He would have looked out on something like perfection: the lawn with the great trees in the foreground, the forest or wood to one side, the beaten-down water meadow beyond this lawn, with all the growth of willow and reeds and bamboo clumps and dogwood and the shrubs that loved water; the river with its river growths, the water meadows beyond, the willows, the channels, the drowned fields catching the morning light and, at a sufficient distance, the evening light; and then the bare downs again. (222)
What a beautiful piece of writing. The lovely rhythm, the understated language that gives the observation such freshness and clarity – characteristic of Naipaul in this most unusual of books, The Enigma Of Arrival. It’s a novel, even though the narrator is telling Naipaul’s own story, that of a young man from Trinidad who arrived in England on a scholarship, determined to be a writer and steeped in the literature of the British empire. It covers an 11-year period in which the narrator, like Naipaul, lived in a cottage on an aristocratic estate whose dilettante owner had retreated from the world. It ends in the funeral rites of the narrator’s sister in Trinidad.
But it isn’t an autobiography. Naipaul makes his walks on the downs, his observation of the locals and of the decaying grandeur of the old manor into a mirroring of, and a meditation on, the flux of change not just in individual lives but in the collective life of villages, towns, countries.
On this walk, as on the longer walk on the downs past Jack’s cottage, I lived not with the idea of decay – that idea I didn’t shed – so much as with the idea of change. I lived with the idea of change, of flux, and learned, profoundly, not to grieve for it. I learned to dismiss this easy cause of so much human grief. 228
I could go on and on about Naipaul’s skills. Here’s an example of his characterization:
Alan was in his late thirties. He was a small man, as small as I was. His size was one of the things that tormented him. He told me almost as soon as we met – as though to raise the subject before I did – that at school someone, one of the teachers, I believe, had referred to him as ‘dwarfish’. This worry about his physical appearance perhaps explained Alan’s clowning, his mighty explosions of laughter, the extravagant cut and colours and shininess of the clothes he wore at parties in London, where from time to time I saw him. The gaiety of these clothes and the boisterousness of his manner contrasted with the nervousness, almost the shiftiness, of his eyes; and contrasted as well with the solitude and soberness of manner he imposed on himself when he visited the manor, where one sometimes surprised a wrinkled old-lady’s look on his face, before the wrinkles became the wrinkles of gaiety. (279)
I’ve never been a fan of Naipaul as a person – let’s not start on his treatment of his wife Pat, who doesn’t exist in this book even though she was with him the whole time – but you just have to bow down before him as a writer. A wonderful book.