Sunday, March 22, 2009

Reading Journal: "The Enigma of Arrival"

V.S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival (1987). Purchased used for $6.00 at Monkey See, Monkey Read in Northfield.

In the summer of 2007, we visited Stonehenge, then drove down to Salisbury to visit the great cathedral, which among other things is home to the world's oldest mechanical clock (1386). Time was on my mind when we visited Salisbury. We had less than a month left of our year in England, and this was our last English holiday before returning home to Minnesota. In a short drive, from Stonehenge to Salisbury, we had traversed a distance of nearly four millennia, connected by modern highways and confusing roundabouts. On the lookout, as always, for literary associations, I found in Salisbury Cathedral a bust of the late nineteenth-century nature writer Richard Jefferies, whose native haunts were the Wiltshire downs. I didn't realize at the time that, at Stonehenge, I was near the haunts of a living English writer, one who shares an affinity with Jefferies, the 2001 Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul.

Naipaul was born into an Indian family on the island of Trinidad in 1932, and at eighteen traveled to England on an Oxford scholarship. The dark-skinned child of a distant colony in the New World, raised on English culture in a British school, he came to settle in Wiltshire, near prehistoric Stonehenge, near Amesbury with its Arthurian associations. His most famous novels—A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) and A Bend in the River (1979)—are set in former colonies, but The Enigma of Arrival (1987) is something different: an extended meditation on the landscape and people around his adopted home in Wiltshire.

I love what Joan Didion has said about Naipaul: "The actual world has for Naipaul a radiance that diminishes all ideas of it." Naipaul writes of arriving in London in 1950, with a colonial schoolboy's knowledge of England through its literature: "I had come to London as to a place I knew very well. I found a city that was strange and unknown... And something else occurred in those early days, the first days of arrival. I lost a faculty that had been part of me and precious to me for many years. I lost the gift of fantasy, the dream of the future, the far-off place where I was going." The enigma of arriving in a well-known place and finding it strange, of having to discover it again—not the idea of it, but the actuality.

The power of The Enigma of Arrival lies in Naipaul's minute observation of the life around him, and in the slow and patient accumulation of detail. The book is artfully repetitive, like a time-lapse film in which many details remain the same, but others change gradually or with dramatic suddenness. Change is the overarching theme of the book, change and perception and memory. The idea of flux has insulated him from grief: he has watched the land and the life around him slowly change from what it was when he first arrived, and he realizes that those changes have been going on since the beginning of time. But even this idea changes.
I had lived with the idea of change, had seen it as a constant, had seen a world in flux, had seen human life as a series of cycles that sometimes ran together. But philosophy failed me now. Land is not land alone, something that simply is itself. Land partakes of what we breathe into it, is touched by our moods and memories.
As I read Naipaul's book, I thought of the first two chapter titles of Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native. The first, a description of Edgon Heath, is titled: "A Face on Which Time Makes but Little Impression." The second: "Humanity Appears Upon the Scene, Hand in Hand with Trouble." The presence of humans does change the landscape: the essence of humanity is change, decay, and mortality. We have our little runs, we leave our little traces behind.

Naipaul observes the people around him and their little runs through the landscape: Pitton the gardener coming through the same gate at the same time each day, Jack's father wrapping plastic bags around the barbed wire fences so that he can lift the wire and pass through—the tattered plastic remaining, marking the man's little run long after his death. Naipaul has his own run, his own little daily walk: he is a consummate observer, but he also becomes one of the figures in the landscape, open to the possibility of grief at its changes.

Opening a volume of essays by Richard Jefferies (purchased at an old half-timbered second-hand book shop in Warwick), I found this passage:
A friend said, "Why do you go the same road every day? Why not have a change and walk somewhere else sometimes? Why keep on up and down the same place?" I could not answer; till then it had not occurred to me that I did always go one way; as for the reason of it I could not tell; I continued in my old mind while the summers went away. Not till years afterwards was I able to see why I went the same round and did not care for change. I do not want change: I want the same old and loved things, the same wild-flowers, the same trees and soft ash-green; the turtle-doves, the blackbirds, the coloured yellowhammer sing, sing, singing so long as there is light to cast a shadow on the dial, for such is the measure of his song, and I want them in the same place... [A]ll the living staircase of the spring, step by step, upwards to the great gallery of summer—let me watch the same succession year by year.
Jefferies and Naipaul both watch for and love the steady succession of the seasons of the country year, but both recognize that change must come, and with it grief:
A little feather droops downward to the ground—a swallow's feather fuller of miracle than the Pentateuch—how shall that feather be placed again in the breast where it grew? Nothing twice. Time changes the places that knew us, and if we go back in after years, still even then it is not the old spot; the gate swings differently, new thatch has been put on the old gables, the road has been widened, and the sward the driven sheep lingered on is gone. Who dares to think then? For faces fade as flowers, and there is no consolation. So now I am sure I was right in always walking the same way by the starry flowers striving upwards on a slender ancestry of stem; I would follow the old road to-day if I could.
This was Richard Jefferies, born and raised on a Wiltshire farm, but it could be V.S. Naipaul, walking the paths of a similar farm a century later. So much has changed, and so much has remained the same.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have just finished reading "The Enigma of Arrival." It is a book that I expect will stay with me for a long time since it speaks, in a completely unanticipated way, to my own life experience.

I was born in a tied cottage on a crumbling feudal estate in rural England and grew up as the village life around me was changing irrevocably.

Naipaul brilliantly and authoritatively informs us that such changes are ubiquitous and constant in today's world, and yet the transformation of rural England, which was a staggered process occurring over many decades that may yet be incomplete in a few protected pockets such as the royal estates, is an especially resonant theme.

English literature and the type of education promoted throughout the British Empire have something to do with this, of course, as Naipaul alludes to often. The England of great country houses was the timeless ideal England that Naipaul expected to find, but didn’t when he arrived in post-war England in 1950.

Naipaul reminds us of the broader global context of colonialism that made this artificial and deeply inequitable world possible, but his primary focus is on the largely displaced and variously discontented characters who co-inhabit a decaying piece of feudal Wiltshire with the writer in the 1970s and 1980s.

The lord of the manor is a remote character throughout the novel, and one might observe that the gentry fallen on hard times are hardly an under represented group in English letters since the time of Jane Austen. What makes Naipaul’s work so unusual is his acute focus on the common people who live on the estate, some of them, but a declining number, still in service – although the days when the manor would have employed scores of people, 16 gardeners alone, are long gone by the time Naipaul arrives on the scene.

In focusing on these humble lives, and one not so humble would be literary hanger-on of Naipaul’s landlord, Naipaul manages to capture something of the momentous impact of the social changes that swept rural England in the last century and, to my eyes at least, some of the tragedy.

By idealizing the life of the countryman, Jack, happy in his garden with his shirt off, living in a small world of a few square miles and knowing and wanting nothing else, Naipaul alludes to the way in which the great houses absorbed a much older rural England with roots dating back to medieval times and the mists of antiquity. That these ancient ways of thinking, living and seeing the world were given a prolonged lease of life by virtue of great imperial might that waxed and waned in the space of two centuries, bringing such sensibilities into direct contact with a great contemporary author is an irony of history for which I am grateful.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .