Oxford Blues


THE YOUNG V.S. Naipaul made many mistakes. Upon his arrival in New York City for a short stay, a taxi driver cheated him out of almost all his money--surely an understandable mistake for a naive young traveller to make. Nevertheless, Naipaul confesses to have "felt this humiliation so keenly that memory blurred it soon; and then eradicated it for many years."

The Enigma of Arrival

By V.S. Naipaul

Knopf; 354pp.;$17.95.

This open admission of personal weakness is disarming, hiding the fact that Naipaul is really commenting on human nature: all of us occasionally choose to "forget" embarrassing incidents. Such "I'm guilty, too" tactics are part of the essence of Naipaul's powerful style: it is difficult to resist his criticism of human flaws when he includes himself.

Unfortunately, The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul's new autobiographical novel, suffers from a surfeit of description and fantasy, leaving one bored instead of touched by its detailed portrait of the English countryside in decay.

It isn't until well into the book's second section that we get the frank self-criticism and irony described above and for which Naipaul is so justly famous. It isn't until then, more than a quarter of the way into his autobiographical novel in a section called "The Journey," that he describes his departure from his birthplace in Trinidad at age 18 to study at Oxford and "become a writer."

NAIPAUL NEVER escapes from a problem which he admits he had as an Oxford student: ignoring real life in favor of "metropolitan material," that undefined something that "the writer" is supposed to write about. The older narrator deplores the romantic fantasies he wrote when he was younger. Yet that is just what the book goes back to after the brief respite of "The Journey": a sappy fantasy of English country life, elaborating on what he already has said in the first section.

In that section, Naipaul describes how, after 10 years in England and a few successes, he settled into a cottage on the edge of an estate in a river valley near Salisbury. There he stays for another decade, watching the changes in the land and people around him and experiencing mixed feelings about what he sees as "a world in flux: the drum of creation in the god's right hand, the flame of destruction in his left."

But Naipaul's panoramic description of his neighbors and surroundings is overdone. He seems obsessed with the village's landscape, describing the land and people the way English romantics have done for centuries. He is once again writing what he is "supposed" to write instead of giving us some penetrating new insight.

Watching new construction replacing old, he remarks:

Now more than ever the cottages appeared to have neither front nor back, and to stand in a kind of waste ground. It matched the people and their attitude to the place. It matched the new way of farming, logic taken to extremes, the earth stripped finally of its sanctity--the way the pink thatched cottage on the public road, once pretty with its rose hedge, had been stripped of its atmosphere of home by the people who looked only for shelter.

Such excessively poetic descriptions soon become tiresome, the moreso because Naipaul keeps on repeating them. In one paragraph, for example, he tells us three times that hay is warm and golden.

IF SUCH repetitions were not enough to bore us, the book jumps around in time so much that in order to refresh our memories before adding something new, Naipaul retells--often--what he already has told us hundreds of pages earlier. Besides irritating the reader, this practice drags down what could otherwise be a beautiful description of the English countryside.

Naipaul writes that when he was young he did not realize that "[m]an and writer were the same person. But that is a writer's greatest discovery. It took time--and how much writing!--to arrive at that synthesis." It seems he has lost it again.