Once, in an email, after I’d named W.G. Sebald as the barometer of the novel in our century, a friend wrote of V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (1987), describing it as “sort of like Sebald before Sebald.” Months later I finally put eyes on the page, but the opening swarm of perceptions about the English countryside threw me. This wasn’t a novel (though of course, it was), but, at the same time, it was far afield from reportage. Bricolage it was, and the reality of Naipaul’s time in the countryside bent and swerved to the extra-literary, to the whims of a narrator plainly him, though self-scalped. Some 10 years of time had been flattened, fractured, and upended to spawn a matrix of narration that had then been desiccated and reestablished — a broken mirror autobiography glazed in the modernist mode. I petered out, but knew I’d be back in a better mind.
Another writer friend dubbed him V.S. “Corrugated Iron” Naipaul. Every book, 15 fiction and 15 non-fiction, contains this word, sometimes donning a hyphen, sometimes not. In Trinidad, where he grew up, the use of this building material was widespread and he would often see more of it on his many journeys into other developing nations. By the time he began Enigma in 1984, he enjoyed a stardom few writers in America ever achieve, gracing the cover of Newsweek in 1980. That year, he’d just written about the Republican National Convention in Dallas for the New York Review of Books, a periodical that carried much of his travel writing over the years, including the nearly-full text of several books. What to say about the Reagan World only came to him when he was back home in England, responding not to the “staged occasion, but the things around the occasion.” He wrote Enigma in the same oblique manner, in a continual searching: “…finding experience where I thought there had been nothing…” Indeed Enigma might be one of the best how-to books on novel writing because the narrative is the process and the veil is rent to show the hard-to-imagine-truth of how the writing of a book is the discovery of what it should be, how it goes in ways never planned until the words flow.
Large portions of Enigma appeared in The New Yorker prior to its publication, with one section spanning 50 magazine pages. In March of 1987, Knopf released it. Ostensibly it is the account of his time in a cottage on an estate holding a large manor house, until later he purchases his own cottages nearby. Broken into four parts and an epilogue, Naipaul outlines the area and its surroundings, near to Stonehenge, in the manner of the 19th century country writers Richard Jefferies and William Cobbett, the later being referenced in the book. The vivid prose deconstructs the very act of looking that is so central to a novel of perceptions:
… here the rivers of the chalk valleys all around met and ran together, the water always clear, giving an extraordinary brilliance to scattered pieces of litter, the water seeming (like glass paperweights or like photographs) to have the power to isolate ordinary or well-known objects and force their details on the eye.
Given his own Trinidadian background, he lays out his autobiographical, Proustian program very early on:
That idea of ruin and dereliction, of out-of-placeness, was something I felt about myself: a man from another hemisphere, another background, coming to rest in middle life in the cottage of a half-neglected estate […] with few connections to the present […] I felt that my presence in that old valley was part of something like an upheaval, a change in the course of the history of the country.
He talks about the books he wrote while staying there, especially In a Free State (1971), as well as his own health concerns. The most glaring omission is his wife Pat. She often resided there with him — when she initially read drafts, she thought about libel.
When one considers Naipaul, the best adjective to encompass both him and his writing is “severity.” When I’ve foisted Enigma onto others, I’ve described it as pastoral, though it is heavily concerned with severe portraits of neighbors seen through Naipaul’s discerning eyes. He thus incorporates the hidden form of autobiography, that is, coloring one’s own psychic makeup by detailing others’. The neighbors he portrays often live on the grounds of the estate itself, working in various guises: from a gardener, a car-hire-man, a servant, and a caretaker to the invalid landlord who Naipaul only sees twice in his time there. In casting these portraits, Naipaul goes by way of deduction, detailing what clothes they wear, their faces, their explicit emotions, and how they use language in what few words they say to him:
The new dairyman was an ugly man. His wife was also ugly. And there was a pathos about their ugliness. Ugliness had come to ugliness for mutual support; but there had been little comfort as a result.
His sentimentality frightened me. It was the sentimentality of a man who could give himself the best of reasons for doing strange things.
These psychologically-pungent miniatures are blunt, even caustic, but they certainly contain as much of Naipaul’s soul as those he seizes upon. Naipaul started in radio and the concision of material required to fit time-slotted “stories” probably helped formulate these tart rejoinders to another person’s world. This economical style expands to detail cultures and countries in the travel books, as in his razor-wire nod to Buenos Aires from “The Return of Eva Peron,” (written in those years) wherein lies “the stupefying nightclub, which enables people who have said everything already to be together for hours without saying anything.”
