What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad and Britain, 2001)
  • BOOK READ: The Enigma of Arrival

Travel can be the perfect book. You see fresh scenery. You meet new people. Everyday details, invisible in your ordinary life, emerge as unexpected and wondrous, infused with the sort of clear-eyed observation that comes from being a stranger. It’s the mission of so much literature to make the everyday vivid and striking, and yet we can all find this experience (Look what they do at weddings! Look what they eat in the morning!) by putting down our books and leaving town.

No surprise, then, that so many writers pile on the travel in their work in one way or another. Books take long walks through town (Open City, The Unconsoled) and long drives (Lolita, On the Road). Novels board their characters onto trains and planes, often so an inward journey has a matching exterior one, and nonfiction writers visit distant war zones or faraway fish markets to bring home the goods in a book about bringing home the goods. The journey might even be an excuse for a journey; more than one writer I know has traveled to some intriguing locale and then filled in the book later.

But of course there are authors who cannot help but write of a journey, so much does journeying dominate their outlook and experience. V. S. Naipaul is one of these. He was born in Trinidad and then emigrated to England as a young man, but what matters is not just the where of his life, but the when. His early books were published in the late 1950s, when England was engaged in the business of figuring out what to do with an empire, and Naipaul became a de facto spokesman for the postcolonial view.

The first Naipaul I read was A House for Mr. Biswas, a bright and busy novel full of local color that wasn’t, you know, the color of my locality. I remember someone said to me that the book wouldn’t have been noticed if it weren’t about a far-flung culture, which is like saying Star Wars wouldn’t be as good if it took place not a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but three weeks ago in Boulder, Colorado. A House for Mr. Biswas fascinates, and maybe it wouldn’t fascinate if you already knew all about the cultural crises of Indo-Trinidadians, but you don’t, do you? Neither do I.

For this column I decided to try The Enigma of Arrival, for two reasons, the main one being that I’d read some of Naipaul’s fiction and some of his nonfiction and this book appeared to be a midway point. My edition, for instance, has critical praise on the back describing the book both as “an elegant memoir” and “far and away the most curious novel I’ve read in a long time.” This might sound confounding, but The Enigma of Arrival turns out to be a common enough sort of literary creature: the book that’s obviously very, very true, with the sort of small shaping present in all memoirs but that is occasionally cause for so much controversy that publishers tack on “a novel” to silence those who are whining, “Did you know that the guy he calls Jack in the book was really notorious British eccentric Stephen Tennant?”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list