In the summer of 2003, just before I entered the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, I took a weeklong poetry workshop with Derek Walcott. It was held not on campus but in a drab room of a midtown Kingston hotel. Until then I had only seen his image in black-and-white photographs, and now I noticed that he had “sea-green eyes,” like his mariner-poet alter ego Shabine in “The Schooner Flight.” Also like Shabine, Walcott was at once tender and pointed about the poet’s responsibility to language and craft. In “The Schooner Flight,” Shabine cuts a crew member for mocking his poem: “none of them go fuck with my poetry again.”
The week ended. I carried on with university and didn’t hear much about Walcott until two years later, in 2005, when the great Jamaican scholar and poet Edward Baugh returned to the UWI after a short spell in the states to teach a seminar on Walcott’s work. Though Walcott was revered, he wasn’t widely read; few living so-called “page poets” were, at least among my generation. Off campus, Jamaican popular music and theater held sway and literary matters didn’t always capture the general public’s imagination. The country, just forty-three years independent, was steeped in financial crisis, and an English major was deemed an honorable rather than a practical pursuit. So there was a sense that the twelve of us of in Professor Baugh’s class, held in a fairly big lecture hall, were in search of a bygone world.
Wonderfully rigorous in his New Critical approach, Professor Baugh was not given to biographical anecdotes. When we fell into stitches over Walcott’s couplet from “The Spoiler’s Return”—“I see these islands and I feel to bawl/‘area of darkness’ with V. S. Nightfall”—Professor Baugh pointed out how the interplay of the Antillean inflection of the lines with the iambic pentameter ensures that the pun on Naipaul’s name isn’t just sardonic wordplay. He dwelled on the texture of language and never gave us insider’s knowledge of the decades-long feud between Walcott and Naipaul, about which we had only heard the ghostliest of rumors, although, as a slightly younger contemporary of both writers, Professor Baugh was more privy than most to the internecine crack-up between them.
But there was a slip. A couple of weeks into the class we were going through “Laventille,” a poem dedicated to Naipaul that dates from the mid-Sixties, when some say the feud started. Laventille is an impoverished township in which “the inheritors of the middle passage stewed” above Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, where Naipaul spent his adolescence and Walcott lived for many years. Rather than damning Naipaul as he did sixteen years later in “The Spoiler’s Return,” Walcott here uses a paradoxical image—“to go downhill/from here was to ascend”—that seems to praise Naipaul’s forbearance in surviving such harsh conditions, or so Professor Baugh explained.
Around that time Professor Baugh mentioned “The Garden Path,” an essay Walcott had written on Naipaul’s ninth novel, The Enigma of Arrival. Then he fell quiet, and his gentle, slightly phlegmatic brown eyes stared over our heads to the wall behind us. He was suddenly a man elsewhere. It was that stare that made me go to the library when class ended to find Walcott’s essay and borrow Naipaul’s novel, which I hadn’t read.
To a few people on campus, borrowing the book would have been heroic; to most, it would have been a kind of heresy. Whereas Walcott was basically respected on campus, Naipaul’s politics—politics of citizenship, politics of cultural nationalism, and frankly politics of race—meant that he was considered more or less a pariah. There was general appreciation for his stature as a major international writer from the Caribbean, but he was understood, particularly in his books The Middle Passage (1962) and An Area of Darkness (1964), to have cast the region aside and become no longer one of us. I hadn’t read either of those books; many of my peers hadn’t either. Yet speaking about Naipaul in almost any context was problematic, largely due to the quarrels many members of my generation had inherited from the ones before us.
I found “The Garden Path” in Walcott’s collection What the Twilight Says (1998). The essay had first appeared in The New Republic as a review of The Enigma of Arrival in 1987. “Press one foot on the soil of England,” it begins, “and the phantoms spring. Poets, naturalists, novelists have harrowed and hallowed it for centuries with their furrowing pens as steadily as its yeomen once did with the plough.” It then names a cavalcade of those English poets, naturalists, and novelists. I rushed up and down the library stairs in search of Edward Thomas, Ted Hughes, and surnames I dimly recognized: Langland, Spenser, Marvell, Keats. I gave up on finding “the Georgians,” stumped by the library’s cumbersome card catalog, which dated back to Walcott’s time on campus in the 1950s.
In the second paragraph of the essay, Naipaul’s book gets its first brush, a kind of schoolboy skewering:
The final essay examination has been submitted, and the marks are in. Gentlemen, we now have among us another elegiac pastoralist, an islander himself, the peer of Clare and Cobbett, not only in style, but in spirit. And if the cost to that spirit has meant virulent contempt towards the island of his origin, then rook, shaw, and hedgerow, tillage and tradition, will soothe him, because although he may reject his own soil, his own phantoms, the earth everywhere is forgiving, even in Trinidad, and rejects no one.
Twisty but clear. A scolding was being handed down, and it spoke to why Naipaul’s reputation among my peers was suspect. Walcott’s long sentence alleges that Naipaul had turned his back on Trinidad and Tobago, where he was born in 1932, for England. The prevailing spirit on campus—built on the grounds of a former slave plantation, remnants of which could still be seen—was about embracing one’s Caribbean heritage, “faults and all” (a phrase found in the fourth and final lines of Walcott’s generation-defining poem, “Sea Canes”). To embrace that heritage was to reject Naipaul both for repudiating his Caribbean heritage and for the far worse crime of self-pityingly working within the circumscribed bounds of empire. By this view, Naipaul’s “virulent contempt”—Walcott uses pathological language freely throughout the essay—was not just ungrateful. It was vicious.
The intensity builds. Walcott characterizes Naipaul’s contempt in two more ways. First, it is thinly veiled by egotistical mythmaking. “The myth of Naipaul as a phenomenon, as a singular, contradictory genius who survived the cane fields and the bush at great cost, has long been a farce.” I know the cane fields. They were littered across eastern Jamaica, where I spent parts of my childhood. Next to them were the shanties and barracks in which generations of people of African and Indian descent have endured horrible conditions. With hardly any other income-generating work available to them, eventually they succumb to the cane, working themselves to death in the fields and factories. Some escape, but into conditions only a little better than the spirit-killing life of cane labor. In my notebook I scribbled a naive question: How can it be a farce to survive the cane fields?
The second aspect of the contempt for which Walcott indicts Naipaul is the hatred and racial prejudice in his travel writing. Not having read Naipaul’s travel books or any criticism of Naipaul, I found Walcott’s charge hard to tally with the stories in Miguel Street and the novel A House for Mr Biswas, the only two books of Naipaul’s that I had read by then. I loved their portrayal of Indians and black and mixed-race characters in Port of Spain, all done with a generous calypsonian irony, as humans with human flaws and possibilities. When years later I read those travel writings and some of Naipaul’s interviews (he told The New York Times in 1980 that “I can’t see a Monkey—you can use a capital M, that’s an affectionate word for the generality—reading my work”), I came to sympathize with Walcott’s charge that Naipaul is “unfair and unjust at an obscene cost, at the cost of those who do not have his eloquence, his style.”
For Walcott, Naipaul’s writing displays a profound “self-disfigurement.” It “is scarred by scrofula.” It was my first time coming across that word, and ever the diligent student, I jotted it in my notebook: scrofula, or “the king’s evil,” a disease supposedly curable by the touch of a royal. I inferred from Walcott’s phrase that Naipaul’s attitudes amounted to a longing for monarchy. And in the Caribbean, where enslavement, colonialism, and indentureship are all entangled with the British crown, to long for monarchy is the ultimate form of self-betrayal. “Joyce, Shakespeare, Dante, for all their clear hatreds, are beyond this self-disfigurement,” Walcott writes, but Naipaul suffers it incurably. The essay carries on this way, “handing Naipaul his ass,” to use a phrase often heard in Trinidad.
There are some exceptional moments of praise: “Tempered and delicate,” Walcott writes of The New Yorker’s excerpts from the novel, “the mood of these pieces had the subdued subtleties of the weather their pliant sentences celebrated.” Walcott admits that “the best leaves of this book are touched by grace.” At the end of one of these cited passages, freshly arrived in England and wrestling to express what his Trinidadian origin means to him, Naipaul writes that “the island had given me the world as a writer.” I turned to a new leaf in my notebook and wrote that phrase down. It impressed me with the image of a child, perhaps a little sullen but filled with wonder about the things around him. To me the phrase seemed summoned from the turmoil of slavery and indentureship, like old wisdom made new. It quickened in me, an islander and an aspiring writer, something that felt irrevocable.
And yet right after quoting Naipaul’s phrase, Walcott mangles it. Naipaul should “more honestly” have written, Walcott suggests, that the island “had given the world me as a writer.” The human dignity I had found in Naipaul’s phrase was disfigured by Walcott’s simple displacement of two words. In Naipaul’s phrase, the island is not just the writer’s natural habitat but the launchpad of his imagination, the ground, present even when invisible, from which he sees the world. In Walcott’s version, the writer has only his bland, naked ego: no island, no land, no ground for his imagination or place from which to make sense of the world. It made me picture the writer as a man-child floating in empty space. Walcott’s next sentence is a blunt “nothing wrong with that.” I couldn’t make sense of it. It saddened me.
Still, following a moment’s pause, I wrote Walcott’s rendering in my notebook. I looked at the two phrases in my handwriting, Naipaul’s above darkly mirrored by Walcott’s below. It was as if the small blank space between them were opening, distant islands pushed permanently apart by a turbulent sea. In the narrow left margin beside Walcott’s rendering of Naipaul’s phrase, I wrote: “A hit, a very palpable hit!” I finished reading the essay and went home. I had forgotten to check out the novel.
A year later, in 2006, I was studying poetry at New York University. That first autumn of my MFA program I found a well-thumbed paperback of The Enigma of Arrival on a bookseller’s table near Washington Square Park. It was a late printing of the American edition by Knopf. On its muted turquoise and white cover Giorgio de Chirico’s titular painting was a small inset above Naipaul’s name. That autumn—for many days on benches, in the park, and on subway rides back and forth between Brooklyn, where I lived, and Manhattan—I read the novel in a slow, dreamlike haze. It was “hypnotic,” as Naipaul reported his French translator called it.
Trancelike, too, in the word’s original sense of “going across,” The Enigma of Arrival is a book about traversing and blurring the boundaries between the new and old worlds. The narrator’s life is the book’s unstable center. His physical exile begins when he flies from Trinidad and Tobago to New York City, en route to England. It is 1950, and he is a few months short of his eighteenth birthday. He has left home for the same reason I left home, to become a writer, and in the same fashion I did, to attend university abroad. His overnight stay in New York occurs on a day “unseasonably cool and grey for the end of July.” The “hideous anxiety” it sets off in him becomes the novel’s motif and motivating force.
The narrator remembers the city’s “tall buildings, which, with some shame, I stopped to look up at,” as being “curiously softly colored”; he remembers the paradoxical gray daytime light outside of the Wellington Hotel where he spent the night, how it shone “without glare” and “suggested a canopied, protected world”; he remembers the city he had landed in the night before, full of bright buildings and dazzling light but also congested. When I arrived in New York City, I also felt the strangeness, the excitement, the shame, and the narrator’s “terrible solitude.”
The narrator journeys from New York by ship for little more than a month to Southampton, England. Though the Atlantic crossing is long and he is full of fear (“I feared being assaulted; I feared attracting someone’s malevolence”), it is not that journey he recalls when he arrives in England but his time in New York, where “the separation of man from writer” became “complete.” The hideous anxiety of New York follows him from his two-month stay at a boardinghouse in Earls Court (an “enclave in London”) to four years of dreary student life at Oxford. It follows him back to London for a year in which “very slowly, man and writer came together again.” In his sixth year in England he can finally visit Trinidad, penniless but a writer. He stays only six weeks before returning to London in what Naipaul, recounting his own biography, once called “a state of psychological destitution.” There he lives for some years before moving to Wiltshire, the end of his wanderings and, in many respects, his true post of exile.
