Killing the father

After 30 years of friendship, why did Paul Theroux stab V.S. Naipaul in the back?


Zoe Heller
September 16, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

In 1966, when Paul Theroux first encountered V.S. Naipaul, Theroux was 24 years old, teaching English literature at a college in Kampala, Uganda, and secretly aspiring to be a novelist. Naipaul was a visiting celebrity -- at 34, he was already a feted writer. They met at a faculty cocktail party. Naipaul complained that Kampala was filthy. Theroux, quoting a line from one of Naipaul's novels, replied jokingly that "it only looked dirty." Naipaul was charmed; a friendship was born. This friendship lasted for the next 30 years, through many long absences and all the vicissitudes of the two writers' lives. And then, two years ago, it came to an abrupt end. The breakup, which was precipitated, as these things often are, by a new and hostile wife (Naipaul's), left Theroux feeling bewildered, angry and ... itchy to write.

A sensible person would have advised Theroux against scratching that itch. A sensible person would, in fact, have wrestled Theroux to the floor to stop him from getting to his desk. His claims to calm clear-sightedness notwithstanding -- "Time's torch illuminates ... it reveals the truth ... For a period you can understand and can say, I see it all clearly. I remember everything" -- "Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents" is a raw, bad-tempered memoir. It does not, to use an old-fashioned phrase, "have enough distance" on its subject. It threatens to place Theroux in the same ignoble sub-literary set occupied by Saul Bellow's ex-agent and Philip Roth's ex-wife. And yet in spite of (and in many ways, precisely because of) all these shortcomings, it is an enthralling and oddly insightful book.

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Theroux's principal advantage as a memoirist is the character of Naipaul. With his arsenal of magisterial certitudes on literature and life, his perpetual wince of exhaustion, his hyper-sensitivity to dirt and noise, his fondness for pompous archaisms, his hatred of "all music," Naipaul injects this book with a mad kind of Dickensian energy and humor. He reads palms and is an ardent believer in graphology. He is a shocking misanthrope: "The melancholy thing about the world," he tells Theroux at one point, "is that it is full of stupid and common people; and the world is run for the benefit of the stupid and common." He calls Arabs "Mr. Woggy" and strides through Africa in a safari suit, dismissing its people as "bow-and-arrow men." He refuses to accept that there is any literary merit in the works of Thomas Hardy, Henry James or Jane Austen. He is psychopathically cheap. He is brutal. When asked to judge an essay competition at the college in Kampala, he announces that none of the entries are good enough to merit a First or Second Prize and tries to insist that there should be only one Third Prize. ("You are trying to give the African an importance he doesn't deserve," he tells the outraged English Department.) He is absolutely positive that the poet Robert Lowell was only feigning insanity in order to get attention. He believes that Indian women's long hair "encourages rape."

The Naipaul that emerges here is so compellingly monstrous, and Theroux's narrative style is so persuasively deadpan, that it is easy to overlook the strong element of caricature in the portrait. Naipaul, a Trinidadian of Indian descent, is not the crude racist or snob that a literal recounting of his comments seems to confirm. Even a small amount of context about the man and his work reveals that when, for instance, he speaks sneeringly of "common people," he is referring to a state of mind -- a chosen way of being -- rather than a social stratification. Likewise, his insistence on calling Africans "bow-and-arrow men" -- offensive though it may be -- is a conscious provocation, a response to a particular kind of knee-jerk liberalism that his own experiences as an ambitious colonial boy have taught him to despise. Theroux gets a lot of mileage from Naipaul's harsh assessments of the African students' literary efforts, but never once does he examine the possibility that Naipaul is acting not out of aimless sadism but rather a refusal to patronize.

