Monday, March 29, 2010

Paul Theroux vs V.S. Naipaul

       “I have an idea for a book.”
       Paul Theroux speaks these words while having tea with Vidia Naipaul at the Charing Cross Hotel in London. Theroux recently had a novel turned down by his publisher. At age thirty, after nine books, he was still unable to make a living as an author. He was feeling desperate.
       “A long railway trip.” And Theroux further explains. He would get on a train at Victoria Station; then, in Paris, board the Orient Express . . .
       Vidia listens intently. “That’s a lovely idea,” he says.
       But what were his real feelings? Theroux perceives that Vidia realized the book could be a success and was angry and jealous that he hadn’t gotten the idea first. India was a major stop on Theroux’s itinerary; Naipaul knew the country intimately, had many contacts. When Theroux asks, “Who do you think I should visit there?” Naipaul thinks a moment, frowning. “You’ll find your way,” he finally replies.
       The restaurant scene gives us a heavy dose of Vidia Naipaul. Before Theroux begins to describe his idea, Naipaul comments on a fellow writer in a tone of “corrosive contempt.” He sees a heavily-pregnant woman walking through the dining room. “To me, one of the ugliest sights on earth is a pregnant woman.” His mood at the end of the tea is described by Theroux as pained, disgusted, resentful, self-pitying (emotions brought on by Theroux’s brilliant idea). The bill arrives. As with all the many restaurant bills in this book, Theroux pays it and leaves the tip.
       The Great Railway Bazaar, the book that came out of Theroux’s idea, made him financially independent. He was no longer a novice writer in need of a mentor (especially one reluctant to give any substantial help). Yet he holds on to their relationship for twenty more years; it is Naipaul who abruptly ends it. In the next to last chapter, “Exchanges,” Theroux takes off the gloves and goes into a bare-knuckled attack on Naipaul (including criticism of what is most precious to the man: his writing). Theroux felt that their break gave him free rein to embark on Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents. He considered the book to be unique; never before had the apprentice/mentor relationship been explored by one of the participants.
       Yet it is not that simple. Theroux is conflicted on the subject of Vidia Naipaul; even his title reflects that. Theroux uses the word “friendship” for a book that is overwhelmingly critical. Then there is the “Sir.” Naipaul had been given a knighthood; his proud acceptance of it struck Theroux as hypocritical, considering that Naipaul had often expressed disdain for royalty. Also in the title is the word “shadow.” In terms of literary reputation, Theroux would always be in Naipaul’s shadow. Yet the shadow Naipaul cast over Theroux went deeper, emotionally. The two men assume aspects of father/son rather than mentor/apprentice. This is a psychological study in which we have a narrator who is both perceptive and unreliable.
       Am I critical of Theroux? Yes, but I don’t dislike him. Do I believe his version of things? Not entirely, though I think he was honest. Neither man comes out looking good, but flawed people are more interesting than saintly ones. Both men are intelligent, complex; the book is intelligent, complex. Theroux’s prose carries the reader along smoothly; his manner is plain, direct. The complexities lie behind the words, in the murky realm of emotions.
       Three years after the publication of Sir Vidia’s Shadow, V.S. Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I immediately thought of Theroux. Did he send a note of congratulation to his old friend?

(Originally appeared, in a different form, in Fourth Genre)

No comments: