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Vol. 22 No. 9 · 27 April 2000
Diary

Truth and autobiographies

C.K. Stead

1947 words

The New Zealand novelist Maurice Shadbolt recently published what he described as a ‘memoir’,1 explaining that this form differed from autobiography in that it claimed only to recount events as the author remembered them, making no promise of accuracy. Since Shadbolt had announced publicly, a year or so before, that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the excuse for inaccuracy and invention was complete. An expectation was aroused which the book didn’t disappoint.

A few years earlier there had been an autobiography in three instalments by Lauris Edmond, winner of the 1985 Commonwealth Poetry Prize. Edmond didn’t offer a disclaimer, and many reviewers praised her honesty. What they meant by this, I suspect, was that Edmond wrote about matters customarily passed over; for example, she explained how and why her former husband, the headmaster of a primary school and father of her six children, had been a failure both professionally and domestically. By the time the third volume appeared, her ex-husband was dead and couldn’t answer back. But when Edmond’s honesty was again praised by a reviewer in the Wellington Evening Post, two of her daughters wrote to the paper, asking how the reviewer could ‘possibly know whether this is an “honest” account of events or not. Was she there? Has she talked to any of us who were?’

I thought of these instances of the problem of truth and accuracy in autobiographical writing while I was reading Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux’s book about his 30-year friendship with V.S. Naipaul.2 I don’t think my reaction was unusual. Parts of the negative picture of Naipaul were convincing, but there are obvious inventions and contrivances, especially in the dialogue – in some chapters glaringly so. Chapter 10 recounts a lunch party at Naipaul’s house in the Wiltshire countryside. Theroux arrives by train and is met by a car sent, as promised, by Naipaul. His gratitude is short-lived. When he reaches the house the driver, Walters, asks for £4 – quite a large sum in 1974. (The book is full of stories of Naipaul’s meanness, his unwillingness to pay the bill in restaurants and so on.) The other guests are Julian Jebb (unkindly caricatured), Hugh Fraser (‘tall’, ‘lopsided’, with an ‘aura of helpless authority’) and his wife Antonia, whose charms and ‘sexiness’ are unstintingly acknowledged. Then a couple from New Zealand arrive: Malcolm, an academic who looked after Naipaul on a recent lecture tour to the country, and Robin, his wife, ‘wearing a soft, unnecessary hat, as New Zealanders seemed habitually to do’. They have come in a taxi from the station. Malcolm is a ruddy-faced farming type; both have strong New Zealand accents.

Here my unease became more marked. Malcolm compliments Theroux on his study of Naipaul by saying: ‘Beaut book, Paul.’3 He explains that he is ‘on the English faculty at uni’. An American would say ‘on the English faculty’; an Australian would say ‘at uni’; a New Zealander would say neither. Robin says: ‘It gets dark here so early. Listen to that wind.’ Theroux remarks: ‘If I had not heard New Zealand in her nasalised dahk I would surely have heard it in her weend.’ Nasalised dahk is right for New Zealand speech; weend is Australian. We New Zealanders have the Northern Irish flat i sound: wund. But who were these two? The others in the scene were real people. A New Zealand academic and his wife ought to have been people I could recognise.

After the lunch provided by Pat Naipaul (which includes a separate, and superior, dish just for her husband) snuff is offered, which leads to talk of erectile tissue in the nose, of sneezing and its relation to orgasm. This increases Theroux’s already intense excitement at the proximity of Antonia Fraser, and he describes at some length his fantasy of being alone with her on a Caribbean island, she wearing a white see-through dress with nothing underneath. The talk of erectile tissue prompts Malcolm to quote Lord Rochester, which leads to an argument with Lady Antonia about whether or not Rochester is ‘porno’ – Malcolm’s word – during which the New Zealander sticks ‘his pink face into Antonia’s pale one’, and is described as ‘beaky’, ‘in the throes of pedantry’, ‘angry,’ ‘rigid’, his ‘eyes glassy with rage’, ‘fussed and breathless and indignant’, while Lady Antonia deftly defends her view that Rochester is ‘a lyric poet with heaps and heaps of charm’.

The chapter was not getting more believable. Malcolm is said to have written a thesis on ‘Augustans and court wits’, and is expert enough to quote Rochester insistently – boorishly, in fact. I couldn’t imagine such a person taking such a morally disapproving tone about Rochester, nor using the word ‘porno’. But this argument, Theroux decides, ‘was probably less about Lord Rochester than it was about class and accents. It created a staleness around the lunch table and an awkwardness for all that remained unspoken.’

This staleness is dispelled by Naipaul himself who, agreeing with something Hugh Fraser has said about the ‘odd racial contradictions you get with so much intermarriage’, takes a copy of The Mimic Men from his shelves and reads the ‘concentrated paragraph about the fable “The Niger and the Seine” ’. This in itself is odd, because in The Mimic Men this fable, summarised in a paragraph which must be the one Naipaul is supposed to have read out, seems to satirise proponents of racial intermarriage, and is quite unrelated to anything that has happened at the lunch party.But Theroux presents it simply as a rebuke, Naipaul ‘giving a lesson in recitation to Malcolm, who had blurted out the rude Lord Rochester stanzas’.

  When Vidia was done, he shut the book like a vicar shutting a Bible after a homily.

  ‘You see?’

