The Enigma of Arrival: V.S. Naipaul’s title is the one at which Apollinaire enigmatically arrived, for the painting by Giorgio de Chirico. A detail of it illuminates Naipaul’s cover and his book: making their huddled way from a classical quayside (the scene bathed both in shadow and in sun), two stoled figures have their obscured faces towards us and their backs to a wall. Above the wall billows the sunlit summit of a sail.
Naipaul’s novel broods upon this arrival, and even more upon what the departure might then be. For he has long been haunted by the fabled sense that upon return to the quayside from this visit to the ancient city, a traveller is to find that the sail has gone. The life will have been lived out. Life is a readying for that which will then be too late. The readiness is all. This is contemplated not with indignation but with dignity, and Naipaul’s ample unfolding book is of great beauty, delicacy and courage.
There was no enigma in Naipaul’s arrival on these shores nearly forty years ago, for with all its faults England offered the best opportunity for a very intelligent and very sensitive 20-year-old Indian from Trinidad with ambitions to be a writer, and a metropolitan writer at that. No enigma, but something of a miracle. For Naipaul, by coming to see – with the depth and passion of his earnest glance – the real nature of his gifts, of his self, and of his truest material, has become able to transmute his very misunderstandings into art of a crystalline honesty. The Enigma of Arrival newly constitutes Naipaul’s claim to be, as a novelist and critic of societies, the most important import since Joseph Conrad and Henry James. Not least because he so extraordinarily combines their traditions, right down to following James in this book to where T.S. Eliot was mildly shocked to find him, seeking spiritual life in English country houses. Conrad’s pertinence to Naipaul is written not all over, but all in, the novels of the Seventies, and ‘Conrad’s Darkness’ was enlightened by Naipaul in an essay of 1974. This new novel might seem to have moved elsewhere, since the fiction within the book creates quite another world, one of Wiltshire dailiness, of neighbours and their ordinary sorrows, of small prides and predations, of a great estate that has run to seed. The course of empire is another thing. Or is it? For Naipaul is there, from the other ends of the earth (both the Indias), there in his cottage upon the estate, because of empire; and the estate itself is the creature of empire, an empire that is now grudgingly bowing to yet more imperious necessities.
Some of Naipaul’s most subtle, most perfectly calibrated and least sentimental understanding of empire is to be found in this deep book. ‘The imperial link’ coheres with the word that is Naipaul’s bond. And then the world of quiet Wiltshire is not an idyll, unaffected or uninfected. The military ranges of the downs reverberate to war, past, present and future. Domestic humiliation spills over into a killing. There is a dictator and his name is solvency.
Naipaul is grateful for the retreat, the privacy which is respected (others’ and his own), the distant courtesy of his unseen landlord (twice-glimpsed only, in all the years). Hovering above the whole story of the great estate, its owner and its gardener, its steward and its tenants, is the admonition by Conrad to which Naipaul has elsewhere so recurred, the warning which no one can afford to be above: ‘Few men realise that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.’
For security is still Naipaul’s occupation. The insecurity of himself as a pessimistic young hopeful, prompt to resent and unhumbled by humiliation; the insecurity of the young writer, alert in Earl’s Court to everything except what would prove to be his real material, and setting himself to be a knowing writer, socially knowing and wink-tipping, when all the time his true comprehension (of the unknowing) lay in wait for him; the insecurity that is racial, and sexual, and financial (as if these were distinct even though they are distinguishable): these are only some of the insecurities which were to be cooled, calmed and even cured when, after twenty years in England, Naipaul entered the peace, the refuge, of his cottage and his neighbours.
Not that he got his new world right at once, either; the progress of his understandings and of his affections is beautifully told. No beating of the breast, simply (authentically) some shaking of the head, in the incremental realisation of how deliberated, how contrived, how endangered, how hopeless even, was this world which at first looked to be rooted, natural, all all of a piece throughout. ‘My landlord’ (his name we never hear, and that is right, since he is sui generis in the world not only of the book but of the life it records) – the landlord is a recluse, damaged and sometimes disabled by accidia, and confirmed in his grand sloth by the very circumstances which are failing to protect him against decay: ‘There was nothing in that view (of ivy and forest debris and choked water meadow) which would irritate or encourage doubt; there was nothing in that view which would encourage action in a man already spiritually weakened by personal flaws, disappointments, and, above all, his knowledge of his own great security.’