I understand that conundrum of geographical change, its psychic blow. I reeled from it even after I got used to living and working in the city. The anxiety the narrator experiences in New York flitters into his partial pastoral serenity in Wiltshire. After fifteen years there, concentrating on the landscape and on himself, he sees precisely what that anxiety was and is: “I lost a faculty that had been part of me and precious to me for years. I lost the gift of fantasy, the dream of the future, the far-off place where I was going.” In this way of looking, he admits his loss of innocence, not as something to be honored but as a simple, brutal fact. “I lost a faculty”; “the far-off place”: how many times, tramping about the West Village in my peacoat that first autumn, did I repeat those phrases under my breath? The Enigma of Arrival became part of my internal rhythm of resistance in the city, my bulwark against losing the gift of fantasy my island had given to me—the gift the narrator felt he had lost after his arrival in England. I was hopeful: the narrator regains his gift.
But he regains it with huge losses. By the time his first books are published his father, who inspired his writing ambition, has died in Trinidad. He is unable to return home for the funeral. A few years later, in his early thirties and much more secure in his writing career, he develops “exploding head syndrome.” The illness, which begins in his dream, starts to take over his daily life. The exploding head passages are among Naipaul’s most acute and clinical, a vivid blend of realism and the fantastical:
In this dream there occurred always, at a critical moment in the dream narrative, what I can only describe as an explosion in my head. It was how every dream ended, with this explosion that threw me flat on my back, in the presence of people, in a street, a crowded room, or wherever, threw me into this degraded posture in the midst of standing people, threw me into the posture of sleep in which I found myself when I awakened. The explosion was so loud, so reverberating and slow in my head that I felt, with the part of my brain that miraculously could still think and draw conclusions, that I couldn’t possibly survive, that I was in fact dying, that the explosion this time, in this dream, regardless of the other dreams that had revealed themselves at the end as dreams, would kill, that I was consciously living through, or witnessing, my own death. And when I awoke my head felt queer, shaken up, exhausted; as though some discharge in my brain had in fact occurred.
Healing follows, but another illness does “away with whatever remained of youthfulness in me.” He is exhausted. Still, he finds himself, middle-aged, in a long period of peace. Then grief strikes again. This time his younger sister Sati dies in Trinidad from a brain hemorrhage. The narrator returns to his island for the religious rites after her cremation. Titled “The Ceremony of Farewell,” the novel’s brief, luminous epilogue brings the writer’s task into relief: performing the hard process of mourning, which underscores that both the individual and the community survive.
I finished The Enigma of Arrival that winter of 2006 in my apartment on Macon Street in Bed-Stuy. I hadn’t noticed the washed-out gray of morning or felt the space heater nearly burning my feet when I came to the final page, sealed with the dates “October 1984–April 1986.” I wiped my face and returned to the book’s opening passage:
For the first four days it rained. I could hardly see where I was. Then it stopped raining and beyond the lawn and outbuildings in front of my cottage I saw fields with stripped trees on the boundaries of each field; and far away, depending on the light, glints of a little river, glints which sometimes appeared, oddly, to be above the level of the land.
The entire novel is there, not as a summary but as an awakening and reawakening, those double glints that will expand into a single vision of the narrator’s journey. The purpose of his journey is to become a writer. It is marked, from the start, with many instances of humiliation. Success comes much later. In the span of a decade in Wiltshire the narrator undergoes what he calls “my second childhood of seeing and learning, my second life, so far away from my first.” Repetition is the novel’s main harmonic device, and the echo of “second” here, like that of “glints” in the opening scene, reaffirms an experience, makes the experience an indelible memory.
