"I did other work; and in this concrete way, out of work that came easily to me because it was so close to me, I defined myself, and saw that my subject was not my sensibility, my inward development, but the worlds I contained within myself, the worlds I lived in."--The Enigma of Arrival
In the summer of 2006 I went to Borders bookstore to buy some books to take with me on my beach vacation to Sarasota, Florida (one of those was Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, which no one probably considers a beach read). I wanted to read a Naipaul novel. Ever since he won the Nobel in 2001, he had been "on my list" and finally I thought I'd read one of his most oft-mentioned works, like A Bend in the River. But, as I stood there looking over the various Naipaul novels, what attracted me was this line in one of the blurbs on the back cover of The Enigma of Arrival--"V. S. Naipaul is a man who can inspire readers to follow him through the Slough of Despond and beyond."
So, sitting on a beach in Florida, I read a novel about depression, set in Salisbury, England. When I picked up my copy of this book last night after hearing of Naipaul's death, I sniffed it to see if the smell of the beach lingered a dozen years later. Sadly, it does not.
From the blog review I wrote after that 2006 vacation, I was glad for the long, slow reading time to work through a slow novel. I concluded, "This is a powerful, beautiful work that I highly recommend for anyone who desires a slow read that shows how a human being lives through depression."
The Enigma of Arrival is the best of the nine Naipaul books I've read (and I own 3 more I haven't gotten to yet). Most often you hear of A House for Mister Biswas or A Bend in the River, but I didn't care as much for those (the links are the reviews I wrote about them). I greatly enjoyed Guerillas. I recommend Half a Life for anyone starting out with Naipaul--it is a short novel that contains many of his major themes, including "how a colonial shapes an identity in the midst of the collapse of colonialism."
I have admired Naipaul's novels because they engage you intellectually. They are conceptual; they grapple with ideas. He has an amazing command of language and crafts such beautiful sentences. I wrote in 2017 that "He may be the best living writer in the English language." Though I have also written that for all their admirable qualities, his novels "lack the magical, captivating charm of Gabriel Garcia Marquez."
I have also read two of his travel books, appreciating their "keen observational ability." I felt his book Beyond Belief taught me much I did not know and helped shape my thinking on the geopolitical issues we have faced in the last two decades. Of his book about the American South, I wrote, "He writes with a deep curiosity and desire to understand everyone."
In 2009 Patrick French wrote a highly praised biography entitled The World Is What It Is. That year the biography made many end-of-the year lists of the best nonfiction books of the year. Though I had only read two Naipaul books at the time, I bought and read the biography. Naipaul had arranged for French to write an authorized biography, yet French's final work is highly critical of Naipaul the person, painting him as misogynist, ambitious, arrogant, and a user in a way that destroys the women in his life. Naipaul allowed the biography to go forward, but dismissed its portrayal of him. It is maybe the most shocking authorized biography one could read.
And, yet, it made me even more interested in reading all of Naipaul's books, richly discussed in the biography. It was at this point that I began picking them up in used bookstores and reading about one a year.
The biography also meant I read the books more critically, worried about the misogyny in Guerillas or the way he makes fun of his own people in The Mystic Masseur. Yet, as I pointed out when I read the latter in 2009, "Though, I must say, the very end seems to make even Naipaul's views somewhat comic."
I liked this paragraph from the NYTimes obit:
Yet Mr. Naipaul exempted neither colonizer nor colonized from his scrutiny. He wrote of the arrogance and self-aggrandizement of the colonizers, yet exposed the self-deception and ethical ambiguities of the liberation movements that swept across Africa and the Caribbean in their wake. He brought to his work moral urgency and a novelist’s attentiveness to individual lives and triumphs.
Naipaul has his critics, though. And for very good reason. He does not seem to have been a very nice man. And he has said and written things that Chinua Achebe rightly describes as "downright outrageous." Achebe, whose Things Fall Apart is a far greater novel than anything written by Naipaul (in my opinion), wrote an outraged critique of A Bend in the River in his book Home and Exile, which contends that African voices must write about Africa to overcome four centuries of dispossession in which non-Africans wrote biased stories about Africa. Naipaul included.
Achebe wrote, "Naipaul's forte is to browbeat his reader by such pontifical high writing." Achebe points out the ways in which A Bend in the River ridicules and holds in contempt Africans (he demonstrates how Naipaul does the same for Indians and his native Trinidadians). Naipaul has also defended Western civilization as the universal civilization, and Achebe criticizes this. His own observation is thus, "To suggest that the universal civilization is in place already is to be willfully blind to our present reality and, even worse, to trivialize the goal and hinder the materialization of a genuine universality in the future."
So, reading Naipaul is very complicated. The well-crafted books don't exist within a vacuum apart from the man. Or the larger geopolitical issues. Yet even these complexities seem to reflect the traumas of colonialism.
The author narrator of The Enigma of Arrival returns to Trinidad and realizes that it has changed. He writes, "So, as soon as I had arrived at a new idea about the place, it had ceased to be mine." Then, we read, "Through writing--knowledge and curiosity feeding off one another--I had arrived at a new idea of myself and my world. But the world had not stood still."