The progress of the book is towards an ever graver sympathy with the all-but-unknown person of the landlord, a progress towards the acknowledgment that the dereliction (stubborn repeated word) of the estate need not constitute a dereliction of duty. There is nothing morbid in Naipaul’s admission, ‘I liked the decay, such as it was’; and there is something admirable in the landlord’s self-satisfying (more than self-satisfied) realism, his power to give to the decay of a great house in its due season the calm which Wordsworth saw in a season’s decay, ‘clothed in the sunshine of the withering fern’.
Ivy was beautiful. It was to be allowed to grow up trees. The trees eventually died and collapsed, but they had provided their pleasure for many years; and there were other trees to look at, other trees to see out my landlord’s time. So too it had been with people. They had been around; when the time came they had gone away; and then there had been other people. But it wasn’t like that with Mr Phillips. He had been too important to my landlord.
‘Security’ was once the wrong kind of over-confidence, or carelessness. ‘And you all know security/Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.’ The old sense of the word lurks within the new, as a warning. Naipaul makes much of this while saying nothing of it; his sense of the ancient meanings is at one with his pleasure in happy misprisions. There is no condescension in his savouring the comedy and the pastoral and the tragedy of such turns of speech. ‘ “You know me,” he would say. “I’m a down-and-out Tory.” Running together “downright” and “out-and-out”.’ Or: ‘To pick the pears in – I liked that in, I played with it, repeated it.’ Or: ‘ “Of course it’s an old wise tale.” “Old wise tale” – it was what he said; and the idiom, as he spoke it, with its irony and tolerance, sounded original rather than a corruption.’ But the most fecund of these vegetations is at the heart of the book:
This vegetable graveyard or rubbish dump Pitton described as a ‘garden refuge’, and a certain amount of ingenuity went into finding or creating these hidden but accessible ‘refuges’. That was how Pitton used the word: I believe he had two or three such refuges at different places. Refuse, refuge: two separate, unrelated words. But ‘refuge’, which Pitton used for ‘refuse’, did in the most remarkable way contain both words. Pitton’s ‘refuge’ not only stood for ‘refuse’, but had the additional idea or association, not at all inappropriate, of asylum, sanctuary, hiding, almost of hide-and-seek, of things kept decently out of sight and mind. He might say, of a fallen beech branch on the lawn, or a heap of grass clippings: ‘That’ll be going to the refuge.’ Or: ‘I’ll take it down to the refuge presently.’
What saves these incorporations from being lordly is their respectful saltiness – that, and the way in which Naipaul is perfectly willing to pounce upon locutions which deserve it. There is Alan the arch literary type: ‘ “All this is going down in the diary,” he would say, or, personalising it, “This is for Diary,” or “Diary will take due note.” ’ And there is the repudiation, in everyone’s interests, of the terms of the angry confidence suddenly vented at the bus-stop. ‘She waited until the bus almost stopped. She said, “It’s that fancy woman of his.” ’
The strength and loveliness of Naipaul’s book are in every sentence; it has what Shelley yearned for when he acknowledged that there was in his work an absence of that tranquillity which is the attribute and accompaniment of power. Yet the unmistakable triumph is against such odds and is in its way such a surprise. In time, and with time, a critic rather than a reviewer may go some way towards unfolding how Naipaul manages it. Manages to write something which is at once a Prelude autobiography (the growth of a novelist’s mind) and a fiction – this, without Naipaul’s succumbing to the usual temptation of cannily sheltering behind the responsibilities of the one whenever the responsibilities of the other prove irksome or inconvenient. Naipaul ducks nothing; he prettifies and philosophises nothing. There is nothing fancy here for those who are delectably teased by some theoretical imbroglio about facticity and the fictive.
