January 12, 2020
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Theroux's Stew

A famous literary friendship is reduced to petty quibbling

Theroux's Stew
Sir Vidia'S Shadow
By Paul Theroux
Hamish Hamilton Rs 734, Pages: 376
IN l963, as literary editor of a weekly magazine in London, I asked V.S. Naipaul to contribute. He never did, but I have since been a friend of his, of his first wife Pat until her death, and of Nadira, his second wife. Round about l965, he brought to my house the young Paul Theroux, and whispered in my ear, "He works for the CIA." Had this been so, I would have approved but I was familiar with Naipaul's humour. Natural writer that he is, he treats contacts and relationships as raw material, he understates or exaggerates, trying things on for effect, perhaps insecure himself at some level.

Naipaul and Theroux had been colleagues for a while at Makerere university, in Uganda. The former was already famous, clever and confident enough to defend any opinion and its opposite; the latter was an apprentice, unsure of himself and his subject matter. Accidents of time and place had introduced a disciple to a master. "How helpless I must have seemed." In the grip of emotion, Theroux, a talented writer, melts into Danielle Steel. "But he saw other strengths in me; something in my heart. He saw my soul in my face, my art in the lines of my palm; my ambitions and moods in the slope and stroke of my handwriting. I had thought he was very strong. He became my friend."

In l972, Theroux published V.S. Naipaul: An Introduction, which is more like a slim volume of poetry than a critical appreciation. Theroux then settled in England, within reach of the master. Much in the mode of Naipaul, he wrote reviews, novels, travel books. Under a surface of continuing friendship, though, he was building up a grudge. After all these years, he could no longer contain himself. Sir Vidia's Shadow is the result, a memoir which is also an explosion of resentment. "I remember everything," he asserts, putting conversations of long ago into consecutive pages of direct speech. Repudiating his literary debts, rubbishing Naipaul as a man and a writer, he hopes to leave himself the undisputed master. Anyone in search of a good or even entertaining row will not find it. There is no subject here.

What had Naipaul done? He had given sound advice. Aim high, he had told Theroux, tell the truth. He had edited some of Theroux's work. He had had himself driven by Theroux on long trips in Kenya and the Congo. The two were still able to smooth over differences of opinion. Naipaul thought little of his African students, even less of the expats. He predicted that much of the continent would soon revert to the bush.

On inspection of the past, Theroux depicts himself as the victim of Naipaul. However much Naipaul gave, he was taking more away. The man was a bully at heart. On three occasions over a number of years, the two had had meals together, and each time Naipaul left the much poorer Theroux to pay the bill, and once without enough money to take a cab to the station.

Naipaul had been insufficiently consoling when Theroux's marriage broke up. He sold inscribed copies of Theroux's books. On a shared platform at a provincial literary festival, Naipaul spoke more than Theroux did. Theroux did not witness Naipaul's cruelties to publicity girls, waiters and other defenceless bystanders, but he repeats second-hand gossip about them. Naipaul's every word and gesture are to be taken literally, as if there was no humour to him, no trying things on for effect, and no insecurity. In contrast, Theroux was invariably kind and generous. Making every allowance, deferring politely, he did not deserve the least little slight. His life was full, Naipaul's was empty. Naipaul was abrupt with his wife and his brother Shiva, indeed with all his friends. Unlike Naipaul, Theroux has children, and he loves them. Apparently Naipaul enjoyed little satisfactory sex whereas Theroux by his own account was a sexual athlete. It was all he could do to restrain himself from making advances to Pat with her heavy breasts (she was the most loyal of wives, I must say on her behalf, but flat-chested). In his opinion, the obituary he wrote of Pat was not properly appreciated by Naipaul or his new wife Nadira.

Too much was never enough. Interrupting his own work at a difficult moment, Theroux wrote a blurb for one of Naipaul's book, and he was to recommend his own agent and publisher to Naipaul. Danielle Steel again pipes up: "I rejoiced in pleasing him." England has rewarded Naipaul with prizes and honours, including a knighthood. To Theroux, the title confirms that with a mixture of humbug and conceit Naipaul has anglicised himself, and is to be guyed for it as V.S. Nipple or Sir Vidia Nye-Powell. Naipaul is only kidding himself, he is "creepy", pretending to be a thorough Englishman while remaining "a nigrescent West Indian," whom every English passer-by automatically sneers at as a shopkeeper, a dukanwallah. As for Nadira Naipaul, she is "the big dusky woman from Pakistan," who writes "babu English" and whose "purple belly" features in his nightmares. She comes from Bahawal-pur, or Bowelpur, in another of Theroux's ideas of a joke.

So a list of petty grievances descends to personal remarks and prejudices. No doubt a politically correct liberal and multiculturalist, Theroux is unable to allow that people like the Naipauls meet the English and everyone else on equal terms, absorbing the culture and contributing to it. Naipaul's success, then, is not success at all but the misconceived and absurd consequence of turning his back on victimhood, his sole true vocation, as racist critics in the Third World have long been saying. Integration is a delusion, and the universal values in Naipaul's work, it follows, are a sell-out. As the self-appointed new master, Theroux is ordering Naipaul to his rightful place, inescapably classified with the shopkeepers and "nigrescents."

In common with the people Naipaul writes about with such concern, Theroux is trapped in unhappy and self-injuring fantasies. Friendship with Naipaul was a privilege, and should have been a liberation. Theroux is the victim only of himself.

(By arrangement with the American Spectator.)

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