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Books: Death of a friendship on Gloucester Road

Sir Vidia's Shadow by Paul Theroux Hamish Hamilton pounds 17.99
Paul Theroux first met V S Naipaul 30 years ago, in Uganda. Theroux was a university teacher in Kampala, 24 years old, and an unpublished novelist, when V S Naipaul turned up as a visiting professor. Naipaul, despite being dismissive of all his students, took Theroux's writing seriously. Flattered and inspired by Naipaul's encouragement, Theroux accompanied Naipaul on several trips around the region, and the two became close friends.

This friendship lasted three decades, by mail and face to face, with the older writer playing a mentor's role in Theroux's life through his long struggle to make a tolerable living, and beyond, through the 1980s and 1990s, with both authors acquiring increasing fame, wealth and recognition. Then, last year, their friendship ended.

Theroux was "in Hawaii in an angle of repose" when he received by mail a catalogue from a bookseller who specialised in modern first editions. Flipping through it, he came across the following entry: "THEROUX, Paul. Fong and the Indians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968. His second book ... This copy is inscribed by Theroux to writer V S Naipaul: 'For Vidia / & Pat / with love / Paul.'''

Looking down the list, Theroux found several first editions of his books personally inscribed for V S Naipaul and his recently dead wife. Theroux concluded that "someone was cleaning house", and faxed him the catalogue pages along with the question "How are you?". In return, Theroux received a message from Naipaul's new wife consisting of bizarre, randomly punctuated non-sequiturs interspersed with attacks on Theroux's writing and accusations of disloyalty to V S Naipaul. Realising (from the sloppiness of the prose more than anything else) that Naipaul had never seen this fax, Theroux made various attempts to contact him directly, all of which failed. Letters went unanswered. Theroux knew better than to phone, since Naipaul never answers the phone himself.

Not long after this, they bumped into one another on Gloucester Road. Naipaul tried to avoid talking to him. When Theroux asked if Naipaul had received his fax, Naipaul said, simply, "Yes," then tried to walk away. "Do we have something to discuss?" Theroux then asked. "No," Naipaul replied. "What do we do, then?" was Theroux's next question. "Take it on the chin and move on." With that, Naipaul scuttled away, and 30 years of friendship came to an end. Theroux relates that "before [I] got to Cromwell Road, I had begun this book in my head."

Sir Vidia's Shadow, although it descends into bitterness and recrimination at the end, is for most of its length a remarkably affectionate recollection of a long and supportive friendship. As such, Theroux has yet again defied the genre rules of the memoir. This age-old literary form, barely changed since Rousseau, has already been radically and spectacularly overhauled in Theroux's masterpieces My Secret History and My Other Life. Both these books are subtitled "a novel", yet cover the events of his life with differing mutations. Both are preceded by an authorial disclaimer, stressing the fictionalisation of events and people. No one, however, could possibly mistake either book for a novel.

With Sir Vidia's Shadow, Theroux completes a trilogy of not-quite-memoirs, each of which traces (with varying emphasis) the curve of his entire life from childhood in America, university teaching in Africa and Singapore, struggles as a hard-up writer in London, through success, fatherhood and divorce to a return, alone, to the United States.

While My Secret History and My Other Life defy their genre by seeking out the crack between memoir and fiction, Sir Vidia's Shadow inhabits a complementary fissure between memoir and biography. This book is as much about Theroux as it is about Naipaul, as well as being a fascinating portrayal of the nature of friendship. And yet, no conventional biography could possibly give a stronger or more flavoursome sense of Naipaul's character.

Theroux tells us that Naipaul was "one of the strangest men I had ever met, and absolutely the most difficult. He was almost unlovable. He was contradictory, he quizzed me incessantly, he challenged everything I said, he demanded attention, he could be petty, he uttered heresies about Africa, he fussed, he mocked, he made his innocent wife cry, he had impossible standards, he was self-important, he was obsessive on the subject of his health. He hated children, music and dogs. But he was also brilliant, and passionate in his convictions, and to be with him, as a friend or a fellow writer, I had always to be at my best."

The contradictions and quirks of Naipaul's extraordinary character are at the heart of this book, presented with a curious mix of a biographer's detachment and an autobiographer's involvement. As such, Theroux's formal hybrid feels like the best of both worlds - we have all the secrets and indiscretions, without the suspicion of ego-warped dishonesty. We discover the best of Naipaul, yet also delve thoroughly into the very worst.

Theroux doesn't spare us what he perceives as the racism, misogyny or sheer cruelty of Naipaul. However, the story of their falling out is saved until the final chapter, with animosity reserved for these last few pages. The vast majority of the book is kind to Naipaul - presenting the good and the bad, but with all authorial intrusions emphasising the former.

In its entirety, though, the book reads as a hatchet job. Theroux knows the power of repetition, and he also knows the power of withholding repetition. Again and again we are shown the distasteful side of Naipaul's character, yet always with a subtly forgiving tone. Theroux goes out of his way not to judge. He barely mentions any anger he might feel when, in the midst of his penury, with two small children, the well-off and childless Naipaul silently saddles him with a vast restaurant bill. This persistent and breathtaking stinginess is softly judged by Theroux as "parsimony".

Naipaul's cruelty and dismissiveness, equally, are shown in a predominantly comic light. Theroux structures his anecdotes so we smile when we read that Naipaul waves away references to writers he doesn't respect with a simple, "Who is he?"

The pejorative is consistently held in check. Naipaul is never referred to as pompous until we are told that "all his pomposity had fallen away and he had become graceful". We are constantly given the message that Theroux is trying to show Naipaul in the best possible light.

And yet, he isn't. Theroux's seeming kindliness of tone is a conceit. It is a boxer preserving his strength, weakening his opponent, softening him up for the knock-out punch. With the snub from Naipaul's second wife, 30 years of patience and tolerance, 30 years of solicitous obedience, come to an end. The final section of the book is a devastating dissection of Naipaul's character. Theroux, we discover, has withheld judgement in order to concentrate it. His conclusions regarding Naipaul are that there is "nothing lower" than his rudeness to book-tour escorts and secretaries. He accuses him of "insufferable do-you-know-who- I-am? posturing", saying that "his attitudes approached the level of self-parody." Naipaul is described as "the neediest person I have ever known", and variously as "deeply flawed", "presumptuous", "mean" and "cruel".

Most devastating of all, in a friendship that was rooted in mutual respect for one another's work, Theroux concludes that "I had admired his talent. After a while I admired nothing else. Finally I began to wonder about his talent, seriously to wonder, and doubted it when I found myself skipping pages in his more recent books."

A few paragraphs of this, and the preceding 350 pages of praise and admiration for Naipaul's work is wiped out. He comes across as a man with no humanity - as all pomposity and ego - a man with a narrow and bitter mind. Ultimately, this book will send you back to reread Theroux, not Naipaul.

There is an irony in this. As a response to Naipaul's complaints that he was underrated and out of print in America, in 1972 Theroux published a critical introduction to Naipaul's work. This was essentially a labour of love - an act of friendship for which he received very little money - designed to bring Naipaul readers. Now, with Naipaul still alive, Theroux has written a critical obituary, presenting a convincing case for the moral and literary death of Naipaul.

The imagery of shadows runs throughout this book. As Naipaul slinks away after their friendship-terminating meeting on Gloucester Road, Theroux comments on his receding form that "he cast no shadow". In other words, according to the imagery of this book, he no longer exists. Theroux, in the end, turns Naipaul's "Who is he?" on its head, sending it back with delicate scorn.