Then again, how does he create such suspense, given that he permits himself so little plotting? He has what Eliot praised in Jonson, ‘immense dramatic constructive skill: it is not so much skill in plot as skill in doing without a plot.’ What is it, too, that so brings to life his characters? Or rather, the people, who are indeed not brought to life by the book but who bring their life and lives to the book. There is no mistaking, and no forgetting, the reality of Mr Pitton the gardener; of Jack, a gardener (his own garden, a very different thing); of Mr and Mrs Phillips, overseeing; of the landlord, overlooking. These are people, of worth, frailty, idiosyncrasy; none of them fudged into being either ‘a one’ or a type, and all of them diversely seen by quick-eyed love. And by slow-paced judgment.
Timing is a nub. Naipaul takes his time, and he takes others’ time as he finds it. He can speak of his own past folly without self-congratulation, and of his achieved understanding without mock-modesty.
Oft times nothing profits more
Than self-esteem, grounded on just and right –
Milton is right, and the more so because when you round the corner into the next line you meet the salutary admonition
Well managed –
itself very well managed. Naipaul’s self-esteem is grounded on just and right, and it is well managed, both as duly curbed and as duly given play.
Naipaul has long possessed what Matthew Arnold praised in Dryden and himself manifested in the moment of praise: ‘a prose such as we would all gladly use if we only knew how’. But the prose of The Enigma of Arrival is a new departure and arrival, though entirely continuous with the old strengths. It is more simply beautiful and more beautifully simple; the book speaks often of versions of simplicity (Dickens’s, for one), and of how easy simplicity isn’t. ‘The simplicity and directness had taken a long time to get to him; it was necessary for him to have gone through a lot.’ There ‘get to’ and ‘go through’ are perfectly idiomatic but have their unexpected poetry in their sense of each going half-way to meet the other, the simplicity and the he. Naipaul would concur with Eliot: ‘Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort, or by both.’
For Eliot is a presence throughout this book, as he could not help being for Naipaul, another expatriate radical of the right. ‘The fact of being everywhere a foreigner was probably an assistance to his native wit’ (Eliot, on Henry James). Eliot’s elegiac scrupulosity; his sense of not just historical but geological strata; his feeling for gardens, and for civilisation as coming to mean both what has been gained and what has been lost; his unsentimentality, wronged as coldness; his apprehension of empire; his religious gravity; his dismay at histrionic vanity: all of these are alive in Naipaul’s book, and there is much in Eliot’s essay on Kipling (especially the Kipling of Sussex) that is newly earned by Naipaul in his Wiltshire.
Eliot might even help with the most manifest and most mysterious fact about Naipaul’s style here: its being utterly untroubled by repetition, its happiness in saying everything several times, here and now and then and in its own good time. Nothing is said that is not said again; scarcely an anecdote or an observation but is offered anew. With slow rotation suggesting permanence.
Naipaul knows the vexation that a reader might feel, and is expert at reassuringly evoking the wrong sort of repetition: ‘The little aeroplane droned on and on. The repetitiveness of this form of travel was an unexpected revelation.’ Expert, too, at evoking the quasi-difference which amounts to nothing: ‘In the late afternoon we took off again, and the aeroplane flew and flew into the night and then it flew around in the night.’
Naipaul makes good on his book’s every promise. I am aware of falling short of making good on my saying so. But I am sure that the central achievement is one of tact, alive in the shaping both large and local. Since the story is both that of the inner development of a writer’s conscientious consciousness (not his sensibility) and that of a world which he entered and affected, Naipaul’s duty is to the interdependence of two independent realities, to be equally respected. The Enigma of Arrival is ‘A Novel in Five Sections’: ‘Jack’s Garden’, on a dying man’s tending and courage; ‘The Journey’, on Naipaul’s emigration and then his younger London days; ‘Ivy’, on dereliction, decay and oustings; ‘Rooks’, on breakdown and illness; and ‘The Ceremony of Farewell’, on Naipaul’s return to Trinidad for the religious ceremony upon the death of his younger sister. Five sections – and then tacitly six, since the dedication creates its painful symmetry across the book:
In loving memory
of my brother
25 February 1945, Port of Spain
13 August 1985, London
The dedication itself is both independent of the sections and interdependent with them.
