Books: Vindictive through and Theroux

Sir Vidia's Shadow by Paul Theroux Penguin pounds 7.99
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The Independent Culture
Other people's gossip is rarely interesting: when Theroux's obituary to his friendship with V S Naipaul was published last year, and the press started talking about a great "literary feud", many people must surely have had to suppress a yawn. Could this story be remotely interesting to anybody outside the narrow, navel-gazing world of publishing and reviewing?

Surprisingly, it could. Sir Vidia's Shadow is an extraordinarily controlled, gripping meditation on friendship, on ego, on the solitary business of writing, and an exquisitely detailed memoir - written with what one reviewer called "the near-illicit total recall of the novelist". More than that, it is a calculating, mesmerising act of vengeance without obvious precedent.

Theroux met Naipaul - Sir Vidia - in Kampala in the 1960s, when he was an academic and an aspiring writer and Naipaul already an established author. They became friends; Naipaul encouraged Theroux, criticised his work, helped to turn him into a writer. Over the next 30 years their relationship carried on in the same manner, Theroux the apprentice, Naipaul very much the master. Then Naipaul's wife died, he remarried, and abruptly the friendship ended: Theroux's attempts to communicate were rebuffed; he came across first editions of his own books, "inscribed by Theroux to V S Naipaul", in an auction catalogue; meeting Naipaul in the street, he was virtually cold-shouldered. And so he wrote this book, in which Naipaul emerges as a vain, fussy, stingy man, a bigoted monster tolerable only because of his talent; and by the end, Theroux has come to doubt even the talent.

In an afterword to this edition, Theroux discusses public reaction to the book and defends what he has written - since writers are necessarily imperfect people, he suggests, the true belittlement is hagiography. But that doesn't explain everything: it doesn't explain the relish with which he asserts that he was personally responsible for ensuring that Naipaul didn't win the Booker for A Bend in the River; it doesn't explain the contrast he draws between Naipaul's chilly, chaste persona and his own virile exploits - how those women howled! It certainly doesn't explain his sexual fantasising about Lady Antonia Fraser and about Naipaul's first wife, Pat.

Often the book makes the reader squirm, at Naipaul's insensitivity, at Theroux's willingness to expose his worst sides. But the horror never outweighs the fascination: a cruel, even a wicked book; but a damnably readable one.