Country Life

The Enigma of Arrival

by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 354 pp., $17.95

In his long, still much undervalued poem The Age of Anxiety, W.H. Auden’s heroine in New York likes to imagine “one of those lovely innocent countrysides” that are “familiar to all readers of English detective stories.”

There was Lord Lugar at Lighthazels,
Violent-tempered; he voted against
The Banking Bill. At Brothers Intake
Sir William Wand; his Water Treaty
Enriched Arabia. At Rotherhope
General Locke, a genial man who
Kept cormorants. At Craven Ladies
Old Tillingham-Trench; he had two passions,
Women and walking-sticks….
…At Lantern Byepew
Susan O’Rourke, a sensitive who
Prayed for the plants. They have perished now; their
Level lawns and logical vistas
Are obliterated; their big stone
Houses are shut.

Rosetta’s fantasy is probably shared by a good many nostalgic middle-class English persons, for whom the idea of country life and country houses in the shires is one that continues to make an appeal. Some time ago—how long exactly remains uncertain in his account of it—V.S. Naipaul went for a season to live in the heart of just such an English rural scene; and as one might expect from so curious and sensitive a writer his vision of it has a profound, tender, and disquieting originality, as if Eden was being seen for the first time by someone with much sharper eyes than Adam and Eve.

To a personal, self-protective fantasy, like that of Auden’s Rosetta, he would be very sympathetic. As a stranger and pilgrim like her, coming from an island far away from England, he would be aware of the desire to romanticize the old, new-found country whose language he has always spoken; to allow himself to luxuriate in its strangeness and exoticism, as E.M. Forster and J.R. Ackerley did in The Hill of Devi and Hindoo Holiday, books that recorded their stay in the domain of an Indian prince. Their India was his England, the country he had read so much about during his boyhood, in poems and novels. And the unique quality of his discourse, in The Enigma of Arrival, is in the way it combines the sense of innocence and wonder with an eye and an understanding that are quietly and totally penetrating. It is a combination unlike any other, and no other writer today could produce anything like it.

The new England revealed is, spoken of as a residence, situated in one of the country’s richest as well as one of its most picturesque areas, the one that Hardy would have called North Wessex, lying at the confluence of the chalk streams of Wiltshire which flow toward Salisbury. It is, coincidentally, not only Hardy country—although Hardy located there no major novel, only stories—but the setting of E.M. Forster’s own favorite among his novels, The Longest Journey. South from Salisbury the Roman road runs straight to Blandford Forum—whose ancient name itself sounds as if straight out of Auden or Betjeman—and on to Dorchester, Hardy’s Casterbridge …

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