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. A few miles south of Salisbury, too, lies Southampton, the port at which V.S. Naipaul first arrived from Trinidad by way of New York, and whose name then struck him as “especially beautiful.” Perhaps that arrival also suggested to Naipaul the Chirico picture from which he took his title. North from the village, or rather manor, he came to live in, forming the background of his book, are the chalk downs whose summit could be reached in an afternoon’s stroll, and from which Stonehenge is visible.
Property values are higher in this part of England than in any other, not because the farming land is especially profitable but because so many retired or semiretired people with a lot of money—judges, generals, financiers, former colonial administrators—come to live there. But the country is not suburban: it clings, with a perhaps rather too great and increasing self-consciousness, to a traditional rural image. Naipaul is well aware of this. The manor he came to live in—he does not tell us just how—was one of the older “big stone houses” of the neighborhood, owned by the descendant of a great family who had acquired land and a fortune in the early days of the Empire. This figure has become a recluse, still living most of the time in the big house, and referred to rather enigmatically by the writer as “my landlord.” We hardly meet him, but his presence is a potent factor in the strange, rather disturbing charm the place comes to possess for the writer; and it is also the invisible focus for extended sketches of the people we do meet—the “locals”—gardeners, caretakers, drivers, not so much retainers of manor as hangers-on.
“My landlord” was evidently in his youth a well-known figure. One day the taxi driver abruptly takes from the dashboard shelf a thin volume and puts it in the writer’s hand. It is a little jeu d’esprit of the landlord’s late teens, an Evelyn Waugh type fantasy about a society girl, privately printed, long since gathered into the vale of lost things. How has the driver obtained a copy? Why does he now wish to lend it to the writer? Such episodes generate a slightly eerie atmosphere, as if in the world of Proust, or of Alain-Fournier’s romance Le Grand Meaulnes, but they are also significant in simple commonplace ways. The driver, a typically rootless, undeferential, uncentered contemporary English person, nonetheless clings to this evidence that the man at the manor is somebody, or was once somebody, a reassuring figure from a now nonexisting hierarchy. Naipaul understands this well, for it corresponds to something in his own psychological makeup, which the book explores as softly and delicately as it explores the place and the people with whom he comes in contact.
To such a writer as Naipaul, for the purpose of understanding himself and others, and for the purposes of fiction, it is clearly necessary to have a deep and imaginative sense of the dual nature of individuals, their existence in two worlds, both in different ways precarious. Naipaul thoroughly understands the romance of himself—what the novelist John Cowper Powys called his life illusion—the inner saga of himself and his destiny which each person secretly carries alongside the physical circumstances of his existence. His own sense of himself comes out in this book with a gentle, meticulous candor, wholly absorbing and illuminating. He wonders at the strangeness of the contiguity: the invisible partnership between “my landlord,” living alone across the garden in the decaying great house, and himself in his rented cottage by the old farm buildings. The atmosphere of the place mingles with that of his own distracted and distant provenance:
To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moment of creation: it was my temperament. Those nerves had been given me as a child in Trinidad partly by our family circumstances: the half-ruined or broken-down houses we lived in, our many moves, our general uncertainty. Possibly, too, this mode of feeling went deeper and was an ancestral inheritance, something that came with the history that had made me: not only India, with its ideas of a world outside men’s control, but also the colonial plantations or estates of Trinidad, to which my impoverished Indian ancestors had been transported in the last century—estates of which this Wiltshire estate, where I now lived, had been the apotheosis.
He is sensitive to all the physical manifestations of change, the rawness of the old–new country and the mechanism that exploits it—the concrete silages and driveways, the milking parlors and mounds of black plastic weighed down by motor tires. At the same time he is exactly fitted to be the recorder of what rural England now actually looks like, the old and the new continuing together in some bemused and placidly doomed relationship. The British Empire, as a parting gift to her talented son (and no mean one considering the old lady was on her last legs), had given him a language and an education, a jackpotful of scholarships and grants which had brought him to England, to Oxford, and to this beadsman’s existence—peaceful and fruitful—in the autumnal peace of a Wiltshire cottage.