Naipaul said he wrote the book in the order in which it proceeds. Part two of Enigma, “The Journey,” stops what narrative there is — a narrative where things befall the people he describes, where everyday mysteries pile up and implode — to detail his first journey from Trinidad to Britain (and eventually to Oxford) when he was 18. He notes the culture shock in the plane, in Manhattan, on the boat, and in London, as well as his first fumblings as a writer. In part three the book reverts to where the narrative began and his time in the cottage after journeying into the countryside 20 years after arriving in England. Without the prior recall of the virgin journey (coupled with him finding a reproduction of The Enigma of Arrival, the titular surrealist painting by De Chirico, at the cottage) and without his fleshing out those first green feelings, there would be no sounding board to play off the pastoral and British personality-traits surrounding the nearly 100 pages of part two. If the reader didn’t know the flailing Naipaul details in his account of his premiere voyage, how could she come to see deeper into his perceptions? How could she trust a consciousness that is so imperious as to thresh the psychologies of all those around him? Projected as such a strong, indomitable presence later, the Naipaul of 18 years old is naive, untried, but with a tint of the uncompromising nature and severity he will toil so hard to foster. This structuring goes against the grain and shakes up the ground of the narrative because the typical points of empathy with the narrator are put off almost 100 pages.
Revitalized, the book charges on. Many details are now explored with a counterpoise from his own past. People that were only gestured at in part one, like his landlord, Pitton the gardener, and Bray the car-hire man are greatly expanded, again with a pitiless regard: “Both Pitton and his wife were people without the gift for words […] But the beauty of Pitton’s wife was of such a sort that it overcame her intellectual, which was also her social, disability […] Beauty is beauty, though; and beauty is rare; no one who possesses it can be indifferent to it.” With this further fleshing-out of other characters, so is there a more clear intention for himself:
I wanted, when I came to the manor, after the pride of ambition, to strip my life down. I wanted to live as far as possible with what I found in the cottage in the manor grounds, to alter as little as possible. I wanted to avoid vanity; and for me then vanity could lie in very small things — like wishing to buy an ashtray.
I believe he wanted to live without vanity, which is to say I believe he is vain and strongly admits it, though with a deflection. His belief is that everything should be in service of the work — things, even wishing for things, would not get his art to where he wanted it to go. Metafictionally speaking, it was just this type of asceticism that led to a drastic change in tone in Naipaul’s oeuvre, exemplified in the three violent masterpieces: In a Free State, Guerillas, and A Bend in the River, all written at the cottage in the ’70s.
In a book full of so many perceptions — with its celebration of nature, lamentations of change and decay, and its biting judgment and censure of people — I’ve often wondered how Naipaul himself might be judged. Or rather, why is he excluded from the judgment he exercises against others? Who watches over him? To answer this question, it helps to look at the Proust he quotes in both his Nobel Lecture and an earlier essay, words that could be etched as epitaph to Enigma:
… a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, our social life, in our vices […] it is the secretions of one’s innermost self, written in solitude and for oneself alone that one gives to the public. What one bestows on private life — in conversation […] or in those drawing-room essays that are scarcely more than conversation in print — is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.
Ironically, the two selves — the author’s actual self and literary self — are both firmly on display in Enigma. That he speaks often and highly of himself is acceptable because he has enfolded himself into his literature—even though the narrator is Naipaul, it is still Naipaul as the speaker of the novel, as in the speaker of the poem. This person is a construct, even though 99% of what he details might check out with how the decade bore out. So the grandiosity and large pronouncements continue on in the second half of the book. He is a megalomaniac, he is near to paranoid (numerous times while meditating on certain nature scenes in the manor grounds he tries to stave off the emotional letdown of their inevitable change by saying, “At least I’ve had this for a year, at least I’ve had this for two years…) and yet, he is a seer. There is little room for argument with this man, the construct. He tells you who he is (save the women who propped him up—he had a lover at the time) and what he is thinking. Sometimes his perceptions about people are off and he will admit so, but in a way that does not hijack the fact of everyone else being his theatre, those he studies to soon strip down to their final fold of skin.
In trying to reconcile the megalomaniac with the artist, it’s instructive to consider Naipaul’s most famous line, the opening of A Bend in the River: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” A line everyone must grapple with no matter their politics. No one should try to claim the artist as friend, one self is always getting in the way of the other. In Naipaul the innermost self does flicker off and on as he writes of his own breakdowns and fear of death by describing that of others. The apparent superficiality in his loaded and strong-armed remarks is poached, aligning them to his perceptions — the act of looking inside and out at the same time. He constructs a hearty truth about the world and its people — how they are often afraid of each other and say one thing when they mean another. People show their insides to him here because he — the narrator, the writer, the construct, the enigma — is the watcher, the listener, but also the proctor and prodder.
Written in the 52nd, 53rd, and 54th years of his life, the book is more than a meditation on death: it is a reverential treatment of history, civilization, morals, scruples, and compunction. Naipaul supersedes the cliché that we look at others to learn about ourselves, saying instead, “We look at others to define the world, then we are able to make our place in it.” As he says near the end about the book, “The story had become more personal: my journey, the writer’s journey, the writer defined by his writing discoveries, his ways of seeing, rather than by his personal adventures.” Naipaul, wise and impossible, and probably intolerable, writes fearlessly and “not always respectably” — a critic’s phrase he often cites, holding it as a quite agreeable mantra for his artistic sensibility.