||by Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365)
Hougton Mifflin, $24.00
Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199798)
Based on reviews of Sir Vidia's Shadow, I approached Paul Theroux's memoir of his friendship with V.S. Naipaul cautiously. I expected an outburst of vindictiveness and cutthroat emotion. An epigram to the book quotes a 1970 letter from Naipaul to Theroux, stating You must give me the pleasure of seeing what I look like. I expected Theroux to reply: You asked for it. But the book is not that simple.
During their first meeting in Uganda, the established writer Naipaul assumes the role of teacher to the fledgling Theroux. Over the course of the next three decades, Theroux continued to play the student, even after he had become a published writer. The looming figure of Naipaul exhibits a strong influence over Theroux, who then struggles to free from Naipauls shadow.
Aloof from the fundamentals of human sympathy
Apart from describing his relationship with Naipaul, Theroux unhesitatingly reveals, as well, his mentor's prejudices against others. Now I knew, as only a friend can, that for all his apparent strength, he could also be weak and unsure, and even unfair, with a coldly sarcastic streak. He looked at the populous continent of Africa and said Bow-and-arrow men! or Cuffy! He glanced across the English Channel at Holland and said Potato eaters! He frowned at the whole of the Middle East and grunted, Mr. Woggy. The shadow of the book's title likewise represents the darker half of a writer's shocking personality.
Theroux remains unobtrusive throughout, recording events with scrupulous attention to detail. We react to bare facts. His detachment, however, can be as contemptible as it is engaging. As rumors surround Naipaul's peevish behavior at literary functions, Theroux feels drawn to discover the truth by questioning his friend. Naipaul confirms the reports, and Theroux drops the subject. We may be shocked by Naipauls arrogance, but Theroux avoids making judgments. If the memoir approaches some insight into the life of writers then it is that they may learn too successfully to become aloof from the fundamentals of human sympathy.
They never yell or scream at each other; the written word becomes the sole litmus by which their problems are measured. When Theroux asks for Naipaul's opinion about a cross-continental train journey as the topic for a travel book, I sensed a reluctance on his part to help me . . . .Youll be all right, he said. But this time the statement was tinged with self-pity, almost resentment, a feeling I had never detected in him before. Later, Theroux is shocked when Naipaul sells personally inscribed copies of Therouxs works to a Massachusetts bookseller. And Naipauls second wife faxes Theroux a scathing letter, accusing him of insensitivity and malice. The two writers are already estranged, yet Theroux cannot help further puzzling over Naipauls choice of a wife whose handwriting is atrocious, and whose grammar and spelling are reprehensible.
When Lady Pat Naipaul dies, Theroux laments, She was unselfish; love sustained her . . . .she was generous, she was restrained and magnanimous; she was the soul of politeness, she was grateful; she was all the things Vidia was not. The eulogy is moving, but unconvincing. After playing the aloof writer for over three hundred pages, how can Theroux possibly champion this woman who has suffered the tears and frustration brought on by her trying husband?
Getting what they deserve
The memoir is evocative I can't bring myself to say enjoyable and shows Theroux in full possession of his writing abilities. The dialogue is sharp and effective; and our insights into the two men continue through to the last page. Both are guilty of severe prejudices; it is good to know that Theroux has the maturity to occasionally portray himself in an unflattering light. He doesn't apologize for what he is not. But what he is, is a writer. Sir Vidia's Shadow leaves us with the sense that if these are the things that writers end up getting, then writers pretty much get what they deserve. I felt like the best friend of a man seeking to divorce his wife after a long complicated marriage. No matter how much the man may want to complain and Theroux tries pulling this stunt with his son near the end of the book too many years have passed, too many good and bad moments, too many emotions. No outsider can be comfortable under these circumstances, and neither can we. All we can do is shrug and wish Theroux and Naipaul the best for their future lives apart.
Joe Kovacs recently finished a Master of Arts degree in 20th Century Literature at Fordham University. He is working on his first novel.