23/5/87 When writer and man come together again
|Saturday, May 23,1997
The Straits Times: Section Two Page 1
When writer and man come together again
The painting depicts a desolate quayside scene, with two muffled figures in the foreground, and the top of a ship's mast beyond a wall in the background.
When V.S. Naipaul first chanced upon a small reproduction of this painting many years ago, it suggested to him a story. Of the two figures, he saw one as a native of the port and the other, someone who has just arrived. In the story he toyed with in his mind, he would take the traveller through a gateway or door, into a city full of noise and crowds.
The traveller would have encounters and adventures, would enter homes and temples, but it would gradually come to him that he is going nowhere. Finding himself lost, he would be seized by panic, and he would try to escape.
Eventually, he would locate the door that opens to the quayside. He has escaped, but beyond the wall, the mast is no longer there. The ship has gone.
Naipaul didn't write that story. But now, more than 10 years after it came to him, he has written another version of that story, and although he has chosen to call it a novel, it is really the story of his development as a writer.
"The writer's journey, the writer defined by his writing discoveries, his ways of seeing, rather than his personal adventures, writer and man separating at the beginning of the journey and coming together again in a second life just before the end"-that is Naipaul's The Enigma Of Arrival.
Naipaul, a descendant of immigrant Indians in Trinidad, left his home for England on an Oxford scholarship just before he turned 18. His imagination fed by Hollywood films and books, the bright young man thought he had a foretaste of where he was going- and he was going to become a writer, elegant, knowing and cultivated.
But he was to meet with one rude awakening after another from the very first day of his journey-collisions with a reality his films and books didn't prepare him for.
Even as he was jotting do his "knowing" observations in his diary, acting the writer, he was behaving like a peasant- in the plane, offering other passengers his bananas, and at the end of the day in a New York hotel room, eating greasy chicken he had brought from home over a wastepaper basket. He didn't think to write this down.
The writer and the man were not the same person.
In the ship from New York to Southampton, Naipaul was pleased to find that he had been given a cabin to himself - until a black man was brought in to join him. It was "a little ghetto privilege" after all.
"I was ashamed that, with all my aspirations, and all that I had put into this adventure, this was all that people saw in me-so far from the way I thought of myself, so far from what I wanted for myself."
The writer as a young man would go on to suffer more humiliations in England, would have to contend with "raw nerves" and "a diminution of self". He would think of escape, but certainly not back to Trinidad. Like the character in his story, his ship had gone.
In any event, he stayed on to finish Oxford and to begin a distinguished career in writing which would eventually bring together the writer and the man - and this integrated Naipaul is elegant, cultivated wise, if not often angry.
THIS journey makes up only one section of the book, which is Naipaul's 19th. The other parts cover what the author describes as his "gift of a second life, a second childhood" in a derelict cottage near Salisbury, about two hours by train from London.
Naipaul had retreated there in his late 30s to recover from a "wounding".
He had spent two years painstakingly researching and writing up a history of the Caribbean. And he had been so taken up by the romance of that history that he had actually dismantled his life in England, preparing to return home to the West Indies.
But events there had over taken his story; others had a different vision of that same history, and they wanted revolution, not romance. Also, the publisher who commissioned him to do the book had wanted a tourist book; he didn't want Naipaul's ambitious effort. The writer broke down.
In his hideaway cottage Naipaul suffered, for a full year, a recurrent nightmare of his head exploding. But he finished the book, In A Free State, which won him the prestigious Booker Prize (1971), and he started to heal.
He got close to the land, saw the flora and fauna first with his literary eye, and then with the eyes of a child. Here in deepest England, where the cows on the meadows brought him back to the cow on the condensed milk tin of his Trinidad childhood, Naipaul finally realised his early fantasy of that sweet other-place.
If there is any fictional element in the book, it will be probably in the small cast of characters who form part of that peaceful rural landscape including a reclusive landlord.
The unnamed narrator (Naipaul) insulates himself from these characters, observing them only from a distance, and he conjectures about their lives and relationships.
But pity the person who gets close to the writer. His Brahmin disdain for lesser folk flashes out quick and merciless. Here is Jack the gardener in close-up:
"It was his eyes, oddly obstreperous, oddly jumpy, that gave him away, that said he was after all a farm worker that in another setting, in a more crowded or competitive place, he might have sunk."
But if he is harsh with people, the author is tender when it comes to the landscape which he describes in pointillist detail.
The Enigma Of Arrival is not so much a novel as a middle-aged writer's meditation on his vocation, on change and upheaval, and on loss and death. The book can be pretty hard going at times. But the prose is lucid, uncluttered and the tone, melancholy but never sentimental, self-regarding or despairing. Naipaul the master works his magic on the reader slowly but surely.
Especially for many of us Singaporeans who have made English our language, for whom London or New York or "the West" can so often be just a state of mind, this book is a priceless gift.
Naipaul's 'anguished' career
IF HlTTING the bestseller list and getting into the People's page of Time magazine is a mark of celebrity status, then V.S. Naipaul (above), at 55, has finally arrived, joining the ranks of such limelight hoggers as Norman Mailer. The Enigma Of Arrival, Naipaul's 19th and most difficult book, sailed right to the top of the bestseller list in England and, for a few weeks last month, hovered at the bottom of the New York Times bestseller list.
"I thought that Johnny, the reader, liked fast food," said the astonished writer in New York recently.
According to the People's page item in a recent Time Issue, Naipaul is now in the American South, working on a book about the region.
Naipaul may be reaching more readers, but he can certainly do without the cult of celebrity. He detests all cults.
And to be a writer, as he has discovered, is not to arrive at some "state of competence, or achievement, or fame, or content... There was a special anguish attached to the career: whatever the labour of any piece of writing, whatever its creative challenges and satisfactions, time had always taken it away from me".