To be a novelist, the novelist Paul Theroux tells me, it helps to suffer from “confusion, dysfunction, something problematical.” It helps to be “a little disturbed.”
Paul Theroux does not look disturbed. He looks, as you might expect, very much the international traveler, purposeful, competent and vaguely rich. A man who belongs nowhere but crops up everywhere. One day he's floating down the Zambezi River, the next he's in a supermarket in Honolulu, pulling down two cans of deodorant for a dwarf who can't reach the top shelf. That dwarf, he says, reminds him of the character in “The Potato Elf,” Nabokov's short story. “Nabokov's a dangerous writer to read,” Theroux says, “because of the style.” Like his former mentor (and the subject of his latest book), V.S. Naipaul, Theroux believes that writing “must be transparent. A novel mustn't be a display of style.”
Sitting on the terrace of Shutters on the Beach, a hotel in Santa Monica, the 57-year-old author of The Great Railway Bazaar, The Mosquito Coast and Kowloon Tong gazes candidly at the retreating figure of our waitress. “Pretty,” he says, stirring a small cup of black coffee. Then he gets back to the subject at hand – his 35th book, and his second about Naipaul. The first, published in 1970 when Theroux was still struggling to make a name for himself, was a critical study of the prize-winning author of A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River. The second, Sir Vidia's Shadow, is something much more complicated: an account of a 34-year-long friendship and its breakup; a description of a young writer's apprenticeship to an older writer; an intimate, poison-tipped portrait of one of contemporary literature's prickliest figures by a protege who now considers himself an equal. Because of its sensational subject matter, the book made headlines even before it was published.
“I'm getting very mixed reviews for this book,” Theroux concedes, crossing one leg over the other and sticking his hand between his thighs. In sunglasses, white tennis shirt and stiff new blue jeans, he seems artfully anonymous, a man who knows, above all, how to blend in. “I don't know whether people are upset by it or what,” he continues, “but it's touching people on some level, and some people object on a very deep level, I guess.”
Theroux's puzzlement seems a bit disingenuous. Sir Vidia's Shadow is, in effect, an act of literary cannibalism – a unique instance of one writer eating another writer, cooking him over a slow fire for some 350 pages before finally devouring him in front of our eyes. That doesn't, of course, stop it from being extremely readable. It is in fact one of the best of Theroux's many excellent books.
The two men met in Uganda in 1963, when Theroux was a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer and apprentice writer. Naipaul was 34 and already a formidable novelist. An Indian who had grown up in Trinidad and now lived in London, he considered exile the great tragedy of his life. Their roles were defined at the outset. Theroux needed a mentor and Naipaul needed someone to show him round Uganda – thus they became partners, friends, even confidantes – but not equals. “Tell the truth,” was Naipaul's blunt advice to his young protege, and Naipaul himself was known for his bluntness. “Sure of himself and very direct,” Theroux writes, Naipaul “commanded attention. He strode through Kampala, assessing it all, 'being brutal,' as he said, like a man sent from headquarters to inspect a lagging field office. His conclusion: Mass sackings were called for.”
Naipaul returned to London, and eventually, Theroux followed. Naipaul was helpful. He put him up, introduced him to his publisher, took him to dinner parties where he met some of the best-known writers in London. But Naipaul was less helpful in other ways. If they went somewhere in a taxi, Theroux paid. If they ate in a restaurant, Theroux picked up the check. (“People enjoy paying,” Naipaul liked to say. “I don't want to spoil their pleasure.”)
As subjects go, Naipaul is a dream. Brilliant, demanding and judgmental to the point of insanity, he dominates the book. The question is, should he be in the book? Should this be a book at all? Does the fact that Naipaul coldly broke off their friendship after 34 years justify Theroux's opportunism? “Until I wrote this book, I hadn't really analyzed the nature of friendship,” Theroux says. “Friendship is a very pure thing . . . Friends don't manipulate each other. People are always leveling with each other as friends.” They also, apparently, sit down and write books about each other the moment their friendship is over. Would Theroux welcome a “return” volume from Naipaul? “Oh, I'd love that!” he says, “but I don't think he'd have much to say. I don't think he noticed very much. It would be a pretty slim volume. Or maybe just a sour 10 pages.”
