A sad pastoral
The Enigma of Arrival by VS Naipaul
320 pp, Penguin, £7.99
Friday 13 March 1987
A few years ago, VS Naipaul said that he still thought of himself as a comic writer, and that his highest ambition was to write a comedy to equal his magnificent 1961 novel, A House for Mr Biswas. To read this was to feel heartened - if the author could find a way of uniting the warmth and energy of the early work that culminated in Biswas with the magisterial technical control of his later writing, we might, might we not, be in for something rather special?
But there were doubts. The dark clouds that seemed to have gathered over Naipaul's inner world would not, one feared, be easily dispelled; his affection for the human race appeared, to me at any rate, to have diminished, and the comedy of Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur, the suffrage of Elvira and Biswas, cutting and unsentimental as those books were, had been essentially affectionate. The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul's first novel in eight years, suggests that the clouds have not lifted, but deepened. The book lacks the bitter taste of some of his recent writing, but it is one of the saddest books I have read in a long while, its tone one of unbroken melancholy.
'This melancholy penetrated my mind while I slept,' says the narrator whom it is impossible not to see as the author, 'and then, when I awakened... I was so poisoned by it... that it took the best part of the day to shake it off. '
It's a strange book, more meditation than novel, autobiographical in the sense that if offers a portrait of the intellectual landsape of one who has long elevated 'the life of the mind' above all other forms of life. Its subject is the narrator's consciousness, its reformation by the act of migration, of 'arrival', and its gradual turning towards James's 'distinguished thing,' death.
There are other characters here but they are observed from a distance, the main events in their lives - an elopement, a sacking, a death - taking place off-stage. As a result of this emptying, the writer becomes the subject; the storyteller becomes the tale.
Interestingly, and unlike most of his fellow migrants, Naipaul has chosen to inhabit a pastoral England, an England of manor and stream. The book's first segment deals with what he calls his 'second childhood' in this piece of Wiltshire. The notion of migration as a form of rebirth is one whose truth many migrants will recognise.
Instantly recognisable, too, and often very moving, is the sense of a writer feeling obliged to bring his new world into being by an act of pure will, the sense that if the world is not described into existence in the most minute detail, then it won't be there. The immigrant must invent the earth beneath his feet.
So Naipaul describes: this lane, this cottage, this gardener, this view of Stonehenge, this tiny patch of the planet in which his narrator must learn, once more, to see. It is a kind of extreme minimalism, but it becomes almost hypnotic. And slowly the picture is built, figures arrive in the landscape, a new world is won.
Through the story - well, the account - of the farm labourer Jack and his garden, we are shown how the narrator's view of this rustic England changes. At first idyllic - 'Of literature and antiquity and the landscape Jack and his garden... seemed emanations' - it develops along more realistic lines. Jack's health fails, his garden decays, he dies, the new occupants of his cottage concrete over his garden. The idea of timelessness, of Jack as being 'solid, rooted in his earth', turns out to be false. Change and decay in all around I see.
So the new world begins to be seen for what it is, but at what a price! It's as if Naipaul had expended so much of his energy on the effort of creating and comprehending his piece of Wiltshire that he had no strength left with which to make the characters breathe and move.
They manage only tiny mutters of activity; even the story of Brenda, the country wife who expected too much from her beauty, and Les, the husband who murdered her after she returned, tail between her legs, from her failed attempt at an affair with another man, is told in an oddly enervated, inconsequential manner.
The narrator speaks often of his spirit being broken, of illness, of exhaustion. He once wanted to write a story based on Chirico's painting The Enigma of Arrival, he says, and then, in less than a page, gives us a summary of this untold tale. It is quite brilliant, a traveller's tale set in the classical world of the surrealist painting, utterly unlike anything Naipaul has ever written.
The painting shows a port, a sail, a tower, two figures. Naipaul makes one of the figures a traveller who arrives at a 'dangerous classical city'. 'Gradually... his feeling of adventure would give way to panic. I imagined some religious ritual in which, led on by kindly people, he would unwittingly take part and find himself the intended victim. At the moment of crisis he would come upon a door, open it, and find himself back on the quayside of arrival... only one thing is missing now... The antique ship has gone. The traveller has lived out his life. '
The book we have is at once more honest and direct, and less vibrant and engaging, than the first-imagined fantasy, and especially in the drawn-out second half of the novel, one frequently wishes that Naipaul had been able to write the discarded tale. Exhaustion again; when the strength for fiction fails the writer, what remains is autobiography.
After an interesting, and courageous, account of his formation as a writer, Naipaul returns to his Wiltshire microcosm, and it turns out that his narrator's exhaustion and turning-towards-death is mirrored in his tiny world. A version of England is dying, too, the manor no longer as economically powerful as it was, its owner sunbathing plump-thighed amid the decay.
Just about all the book's personages are in some way in thrall to the manor - a second gardener, Pitton, the estate manager Phillips and his wife, a driver, a failed writer, even the narrator himself - and they, too, are going down with the ship. Death and failure stalk them all.
All this is evoked in delicate, precise prose of the highest quality, but it is bloodless prose. The idea that the British have lost their way because of 'an absence of authority, an organisation in decay', that the fall of the manor encourages ordinary folk 'to hasten decay, to loot, to reduce to junk', is an unlikable, untenable one. But if only the book occasionally sparked into some sort of life. As it stands, the portrait of exhaustion becomes, eventually, just exhausting.
Why such utter weariness? We are told of a dream of an exploding head, of ill health, of family tragedy. There may be more to it. I think it was Borges who said that in a riddle to which the answer is knife, the only word that cannot be employed is knife.
There is one word I can find nowhere in the text of The Enigma of Arrival. That word is 'love', and a life without love, or one in which love has been buried so deep that it can't come out, is very much what this book is about and what makes it so very, very sad.