I read the opening sentences again and caught their exhilarating sadness and blessed unease. I felt that they were Naipaul’s regained paradiso. I could, like an illustrator drawing from dictation, sketch the scene easily: lawn, outbuildings, trees, fields, a river, and vaguely, at the edge, as if about to disappear, the outline of a man brooding on what he sees in the landscape and what he imagines he can see beyond it. The scene seemed to do what Tarkovsky wrote cinema did: “Juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the whole world.”
I knew I was far away from home. A look at the gray and snow outside my window affirmed it. But the novel affirmed it in another way. In it I could see glints of myself in the distance, a stranger in a strange place, searching for a future. “To go abroad,” the narrator muses in “The Ceremony of Farewell,” “could be to fracture one’s life.” The conditional tense attempts to conceal the straightforward pain it confesses. Yet this very strategy makes the emotion all the more raw, an existential cry rather than a pathetic whine of despair by a former colonial subject. Those words rang in me and were to stay ringing during my time in the city and beyond.
Two years later, in 2008, packing to leave New York City to do a Ph.D. in Salt Lake City, I came across my notebook from that evening in the university campus library in Jamaica. Opening it I noticed, next to my jotted lines by Walcott, my transcription of Osric’s line from the fencing scene in Hamlet: “A hit, a very palpable hit!” Now the quote looked mean. Why did I write it? Had I succumbed to the schoolboy jousting implicit in Walcott’s essay? Indeed, in the paragraph following his anagramming of Naipaul’s phrase, Walcott writes that if Naipaul “doesn’t want to play, like the peevish sixth-grader still contained in an almost great writer, he can go and play by himself.” It is a threat of banishment I’ve heard issued by an exam room invigilator or a schoolhouse bully.
Something struck me now about Walcott’s decision to change the syntax of Naipaul’s phrase “the island had given me the world as a writer” to the almost agrammatic “had given the world me as a writer.” It seemed to undermine—in meaning and cadence—the exaltation and wonder of the child awakening to his island, his only vantage from which to see and imagine a world beyond the cane. Further, it undermined Naipaul’s ultimate attempt at writing against that threat of self-annihilation brought on by the “hideous anxiety” of leaving home. By writing a confessional autobiography in the form of a novel, and perhaps at times with what Walcott described as a sixth-grader’s peevishness, Naipaul was writing against the original displacement of colonialism and indentureship. The writing was done to prove the gift the island had given the writer and not, as Walcott’s twisting of the phrase would have it, the writer’s egotism. Naipaul’s phrase is about the writer’s capacity to record the child’s wonder, making that wonder into a language of vigilant and personal articulacy.
Such articulation is susceptible to easy ridicule. It exposes how often the writer from a colonized country depends on going abroad to fulfill his ambition. When he was eleven, Naipaul witnessed his father’s self-published novella of 1942, The Adventures of Gurudeva, never gain a readership outside Trinidad and Tobago. This and what Naipaul calls “the pain of his early life” left Seepersad Naipaul a broken man. At the same time, his Caribbean contemporaries like Samuel Selvon and Edgar Mittelholzer, who had their books published abroad, principally in England, enjoyed some level of success. Abroad, then, was where success lay.
But to go abroad oneself—where success isn’t guaranteed—is to enter a state of total deracination. Ever on the road, you become victim of a double vulnerability. Elsewhere, Naipaul calls this “colonial schizophrenia.” It puts the writer in a dilemma similar to the “three impossibilities” that Franz Kafka described in a letter to Max Brod: “the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently.” To which “one might also add,” he went on, “a fourth impossibility, the impossibility of writing.” In the adamantine plainness of The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul opts for the impossibility of writing differently—a choice that cements him, in style and in substance, as the greatest Caribbean-born writer of Kafkan dread.
