Paul Theroux on V.S. Naipaul

Sir Vidia's Shadow

Paul Theroux - met Naipaul in east Africa in 1966
  • Paul Theroux - met Naipaul in east Africa in 1966

“Bad Blood Shadows Big New Book” is how the New York Post headlined its recent article about Paul Theroux’s new book about V.S. Naipaul, Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents (Houghton Mifflin, 1998; 358 pages; $24). Theroux’s book variously has been described as a “harsh portrait,” as “brutal,” as “dirt dishing”; these descriptions seem accurate.

Lessons can be learned reading Sir Vidia’s Shadow. One lesson, of course, is that if you have friends who write and if they give you a book they’ve written and if they inscribe that book to you, don’t sell the book. Theroux, in 1997, flipped through a catalog from a Massachusetts bookseller who specializes in modern first editions. “Some items,” writes Theroux, “caught my attention.” These items included Theroux’s Fong and the Indians, his second book, published in 1968 and, as the catalog noted, “inscribed by Theroux to writer V.S. Naipaul: ‘For Vidia/ 8c Pat/ with love/ Paul.’ ”

The bookseller’s copy continued: “Theroux and Naipaul met in east Africa in 1966, presumably about the time and place that constitute the setting for this novel, and their friendship extends over three decades, dating from a time when both were relatively young writers, and neither had achieved the degree of literary renown that both enjoy today.... An excellent association copy. $1500.”

Theroux found other of his books on the list, also inscribed to Naipaul and his late first wife, Pat.

Theroux can’t have been happy. I wasn’t happy when I found a book I’d written, inscribed by me to another writer, for sale at Powell’s in Portland. But I did not have to be embarrassed in the way that Theroux must have felt embarrassed: I am not famous and the person to whom I inscribed the book is not famous and my book, with its affectionate inscription, wasn’t listed in a bookseller’s catalogue. I did feel sufficiently humiliated that I bought the book ($11) so that from that day on, no one would see it. I brought it home and stuck it behind other books at the back of my bookcase.

When a writer inscribes a book to another writer, and that other writer sells that book, it may mean only that he’s desperate for money, or that he’s moving to another state or smaller house. The sale could be error, your book carelessly getting mixed with others. More likely, though, the sale means that the recipient does not value your work or desire your friendship. I knew that was why my book was sold to Powell’s, and I suspect that Paul Theroux suspected that was why his books were sold to the Massachusetts dealer.

Naipaul, whose success has been sufficient to make him extremely comfortable if not wealthy, cannot have needed money. Nor was he moving house. He had, in 1996, shortly after Patricia Naipaul died, married again. But that the new Mrs. Naipaul sold Theroux’s books without her husband’s permission is unlikely. And I think it unlikely that Theroux ever would have written from such an aggrieved and embittered point of view about his 30-year association with Naipaul had Naipaul not put Theroux’s books out for sale.

So. If you are in any way a person of some interest to the public, and if a writer of even small fame inscribes his book to you and you wish to be rid of the book, throw it in the garbage. Or, if you want the $2 a bookseller might pay you, tear out the title page on which your author friend has written of his love and admiration.

It has happened to all of us that at some point in a particular friendship we feel that our friend has betrayed us. In the moment before we heard that we’d been sold out, we would have described the friendship as a generally happy association. “Oh,” we might say, “she and I have quarreled several times about politics,” or, “I don’t care for him as much when he’s drinking.” From the moment that we learn of the betrayal, however, all that was harmonious between us turns discordant and ugly. The man who occasionally drank and snarled becomes a violent and persistent drunk. The woman with whom we disagreed over political issues becomes a rabid, no-neck know-nothing, who also, by the way, has significant and odious bad breath. We begin, then, to look back over the friendship’s time line and to reassess all that has gone between us; we construct a revisionist history in which what was white is turned dourest black, or at least an ashy charcoal gray.

Theroux offers anecdotes to illustrate Naipaul’s contemptuous statements about and treatment of students, lesser writers, people of color, women, people assigned to ferry him about on book tours, waiters. In these episodes Naipaul comes across as almost philanthropic in his rudenesses and cruelties.

Twice I have been in Naipaul’s company. On both occasions he had come to San Francisco to appear as an evening’s featured speaker in a literary lecture series. Because a friend worked for this series’ organizer and because I long have admired Naipaul’s work, I was invited to dinners held for Naipaul before the lecture and to modest gatherings after. I was seated next to Naipaul at these pre-lecture meals. The second time he came to California he’d recently been knighted. Knowing his interest in clothing for its clues to social detail, I asked him what one wore to be knighted. I don’t recall his answer, and now I wish I did.

Theroux portrays Naipaul, with an odd bitterness, as an almost crazily zealous oenophile who busied himself in his wine cellar while Theroux tried to confess his misery at the breakup of his marriage. I remember that Naipaul, with avidity, chatted up the wine steward. I remember that at that second dinner he asked our hostess if he might order a cabernet the steward recommended. She assented and Naipaul, when the bottle arrived, poured wine in our glasses. He talked about this wine and that. He closely questioned the editor of a free weekly newspaper about how the paper’s editorial content was chosen, paid for, edited, and how the papers themselves were delivered. None of us at the dinner tables or at the gatherings after were people of any importance nor were any of the women of unusual beauty (and Naipaul, like many men, appreciates a pretty face and good legs). I think only one of us, a poet, by then had even published a book. Yet I recall how engagingly, unobtrusively pleasant Naipaul was to all of us and to me, that he asked questions of everyone, that he took in our answers with an apparently voracious interest, an interest that, if not sincere, was convincingly feigned. These cannot have been the only two evenings in Naipaul’s now-long life during which he behaved well.

I don’t doubt that Naipaul said and did most of what Theroux writes that he said and did. I don’t doubt the accuracy of Theroux’s recounting of Naipaul’s cutting remarks or chilly assessments of fellow writers. I don’t doubt that Naipaul has made remarks easily interpreted as racist or sexist, or that he’s shown himself on occasion as penny-pinching, hypochondriacal, self-serving, and cruel to his first wife. Yet I can’t help but believe that the Naipaul whom we meet in Sir Vidia’s Shadow is a creature born from Theroux’s wounded feelings.’So that what worries me about the Naipaul whom we meet in Sir Vidia’s Shadow is not what Theroux has written but what Theroux didn’t write.

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