- Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship across Five Continents by Paul Theroux
Hamish Hamilton, 376 pp, £17.99, December 1998, ISBN 0 241 14046 3
I have been trying to explain to myself how such a book as this held my uninterrupted attention from first to last. I read it almost at a sitting. This was certainly not because of any previous obsession with either V.S. Naipaul or Paul Theroux. True, I regard Naipaul as one of the most enthralling writers of our time, even though the subjects he has covered – India, Africa, the putrefaction of the post-colonial world – are not ones which engage my interest or my imagination. It is him writing about them, rather than these places themselves, which fascinates me. For this reason, I regard as almost his most triumphant book the one which his true disciple, Paul Theroux, thinks marks the great falling-off: The Enigma of Arrival. This is a book about Naipaul having stopped writing. He is living in Wiltshire within a stone’s throw of a large house in which a scarcely-disguised Stephen Tennant is, like England, gathering dust and going to seed. Nothing happens in the book, yet the writing is hypnotic.
Naipaul has always had a mage-like quality, weaving a mystique both about himself and about the craft of writing. Theroux by contrast is a hodman, a stylish and competent craftsman; one who lived in Naipaul’s mild and magnificent eye but failed ever to possess himself of the inimitable fire. So, for those of us uninterested in India, Africa, railways – in short, the world – Theroux was always an author we felt we could skip. Also, he has that galumphing air which Henry James parodied so mercilessly in The Aspern Papers, of the American abroad who is trying to convince himself that he is going native, but who is actually a predator. The narrator of The Aspern Papers does not realise that any reasonable reader of the tale is, at a certain point, turned against him. We side fervently with the old lady, holding out against this ‘publishing scoundrel’. Likewise, in the course of Sir Vidia’s Shadow, which is meant to make us see Naipaul as a monster, we find ourselves asking what kind of a monster wrote it.
The book starts in Uganda, with a chapter trying to be fiction. A man called Julian, an American teaching at the university of Kampala, is beginning to make friends with a distinguished Indian writer who is visiting the campus, one U.V. Pradesh. But after a few pages, Theroux himself bursts in, with the admission, ‘Wait, wait, wait. You know I’m lying, don’t you? This is not a novel, it is a memory.’ This is a distinction which begs many questions, not all of them answered by the narrative which follows, in which Julian has become Paul and U.V. Pradesh Vidia.
There is a paragraph near the beginning, when the book is still pretending to be fiction, in which Julian/Theroux is making love to his girlfriend, an African called Yomo:
Yomo was even more sensual than she looked. When she and Julian made love, which was often, and always by the light of candles, she howled eagerly in the ecstasy of sex like an addict injected, and her eyes rolled up in her skull and she stared, still howling, with big white eyes like a blind zombie that sees everything. Her howls and her thrashing body made the candle flames do a smoky dance. Afterwards, limp and sleepy, stupefied by sex, she draped over Julian like a snake and pleaded for a child.
I quote this, not to mock, but because it is a paragraph which clearly gave its author pause. He quotes it again, verbatim, just before the end of the book, as an example of how he, as a writer, has broken free from Naipaul’s austere strictures concerning what writers can and can’t do. ‘Let Vidia be brambly,’ says Theroux, quoting with scorn the brilliant epithet Naipaul had used for the kind of prose he himself liked and aspired to write. ‘Let Vidia be brambly. He stopped trying to please the reader.’
This is an arguable point of view. But how is Theroux pleasing the reader by writing the paragraph I have just quoted? And which reader is he pleasing? The first time it appears, it is followed by a piece of dialogue:
‘Jules, give me a baby!’
‘Why do you want one?’
‘Because you are clever.’
This, like a passage later on, in which Theroux makes it clear that even prostitutes make love to him for motives of sheer pleasure, produces smiles which the author cannot have intended. Kingsley Amis used to quote a novel by his friend John Braine (it sounded too good to be true and I never found it in Braine’s oeuvre) in which a woman says to the hero as they lie together, naked in the afternoon: ‘It isn’t bloody fair’ (or words to this effect): ‘not only are you a best-selling novelist, but you have the body of a man half your age.’ All the allusions to Theroux’s own amorous exploits in this book reminded me of this archetypal passage.
In Africa, at any rate with hindsight, Theroux is both wistful at the accuracy of Naipaul’s doom-laden prophecies about that continent, and shocked by his use of terms like ‘Bongo’, his insistence that Africa will revert to the ‘bush’ or that the bush always means violence. The implied contrast is that Theroux himself is a more observant fellow who understands. Yet the portrait he paints of his erstwhile friend is of a troubled, intelligent exile, trying to tell the truth, and the portrait he paints of his own younger self is of someone who, like the wartime GIs, was oversexed and over here.
You get the same impression in London. Whereas Naipaul, an Oxford graduate with plenty of friends in the bohemian world, is a man who feels detached from the English social scene, Theroux depicts himself as a young American conqueror, quickly – through introductions secured by Naipaul – on hobnobbing terms with the sort of people who give (or gave) dinner parties. He seems touchingly, but crudely, pleased, to have clocked up Hugh Thomas, Hugh and Antonia Fraser, as well as some Soho poets, in his first week. And of course, he has managed to bed one of our girls before Christmas.
