherever he goes. This was billed as a tragicomedy but I found very little to laugh about in Mr. Biswas's struggles. Every time he is on the cusp of success, something stands in his way or knocks him down. His dreams of becoming a serious journalist are dashed when no one cares about his stories unless they are sensationalized. His dreams of becoming a respected family man are wasted when even his children turn against him. The one dream he has left, to own his own house, becomes his entire life. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Aug 18, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 66 (next | show all)
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
V. S. Naipaulprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cavagnoli, FrancaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For this book written between 1957 and 1960 A Late Dedication
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31 July 1932, Gloucester
3 February 1996, Salterton
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Ten weeks before he died, Mr. Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St. James, Port of Spain, was sacked.
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Fiction. Literature. HTML:The early masterpiece of V. S. Naipaul's brilliant career, A House for Mr. Biswas is an unforgettable story inspired by Naipaul's father that has been hailed as one of the twentieth century's finest novels.
In his forty-six short years, Mr. Mohun Biswas has been fighting against destiny to achieve some semblance of independence, only to face a lifetime of calamity. Shuttled from one residence to another after the drowning death of his father, for which he is inadvertently responsible, Mr. Biswas yearns for a place he can call home. But when he marries into the domineering Tulsi family on whom he indignantly becomes dependent, Mr. Biswas embarks on an arduousâ??and endlessâ??struggle to weaken their hold over him and purchase a house of his own. A heartrending, dark comedy of manners, A House for Mr. Biswas masterfully evokes a man's quest for autonomy against an emblematic post-colonial c

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Haiku summary
Mister Biswas frets
takes lots of stomach powder
and lives a full life
(DarrylLundy)

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