Naipaul has perfectly judged the demands of respect, again both separate and mutual, in the large sequence. The blurb, though honourable enough, does less than justice to Naipaul’s exact art when it says that ‘the outer story concerns the writer’s special journey’ (both from Trinidad and as an interior development), and that ‘within that account is a fiction, about England.’ For Naipaul has so constructed the book as to leave open this crucial question of which is the outer story and which is the inner one, since what is outer is always in danger of being slighted into mere frame, and what is inner of being slighted into, oh dear, yes, a story. In one sense, the fiction can be understood only within the context of Naipaul’s having come to understand, not just what he can do as a writer, but why it truly matters that he do it: but unless a different kind of primacy attached also to that world which was at first independent of him, he would be as a novelist all mill and no grist. Which is why the ‘outer story’ of the writer is not what we first meet, but instead the differently outer story of Jack’s garden: from which we work backward through time and space before taking up the present and the future.
Again, the blurb sells Naipaul short in concluding with this: ‘While this is a novel about a specific time and place – Britain in the aftermath of Empire – at a deeper level it is an exhilarating exploration of a writer’s world.’ At a deeper level? It wouldn’t do simply to reverse this and insist on the opposite half-truth that the deeper level is not that of the writer’s world but of the world that is not of his making: the truth is that Naipaul, who is not reluctant to pass judgments when he has to, is wisely declining any invitation to judge one or the other to be the deeper level. The book’s artful structure embodies the reciprocity of respect, the power of equipollence.
Such a dual respect, for its own arrivals at understanding as well as for those other lives at which it arrived (whether in fact or as fiction), is likewise the special triumph of Naipaul’s style, and of the double beauty which it has, acutely perceptive at once of the world elsewhere and of its own world of the words’ enactments. At its simplest, this may be a matter of exactly catching a talkative reiteration in a woman newly widowed while at the same time practising a form of such reiteration oneself, so that ‘She was repetitive’ – said twice – is free from condescension’s sigh. Naipaul simultaneously listens to others’ thoughts and to his own thinking about this: so we need to hear, for instance, the repetitions of the words ‘the ivy’ as they come to twine themselves obdurately about his sentences, on the landlord’s refusal to be intimidated into preferring another kind of power to ivy’s: ‘Did he see the ivy that was killing so many of the trees that had been planted with the garden? He must have seen the ivy. Mrs Phillips told me one day that he liked ivy and had given instructions that the ivy was never to be cut.’
Naipaul no more does any pruning than ‘my landlord’ does. There is one serious misguided literal act of pruning reported in the novel, when Mrs Phillips takes it into her head to rebuke both the gardener Pitton and nature by ‘cutting right back’ the roses. Reduced to briars thereafter, they may one day, Naipaul darkly suggests, prompt the mistaken reflection that this is what happens to roses if you don’t prune them.
Or there is the beautifully judged movement, itself all backings and trackings and pressings-on in a paragraph like this, which is completely faithful both to the external setting or circumstances which it catches and to its own movements of mind or powers of development, its own ‘lateral lanes’:
It was his father-in-law I noticed first. And it was his father-in-law I met first. I met him quite early on, while I was still exploring, and before I had settled on a regular daily route. I walked or picked my way down little-used lateral lanes on the hillsides, lanes deep in mud, or overgrown with tall grass, or overhung with trees. I walked in those early days along lanes or paths I was never to walk along again. And it was on one of those exploratory walks, on a lateral lane linking the steep rocky road beside the windbreak with the wider, flatter way, it was on one of those little-used, half hidden lanes that I met the father-in-law.
Repetition in style can so easily become a failure of tact that it is both a revelation and a delight to meet such persistent felicity. The enigma of arrival is a stylistic as well as a narrative feat, instinct with regressions and progressions. So that Naipaul comes to deserve two supreme tributes. First, Coleridge’s: ‘The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasureable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself. Like the motion of a serpent, which the Egyptians made the emblem of intellectual power; or like the path of sound through the air; at every step he pauses and half recedes, and from the retrogressive movement collects the force which again carries him onward.’ And second, Eliot’s tribute to Lancelot Andrewes: ‘In this extraordinary prose, which appears to repeat, to stand still, but is nevertheless proceeding in the most deliberate and orderly manner, there are often flashing phrases which never desert the memory.’