He is never more whining than in his suggestion – which rises to a crescendo-wail in the final pages – that Naipaul has sold out to some unseen establishment of snobbery and back-slapping. Yet he has the gawping snob’s absorption with it all. His lust for Antonia Fraser is more powerful than that for poor Yomo had been in Kampala. And he does not quite see why his English wife (the marriage break-up is part of the narrative) should be so coldly dismissive of his sycophantic relationship with the Naipauls and their set. As always with such know-alls, there are many mistakes. We are told that the word Avon means a river in Old English (sic). Mrs Heinz DBE appears as ‘Dame Drue Heinz, patroness of the arts and part of the Heinz food fortune’. As in many passages of the book where Theroux is off-beam, he here loses the syntax as well as the sense. Drue Heinz might be a part-owner or heir to a food fortune, but to suggest that she is herself part of it conjures up a cannibalistic picture of the sort Naipaul himself evokes.
In general, Theroux is guided by an unwavering hatred, and when he keeps his eye on the subject, he can be very funny. On the Salisbury to Waterloo train, the two writers discuss common acquaintances in London. Theroux is aware of the ears and eyes of other passengers listening and watching as Naipaul quizzes the younger man about who he is seeing. The mage disapproves of them all.
‘They are sucking your energy.’
At the word ‘sucking’, the schoolmaster from Sherborne in the corner seat glanced up from his book, then quickly covered his face with it.
‘They will destroy you,’ Vidia said. ‘They are playing with art. I’ll tell you a story. The first man you mentioned’ – out of delicacy, Vidia did not repeat his name – ‘he has no gift, yet he wrote a novel. “I am a novelist.” He wrote his bogus novel. Just playing with art. He wrote another – farmers, provincials. He begins to move in grand circles, still playing with art. His provincial wife is very unhappy. She thinks he is a genius. She doesn’t know he is playing with art. He is caught with another woman. It is his right. He is an artist, he can do such things. But his wife is in despair. She kills herself. Why?’
Now the schoolmaster was frankly gaping and so was I.
‘Because he played with art.’
There is something richly absurd about Naipaul here. Indeed, there are many pages of the book where he emerges as a magnificently comic character. Yet he is never simply that. He retains his dignity even when he is being pompous. A late chapter consists, in effect, of the transcript of a dialogue between Theroux and Naipaul at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival. Carried away by his own rhetoric and by the need to show off to the audience, Naipaul plays many of his Golden Oldies. Theroux seems to think that Naipaul is deranged – as, for example, when he says that the growth of university courses in ‘Literature’ is responsible for the growth in illiteracy. (I cheered him.)
Pat, Naipaul’s first wife of forty years, is described throughout in nauseating terms. In the early stages Theroux lusts after her. Later, he pities her. In retrospect, he patronises her. When Vidia marries again, Theroux feels his nose put out of joint. The new wife, perhaps sensing that there is something from which Vidia needs protecting, brings the friendship to an end – by fax. Theroux has some fun with her failures of spelling and syntax, and having denounced Naipaul’s racism, and the British culture of ‘Paki-bashing’, he goes on to make her home town – Bahawalpur – into Bowelpur, ‘the quintessential shitty little town’.
What was the Naipauls’ great offence? They had sold a few of Theroux’s inscribed first editions, and he had spotted them in a booksellers’ catalogue. That, it would seem, is the real sin for which the former hero cannot be forgiven, and the real reason why we are supposed to think that Naipaul has become ‘crazy’.
Perhaps Naipaul and Theroux are both crazy. Yet, if Naipaul’s seriousness about the art of writing continues to be impressive – even when we read it filtered through Theroux’s bilious sensibility – the same is not true of the disciple. There is a scene – comic sans le savoir – in which Naipaul suggests that he and the then youngish Theroux meet for lunch at the Connaught. Mawkishly, Theroux tells the reader how much he loves his young sons, how he leaves them that morning with a promise to buy them a Ladybird book, which he is unable to afford because the lunch at the Connaught cost the better part of twenty quid and Naipaul lets him – still a poverty-stricken novelist and reviewer – pick up the tab. It is one of those many moments in the book when you cheer Naipaul to the rafters. As he lovingly selects a Puligny-Montrachet to wash down his Quenelles d’Aiglefin Monte-Carlo, he could be Evelyn Waugh giving the full treatment to some American hanger-on. What was a young married man doing anywhere near the Connaught? Naipaul’s conversation on this occasion is admirable, too. Rather than denouncing Robert Lowell’s poetry as bogus (‘His poems are very good,’ is Theroux’s interesting contribution) he has the much more brilliant inspiration that the madness was bogus. (‘Total con, total con.’ I said: ‘He goes to mental hospitals, gibbering.’ ‘He’s playing,’ Vidia said.)
The self-importance of writers is a rich field for comedy. Naipaul’s assessment of his own books as he writes them (‘Major. Major’) may or may not be shared by posterity, but as in the mid to late 18th century (pre-Lyrical Ballads) we live in a literary age when the Lives of the Poets are more interesting than the poetry. Theroux might not be a ‘writer’ in the sense that Naipaul is, but he is an inspired gossip. Of all the lice on the locks of literature at present crawling about, he is one of the lustiest. He has produced an unforgettably disagreeable example of envy and bile: a portrait of Mozart by Salieri.