Naipaul and The Enigma of Arrival

Reviewing Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul in the Times Literary Supplement, AN Wilson is absolutely right when he says:

  • Naipaul is one of the best journalists;
  • The Enigma of Arrival is a masterpiece.

The Enigma bored me when I first read it many years ago, but now I realise how good it is. Just don’t approach it as a novel. It is slow, there is no plot development, no colourful characters.

But few writers have written so intimately about how they developed as writers.

Naipaul writes about his journey from the Caribbean to England, then selling off his house in England to go back to the New World to write about it, and finally returning to England. He writes about his insecurity when a publisher rejected the book, expecting an advance from which he had gone off to the Caribbean and North America. Running short of money, unable to concentrate on a book he had started writing in Canada, he decides to return to England as he has no audience in America.

Back in England, he finds himself a congenial environment and is able to write again. He describes the experience:

Everything about the house was welcoming and good… I felt protected, isolated, far from every wounding thing I had known. For the first time in many weeks I felt at ease.

That afternoon… I looked for the first time for weeks at the manuscript I had tried to get started in Victoria… I found it better than I had during the writing. I even saw the sentence where it had come alive — a sentence written out of concentration, from within the mood created by the words. That critical creative moment had been missed by me in Victoria, perhaps because of my anxiety about what was to follow in the writing; and perhaps as well because of my anxiety about what was to follow Victoria.

Now, recognizing the validity of that good sentence, I surrendered to the pictures the words created, the other pictures they trailed…

Writing strengthened me; it quelled anxiety. And now writing restored me again. My book was given back to me. I began to write slowly, day by day…

Without the book, I do not know how I would have gone through that difficult time. With me, everything started from writing.Writing had brought me to England, had sent me away from England; had given me a vision of romance; had nearly broken me with disappointment. Now it was writing, the book, that gave savour, possibility, to each day, and took me on night after night.

I had intended to stay for a week or so in Gloucester. I stayed nearly three months, unwilling, apart from everything else, to cut myself off from the magic of the place.

Writing doesn’t get more intimate than this. One can see the writer at work and his creative process. 

Written after his sister’s death

The Enigma of Arrival is a must-read for anyone interested in writers and their work. It has been called a thinly veiled autobiography. But the last section, A Ceremony of Farewell, is undisguised autobiography. Here Naipaul writes about the death of his younger sister, Sati, in 1984. He writes about leaving his Wiltshire home and flying back to Trinidad for the religious ceremony officiated by a pundit who happens to be his cousin, the son of his father’s brother. He writes about the Indian community in Trinidad and how they provided the material for his earliest stories. And then, on the last page, he reveals why he chose to add this account of his sister’s death to The Enigma of Arrival. He had been thinking of writing such a book for years, he says, but he wrote it only after his sister’s death. He explains:

It forced us to look on death. It forced me to face the death I had been contemplating at night, in my sleep; it fitted a real grief where melancholy had created a vacancy, as if to prepare me for the moment. It showed me life and man as the mystery, the true religion of men, the grief and the glory. And that was when, faced with a real death, and with this new wonder about men, I laid aside my drafts and hesitations and began to write very fast about Jack (a character in The Enigma of Arrival) and his garden.

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