I put it to Theroux that one reason why certain people are upset by his book is that, unlike Philip Roth, say, he has invaded someone else's privacy without being equally hard on himself.
“Oh, I don't agree with that at all,” he answers. “I bare my soul in these pages.”
Perhaps he has, but the portrait of Theroux that emerges from Sir Vidia's Shadow is a rather flattering one – of a hardworking writer, loyal friend and ace swordsman in bed. (“To touch a woman who wanted to be touched was for me the height of pleasure,” he writes, careful to distinguish himself from Naipaul, who claimed to have sex only with prostitutes and then hated himself “for being a man.”) Another thing that bothers Theroux about the book's reviews: “No one mentions that it's a funny book,” he says. “Why don't reviews mention that it's funny?”
Theroux is right – the book is funny – never more so than when he depicts Naipaul at his most autocratic, dismissing people as “infies” (inferiors) or ignoring their existence altogether. In one anecdote, Theroux recounts how “a certain New Yorker,” suspecting that the famously blind Indian New Yorker writer Ved Mehta was not actually blind, saw Mehta at a party and started to make faces at him. Mehta, who was holding forth to a group of admirers, appeared not to see him. Finally the man marched right up to Mehta and stuck his tongue out at him. Mehta continued to talk, registering nothing. Ashamed of himself, the man crept away. Mehta was obviously blind. As he was leaving, the man mentioned the incident to his hostess. “That's not Ved Mehta,” she told him. “It's V.S. Naipaul.”
Still, even if reviewers are missing the humor, it's hard to feel sorry for Theroux. In person as well as on the page, he's not a writer who inspires a sense of identification. He seems too canny and self-protective for that. He has worked hard but has not encountered much difficulty. (“I knew better than to tell [Naipaul] that I did not find the process of writing difficult,” he writes in Sir Vidia's Shadow. “I sat, I wrote, the words came. I did not suffer.”) Novels, travel books, reviews, articles and essays have poured out of him at an astonishing rate, almost all of high quality. In spite of this, Theroux never quite reaches the top level. His prose rarely sings. He has a superb command of voice but does not quite possess a voice. Naipaul's voice, on the other hand, is unmistakable. As in this paragraph from a letter he wrote when Theroux was preparing his first book about Naipaul:
You must give me the pleasure of seeing what I look like. It would be like hearing one's voice, seeing oneself walk down the street. You must feel free. I know, for instance, that I was once young; and that I have changed; lost and gained and sometimes strayed, as I have grown older. Show me!
Ironically, those sentences, which Theroux uses as an epigraph, are the most beautiful in the book. They are lucid, precise, lyrical, and they make a permanent imprint on the mind. If Sir Vidia's Shadow is the book in which Theroux finally kills off his mentor, his mentor – bitter, cruel, and deliberately outrageous – lords it over his protege, and whenever he's offstage we miss him. Theroux may have written Sir Vidia's Shadow in order to emerge from it, but ultimately he may have succeeded only in immortalizing his place inside it.
Not that Theroux is likely to spend much time worrying about it. “I'm a free man,” he says. “I can write whatever I want. I'm free to do whatever I like.” He's already on to his next project – a film version of his novel Chicago Loop, for which he's written the script. In fact, the director is waiting for him in the hotel lobby. Rising from the table on the sunlit terrace, he picks up his black leather portfolio and places it under his arm, a famous novelist in a culture that doesn't care very much about novelists. Then he walks into the dim lobby past lounging well-heeled guests, not one of whom, most probably, has read Paul Theroux or heard of V.S. Naipaul.