Theroux does make occasional reference to the puzzling gap between the hateful man he paints and the thoughtful, sensitive books that the same man has written -- how did the brute who sneers at "Mr. Woggy" manage to author two serious works about Islam? -- but he is content to leave this matter an unfathomable mystery: "I kept from judging what I did not understand." In explaining why he put up with his unpleasant friend for so long -- why he waited 30 years to recoil in sudden horror -- he offers some rather maudlin meditations on the nature of friendship: "With your ego switched off, you accept this person -- his demands, his silences -- and it is reciprocal ... [Friendship] is compassionate intimacy, a powerful kindness, and a knowledge of imperfection." His explanation grows a little more convincing when he acknowledges that to have argued with Naipaul would have been to risk losing an important patron. In addition to acting as Theroux's guru on matters of prose style, Naipaul gave him his entree into London literary society, brokering a crucial introduction to his own publisher, Andre Deutsch, and presenting him as a Promising Young Thing at dinner parties. Even after Theroux had become established as a writer, it is clear that the association with Naipaul remained a source of valuable cachet. How thrilling, for example, to have English critic Karl Miller note in the introduction to one of Naipaul's books that "the novelist Paul Theroux was with Naipaul in a disrupted Uganda, rather as one might once have been said to have been with Kitchener at Kartoum."

To suggest that these incentives, rather than any real sympathy or understanding of Naipaul, were what fueled Theroux's 30-year forbearance, seems rather tough. But it certainly helps to explain the improbable speed with which Theroux's attitude changed once Naipaul had given him the cold shoulder. The closing pages of this book are an impassioned litany of indictments. The ex-friend is attacked for his monomania, his snobbery, his racism and misogyny. He is chastised for his cruel treatment of "secretaries and book-tour escorts." He is reprimanded for his uneven literary achievement. (Some of the books, Theroux now decides, are "unreadable and silly.") Even his face is taken to task for its "sour mouth" and its "raptor's beak." So much for compassionate intimacy.

There is an element of vituperation in this outpouring -- a hysterical excess -- that is not explained by Theroux's disapproval of racism, or even his compassion for slighted book-tour escorts. In part, it suggests the fury of scorned love. Naipaul's froideur toward Theroux has coincided with Naipaul's second marriage, to Nadira Khannum Alvi. In the past, Theroux has approached all potential pretenders to his favored role with thinly veiled hostility (he likens his encounter with Naipaul's mistress Margaret to "meeting a rival lover"), and now that he has truly been cast off, he responds in the manner of the rejected lover, by attacking both the person who has rebuffed him -- who needs him? I never liked his raptor's beak anyway -- and the person who has usurped him. He gets hold of the rather pedestrian columns that Nadira has written for a newspaper in Pakistan and dissects them with wounded indignation. Naipaul has rejected him for this? A woman whose prose style is "ungrammatical and clumsy"?

Present also in Theroux's rant is a strong whiff of the family romance -- more specifically the rage of a son toward his father. Throughout this book, Theroux has been at pains to stress that "true" friendship is immune to the petty jealousy and rivalry of familial relations, but he has protested too much. His narrative is actually rife with unwitting betrayals of filial resentment. He has egged Naipaul on in his outrageous opinions, all the while noting down the self-contradictions and crimes against PC, for later revelation. He has silently bridled at being treated as an "apprentice" and gloated at any indication that he might be outrunning his mentor. (His house in Dorset is nicer than Naipaul's in Wiltshire; he wrote eight books by the time he was 30.) He has even lusted after Naipaul's first wife, Pat, and referred to her, with astonishing presumptuousness, as his "almost ex-lover."

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It is a pity, in a way, that Theroux never directly confronts the Oedipal aspect of his relationship with Naipaul, for seen in a Freudian context, he and his angry book are actually rendered more, rather than less, sympathetic. Of course, the younger writer must eventually rise up to smite the older writer whose influence threatens to smother him. Of course he must attempt to persuade himself and the world that he rules now, that the man who once taught him has become his "distinct inferior." And naturally -- it goes without saying -- the world will make its own judgment on the truth of that claim.


Zoe Heller

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