Now the guests go for a walk. Robin, attempting to reassure the ‘still ... flustered’ Malcolm, is joined by Pat the ‘pleasant peace-making hostess’. Theroux walks with Lady Antonia, extending his fantasy: ‘A hot island and idleness, clear sky and a blue lagoon ... the white dress, the parasol, the hat – and the thrashing legs and damp flanks.’ ‘I wanted to hug her,’ he goes on, ‘and bury my face against her neck – she looked so soft and warm, her lips so pretty. I wanted to clutch her shepherdess costume ... I wanted to tell her how I imagined the two of us on a tropical island.’ Back at the house, there is tea on the lawn and shooting at a paper target with an air rifle. Theroux remarks: ‘When she raised the rifle and pressed her lips together, I wanted her to spin around and shoot me.’

The Frasers are first to leave, and Theroux ‘wants’ again. This time: ‘I wanted to go back to London with them in their car, to be with her. But it was useless yearning. They did not offer anyone a lift.’ With the party breaking up, there are further puzzles for the sceptical reader. When Theroux says he must go, Pat says: ‘I’ll call Walters.’ So another £4, presumably; but this time money isn’t mentioned. Jebb leaves by taxi; and since Malcolm and Robin arrived by taxi from the station, it must be assumed they returned the same way. So why don’t they all share a taxi? Or share Walters? And how do they avoid meeting on the platform, or on the train? It’s insisted, however, that ‘we all left separately’; and we see Theroux on the train back to London, trying ‘to look out the window, but all I saw was my own reflection, framed by the night, looking in: my other self staring at me for one and a half hours.’

The chapter ends with sad reflections on what lay ahead for those present. Hugh Fraser ‘died of a broken heart’ when Lady Antonia left him for Harold Pinter. Pat died of cancer. Jebb ‘committed suicide with a mixture of vodka and pills’. Of himself Theroux says: ‘I left my wife, I lost my family.’ And what of Malcolm and Robin? ‘No news of the New Zealanders.’ Well, I have some, Paul.

As I was reading his book I remembered that my former colleague, Michael Neill, now a professor of English at the University of Auckland, had looked after Naipaul on his visit to New Zealand in 1972, and that he used to lecture on Rochester. But otherwise the person portrayed was unrecognisable. A few days later I ran into Neill at the supermarket. Had he read Theroux’s book about Naipaul? No. He’d meant to, but hadn’t got around to it. Did he have lunch at Naipaul’s house in the country, with Theroux? Yes he did. Who was there? Neill listed the same guests. I told him Theroux had renamed him ‘Malcolm’ and was extremely rude about him. ‘He says you had an argument with Antonia Fraser.’

Michael looked surprised and amused. ‘Really? I thought we got on rather well. We talked about snuff and sneezing – and orgasms.’

‘He says you quoted Rochester.’

Michael shook his head slightly. ‘I might have. I don’t remember that I did.’

‘He says you were with your wife. He calls her Robin.’

‘I was with Pek.’

Michael Neill was born in Wales of an upper-middle-class English mother and a New Zealand-born father educated at Harrow and Sandhurst. Michael was sent to what he calls ‘a ghastly Anglo-Irish prep school in Co. Wicklow’, but was rescued at the age of 12 when his father decided to go back to New Zealand. After graduating from the University of Otago he went to Cambridge and did a PhD on the Jacobean dramatist John Ford. Michael doesn’t have a New Zealand accent, but a neutral international one. He is an actor, has a fine voice, and if he quotes poetry he does it well. His brother is the movie actor Sam Neill, and their voices and accents are almost interchangeable. As for Pek-Koon, who was Michael’s partner at the time, she is Malaysian Chinese, and has very markedly that accent.

In other words, the whole drama of the occasion was invented. Why, and why with such animus towards Neill? Perhaps he was getting on too well with Antonia Fraser. Perhaps Theroux was worried that he was losing his place as Naipaul’s junior proprietor. ‘I saw [Malcolm] as Vidia’s protégé,’ Theroux says, ‘and seemed to be looking at my younger self.’ And: ‘My protégé days were over ... Malcolm was perhaps the new protégé, but it seemed to me he would not last; he was too contrary.’

‘Should I read it?’ Michael wanted to know.

‘If I were in your position,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to resist. But be warned, it’s exceptionally unpleasant.’

He thought for a moment. ‘What an ungrateful bastard. Pek and I drove him all the way back to London.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Quite sure.’

‘He says he went back by train.’

I’ve wondered since about the way the facts were altered. Given the image of the New Zealander Theroux was aiming for, a supportive little Kiwi wife in ‘a soft, unnecessary hat’ was a better match than a rather formidable Chinese intellectual (Pek-Koon is now a professor of South-East Asian history). And to acknowledge that ‘Malcolm’ and ‘Robin’ gave him the lift back to London which the Frasers didn’t offer would have made ingratitude manifest. The separate departures also made it possible for our last glimpse of Theroux to be of him staring at his own image in the window of the train, ‘framed by the night’.

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Letters

Vol. 22 No. 11 · 1 June 2000

C.K. Stead’s skewering of Paul Theroux (LRB, 27 April) was most enjoyable, but while he’s right about most of where Theroux goes wrong, he is wrong about one particular. ‘An American would say “on the English faculty",’ says Stead, detecting an unidiomatic turn of phrase in the mouth of a New Zealand native. But as a US citizen by birth and a university faculty member (‘college teacher’, we would more likely say) since 1976, I can attest that no American academic would ever say such a thing. ‘I’m in the English department’ almost certainly would be the way to put it.

Given the nature of Theroux’s attack on Naipaul, perhaps I should disclose my own relationship to Stead here: I met him once, many years ago, when I was a student and he was lecturing, and I’ve since followed and enjoyed his writing. However, I have no intention of writing a book about the two of us.

F.S. Schwarzbach
Hudson, Ohio

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