The history I carried with me, together with the self-awareness that had come with my education and ambition, had sent me into the world with a sense of glory dead; and in England had given me the rawest stranger’s nerves. Now ironically—or aptly—living in the grounds of this shrunken estate, going out for my walks, those nerves were soothed, and in the wild garden and orchard beside the water meadows I found a physical beauty perfectly suited to my temperament and answering, besides, every good idea I could have had, as a child in Trinidad, of the physical aspect of England.
Nonetheless, the god Siva, the destroyer and creator, was at work in Wessex, as in Trinidad or in India.
Meeting distress halfway, I cultivated old, possibly ancestral ways of feeling, the ways of glory dead, and held on to the idea of a world in flux: the drum of creation in the god’s right hand, the flame of destruction in his left.
Let loose in the peaceful heart of England this atavistic Oriental understanding—itself ancient, embracing, comprehensive—forms a strange and beautiful artistic amalgam, produces a unique novel. Its center, its clou as Henry James would say, is the shadowy relation between landlord and novelist: the former barely seen by the latter, but admired, sympathized with, even identified with. Naipaul does not luxuriate in the poetry of decline, but he admires the spirit that recognizes and accepts it:
I felt a great sympathy for my landlord. I felt I could understand his malaise; I saw it as the other side of my own. I did not think of my landlord as a failure. Words like failure and success didn’t apply. Only a grand man or a man with a grand idea of his human worth could ignore the high money value of his estate and be content to live in its semi-ruin. My meditations in the manor were not of imperial decline. Rather, I wondered at the historical chain that had brought us together—he in his house, I in his cottage, the wild garden his taste (as I was told) and also mine.
Round this relationship are grouped, almost symmetrically, more down-to-earth and humdrum ones—with “Jack,” another quasi retainer whose cottage and garden were close at hand, with the regular gardener, the manager, agricultural workers and their wives. As we gradually get to know these people and enter their lives, the sense of a country as it really is, at this moment, is extraordinarily strong, as if the quiet magic of Naipaul’s prose were catching these people in a temporary lull, a shared backwater on their way to dissolution. The writer knows that his time in this place cannot last; but his fleeting companions seem to know it too, of their own lives: so far from being rural and static they are constantly borne onward in the shoddy mechanisms of modern change, failing in subtle ways to be themselves, or discovering unexpected ways of beginning afresh—another job, religion, a new car or wife. In the course of the book all these relations come to an end or peter out, but while they last they are wry and genuine, types and symbols of the way we know one another in the alienated world of today, and explored by Naipaul with an equal sympathy and a lack of any stereotyped sentiment.
These relationships, and the regular rhythms of his day, are the heart of the book. Stonehenge, so near at hand across the downs, and the river beside him (“Avon,” he discovers, is a generic name for river: there are many Avons in the English south) still exercise the power that Richard Jeffries, in his country studies a century ago, would recognize as insensibly calming and shaping the country person’s sense of himself. It is striking that when the personal narrative of the book carries the author briefly to other parts of the world—Trinidad, Africa, New York—the reader cannot wait to get back again to the peace and meditation of the Wiltshire valley. To Naipaul it was so clearly “home”—whatever that means today. The valley and the mysterious landlord had to “take him in,” in a way that nowhere else could do, not London, not the New World, or any other, more exotic, part of the old.
It is significant, and rather touching, that this rural peace is also, for the author and participator, a sexless world. He records the “Gala Dance” on the boat over from America, and how a “dainty” girl (the adjective is typical of Naipaul’s gently romantic accuracy) with whom he had happily conversed about books during the voyage, had suddenly ceased to recognize him and become “moist-eyed” in the company of some tediously uneducated fellow, “as though worked upon by forces outside her control.” Those forces are notably absent from the Wiltshire valley, and from the experiences that determine there its value for the author. For both himself and his reader a rest from sex seems especially agreeable, in the context of life or of letters; for, as the novel implies, sex in our modern age has come to seem not something that puts down deep, established, accustomed roots, but an urge as involuntary as it is desolating and nomadic—the urge that produces Rosetta’s lost cry in The Age of Anxiety:
Wafna. Wafna. Who’s to wind me now
In this lost land?
There are still unexpected ways, as Naipaul’s book so beautifully demonstrates, of rediscovering and repossessing such a land, in the experience of art, and of art as a part of living, even while recognizing and knowing it to be lost.
April 9, 1987