In the footsteps of Mr. Nye-Powell: inequity and creativity*
On Paul Theroux's "Sir Vidia's Shadow"
When you read VS Naipaul for the first time, it is like when you have tasted ice for the first time (to paraphrase another of my favorite writers). You never forget it. I read VS for the first time when I travelled to India in the early 1980s. I made a mistake of taking his book “The Wounded Civilization”. I cannot remember if my Indian friends suggested it, or I just read about it in newspapers, or perhaps I simply ran into it in a bookstore and bought it. I do know however that I had never heard of Naipaul’s name before.
I read the book while in Delhi and Bombay and it filled me with fear and despair. I was not naïve (even when I was young). I was not a do-gooder. But I just felt reading through the book that detailed all the failings of India, to be riding, or rather to have been submerged, under an enormous wave of hopelessness. Nothing could be done to make peoples’ lives better regardless of how much you wanted to do so: every effort was doomed to fail, to come to naught, even turn into its opposite. It was a miracle that India existed at all: so hopeless it was. Naipaul would later change his views (in “A Million Mutinies Now”), but my point is no whether he was right or wrong on India then—but that he was a writer of uncommon ability to pack in words the emotions that would not leave you for days.
Eventually, I had to quit reading the book while I was in India. It happened to me only once again. When I was in Djibouti in the early 1990s, I, not suspecting anything, bought in Belgrade, a short booklet that was Ivo Andric’s Ph D dissertation about the Ottoman rule in Bosnia. The bleakness of the description of that rule in a non-fiction book (Andric’s only non-fiction) was so powerful that I decided to stop reading since I feared that it might influence my relations with people in Djibouti, overwhelming majority of them Muslim.
I continued reading Naipaul after India. I think I read most of his non-fiction, but not much of his fiction (“A house for Mr. Biswas” and “Half a Life” being the only ones). I loved all his books; long after I have forgotten the details, a sharp observation would still be with me. I can declaim a number of them even now. When Naipaul died last August I thought the world had lost perhaps its greatest writer.
But I did not think much about him, nor was I planning to read more of his books. However: a couple of weeks ago, in Washington, I saw in a used bookstore a well-preserved copy of Paul Theroux’s “Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents”. The book attracted my attention also because inside the book there was a photograph of the youthfully-looking Paul Theroux with a caption the like of which I have never seen before. It said that the photo could be used only if writing reviews of the book and that all other uses were prohibited. I do not think any weirder injunction to the book readers is easy to imagine.
Theroux’s book is excellent. Theroux, whose writings were largely unknown to me (I read many years ago one or two of his short pieces in The New Yorker or in the NYRB), had written a sympathetic (yes, I think so) and riveting book on his friendship with, and the strange individual that was, VS Naipaul. The book led to the break-up of their relationship. Still it is difficult, for even an admirer of Naipaul, to say that the book was unfair to him--with the exception of one chapter where Theroux, quite unnecessarily, repeats the gossip about Naipaul that he did not witness. Theroux describes himself multiple times as disciple of Naipaul’s, having benefited enormously from his literary comments and knowledge, even after both men have achieved a measure of fame and when the difference in their age (less than ten years) had become rather negligible compared to what it was when then first met in Kenya, and when Theroux was in the early 20s.
From a very bourgeois morality standpoint, one can criticize Theroux for revealing thoughts that were said in privacy or in confidence and that one does not wish to see repeated, especially not in print. (Although with VS who obviously had an exhibitionist streak one is not even sure that he really did not want these things reported.)
But the rules for ordinary mortals are different from the rules for great men. What might be considered a breach of confidence in an ordinary relationship, was in this case (perhaps) driven by the need to describe one of the foremost writers of the era, the way he was. And the singular character of Naipaul, the solitary, often child-like, complex, utterly egocentric and selfish man, provides a great literary subject—so much so that the book can be read as much as a work of fiction as a description of an actual friendship.
For Naipaul himself can appeal to us on the same grounds: that the private actions of great people cannot be judged by the same yardstick we use in everyday life. His treatment of his two wives/partners is nothing but heartless and egotistic insensitivity. But when we read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” do we think about how he treated Sophie? When we read Kafka do we think about the day when after the engagement party to Felice Bauer, with her entire family present, he abruptly cancelled the wedding? When we read Naipaul we no more think about how he treated Pat Naipaul and Margaret Gooding. It is a gender inequity issue for which Naipaul is not the only example. Who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner? And who took care of Karl Marx’s kids, including the one that he conceived with the family maid? Moreover, it could be thought not only that without his two wives Naipaul would not have become what he did (which is a pretty conventional way), but—more extremely—that without him treating them in such an awful way he wouldn’t have written the books that he did.
Towards the end of his life Naipaul had become a caricature of everything that he despised in his youth. He was an OBE, Sir Vidia; he moved in the company of ambassadors, politicians and tycoons; he travelled not as on ordinary person, but as the president of the Republic of Letters; he was feted, wined and dined for free. He did not need even to pretend not to have noticed restaurant bills as when he was younger, poorer and associated with Theroux.
But he was also one of the most powerful writers of the second half of the 20th century, a man who set out from deep poverty and the world periphery to reach the top. Like Kafka, Naipaul is impossible to classify in any of our ordinary niches, for he was neither Trinidadian, nor Indian, nor British, nor Hindu, nor religious, nor an atheist. A perfect citizen of nowhere. A real globalist.
* Nye-Powell, with the appropriately exaggerated pronunciation, is Naipaul's own mocking of his name, of the Anglicized gentleman that he would become in his old age, and of his fame, which he never doubted would come, whether during his life or posthumously.