Reading: With friends like this...

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The Independent Culture
ONCE UPON a time, before authors grew too chummy with their audiences, they were viewed as outlaws, exotic anti-heroes, the sort of people who would shoot an apple off a spouse's head as a party trick and then, one day, blast half her face off. As that steely old beat William Burroughs once did. These weren't solid, dependable book-launch sort of people. Nowadays, authors are more like Paul Theroux, bank-managerial in appearance, chummy and full of anecdotes.

Theroux - tall, square-jawed, Clark Kentish, exuberantly spider-browed, was over from his pool in Massachusetts this week to explain to a gaggle of fairly tame enthusiasts at the National Theatre how he, the new-style, confiding sort, could possibly have written such a nasty book about a sometime friend called VS Naipaul.

According to Theroux, the answer was simple: the book is brilliant, in concept and execution, and so there was no question of not writing it. There hasn't been a more searching exploration of the nature of friendship since Boswell scrutinised Johnson.

Theroux's reputation has taken a knock with this book, though. Auberon Waugh has called it disgusting, and even warned audiences to keep away from the event. Thousands came. But doubts still linger. Could Theroux possibly have remembered all those conversations from the Sixties, or was there perhaps an element of precis here, and even perhaps of fabrication? What about, for example, that little girl of nine glimpsed in the book, the one who is said to have grown up to become Naipaul's wife 30 years later? Was that true or not? Theroux, smiling through clenched teeth, said that, well, sometimes, as the Russians know, a writer has to be an enchanter, and if it's not true, it has to be true. Which, perhaps, meant something to somebody bedded down somewhere in the permafrost.

But wasn't the project a touch morally dubious? Wasn't he, in effect, hoping for a little reflected glory from a talent greater than his? Theroux hit back hard, though genially. "Look," he said, "I'm 57 years old now." What a body, what a survivor, we all thought. "I've published 33 books. I'm sitting in Massachusetts one day, thinking: I can swim - but what else? What have I got to write? Then I'm given an idea. It's a gift, a Valentine, this story. I never expected I'd be able to do it. You can only write it when the friendship's over, not when it's in progress. And so I wrote it. I did it. His new wife didn't want me to write it. She said there was a biography on the way anyway. But I wanted to do it because no one has written this book about friendship. No one can do it, because I've done it! It's my book!"

I felt that in the face of such a bout of near-hysterical self-justification, the St John's Ambulance people might be called for, but, all of a sudden, he steadied himself. He stopped spitting bullets, and got back to the business in hand. "And, I'm very happy to sign copies outside in the foyer."