Walcott’s essay ends with a blessing: “Shantih to his pen, though,” Walcott writes, “and a benediction on the peace that has come to him after the exhaustions of a world whose features he has still described more honestly than most.” The Sanskrit I recognized from the end of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Why that word? It cuts close to patronizing. “In a small hillside hotel,” Walcott goes on, with “a view of the Caribbean,” he finds an old issue of National Geographic and takes an “appropriate blessing” for Naipaul from the caption “under the photograph of a sadhu.” He does so because he prefers “to cherish the narrator of The Enigma of Arrival, not as an enigmatic English squire who has finally arrived, but as the sadhu that he might have become.”
There is much that is inappropriate about this shantih, not least that it reduces Naipaul to a kind of glossy anthropological spectacle. If Walcott wanted to impose an Eliotic blessing on Naipaul, why not “Home is where one starts from” from Four Quartets? Both in its symphonic design and in its theme of consolation in the aftermath of great suffering, The Enigma of Arrival resembles Eliot’s great postwar poems set in a “nowhere” England.
As I considered Walcott’s shantih I thought back to Professor Baugh’s face, his elsewhere gaze in the classroom at UWI when he had mentioned Walcott’s essay on Naipaul. That gaze was left unexplained, the way Professor Baugh left much of the Walcott–Naipaul feud unexplained during our discussion of “The Spoiler’s Return” and “Laventille.” Those poems and “The Garden Path” are not the only times Walcott mentions Naipaul in print. Between 1961 and 1967, he wrote up to ten articles on Naipaul (including an interview with him) for the Trinidadian Guardian. In the earliest, he argued that Naipaul “has been accused of calling the West Indies ‘philistine’ and ‘hostile,’ but whatever his outbursts of anger may stem from, they are not present in his novels, which are full of the pathos of understanding.”1
Naipaul, for his part, only wrote at length about Walcott once, in a 2007 essay called “The Worm in the Bud.” In it he recalls as a sixteen-year-old schoolboy in Trinidad in 1949 hearing “news” about a pamphlet Walcott had self-published the year before called 25 Poems. Naipaul didn’t read the book then, only six years later, when he’d already been in England four years. Near the end of the essay, he writes that the grown-up Walcott had become “the man who had stayed behind and found beauty in the emptiness from which other writers had fled: a kind of model, in the eyes of people far away.”
The last time Walcott mentioned Naipaul was in a poem called “The Mongoose,” which he recited at the 2008 Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica. Walcott never printed “The Mongoose”; the audio of his reading of it exists on various sources online. (“I debated whether to read this here for the first time in public,” he said. “I think you’ll recognize Mr. Naipaul.”) You can hear not only his voice but also the breeze and the surf—Calabash is an outdoor festival—and, louder, the bursts of laughter from the audience after he reads each couplet: “I have been bitten. I must avoid infection,/or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.” The laughs are anonymous, but among them is my own.
I don’t pretend to know what Professor Baugh’s gaze meant. But in the years since I have come to feel as though it led me indirectly to Walcott’s essay and Naipaul’s book—a book I read when I needed it most. It was as if Professor Baugh was encouraging an aspiring Caribbean writer to read these two great Caribbean writers without needing to side with one against the other. With time I came to see—almost equally—some of Naipaul’s views as deplorable, as well as some of Walcott’s. In the final sentence in “The Garden Path,” his irony less barbed, Walcott concludes: “Peace to the traveller, and calm to the mind growing nearer to that radiance, to the vision that sees all earth as sacred, including his birthplace, and all people as valuable, including Trinidadians.”
The word “sacred” recurs in The Enigma of Arrival. It appears seven times in the novel’s short final sequence alone, when the narrator observes the religious ceremony that follows his sister’s cremation in Trinidad. There he sees her younger son bravely take part in the Hindu final rites of cremation. The boy is brave for carrying out his duty well in the complicated ceremony, but also for asking the pundit a serious question: How had his mother’s past “dictated the cruelty of her death”? The pundit does not or cannot answer. The narrator, at this occasion of death and return, sees the sanctity of his island home: “We were immemorially people of the countryside, far from the courts of princes, living according to rituals we didn’t always understand and yet were unwilling to dishonor because that would cut us off from the past, the sacred earth, the gods.”