Version of Pastoral

Christopher Ricks

  • The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections by V.S. Naipaul
    Viking, 318 pp, £10.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 670 81576 4

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in