Trinidad-Born Author V.S. Naipaul (1932-2018)
What happens when one of your favorite authors forms a friendship with another of your favorite authors and then writes a book about that friendship? That’s the case when Paul Theroux came out in 1998 with Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents. Both authors wrote not only novels but travel books. IMHO, Naipaul was the better novelist (by a long shot); but Paul Theroux’s travel books are far better—to the extent that they have played a major role in the way I lived my life over the last forty years.
Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad of a Hindu Indian family. He parlayed his colonial background into a brilliant series of novels which eventually gained for him a knighthood (in 1990) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 2001). He encountered Paul Theroux in Uganda, where both were living for a while. They became fast friends even before Theroux published his first novel.
That friendship became an instrumental part of Theroux’s life. Even when separated by thousands of miles, they wrote to each other frequently. He was even sexually attracted to Naipaul’s first wife, Patricia, who died in 1996.
Patricia and Vidia Naipaul
Throughout the long friendship, Vidia Naipaul turned out to be a rather prickly individual. Some of it was due to his Brahmin fastidiousness:
“I can’t sleep in that bed,” he said. “It’s tainted. Why did he do it? The foolish, ignorant man!”
“What happened?” I asked.
“One of the workmen in Vidia’s bedroom was explaining something,” Pat began.
His face twisted in nausea, Vidia said, “And he sat on my bed…. He put his bottom on my bed.”
What would have bothered me more than it seemed to bother Theroux was that Naipaul was notorious about not picking up the check when they went out for dinner. And this was at a time when Paul was at the beginning of his career and constantly short of funds.
When Patricia died, the friendship suddenly came apart. Shortly after the funeral, Vidia married an Indian woman named Nadira, whom he had met previously in Africa. Quite suddenly, all of Paul’s attempts to contact Vidia were intercepted by Nadira, who was highly critical of the American writer.
The coffin nail was driven into the friendship when Paul and his son were taking a walk in London and suddenly encountered Vidia, who did not acknowledge him. When Paul addressed him, Vidia finally recognized him. When asked if he had received a recent fax from Paul, Naipaul was reluctant to discuss the matter further. When Paul asked what was to be done, Naipaul answered, “Take it on the chin and move on.”
Theroux was shocked:
He knew. It was over. It never occurred to me to chase him. There would be no more. And I understood the shock of something’s being over, like being slapped—hurt as the blood whipped through my body. “Like being hit by a two-by-four,” my friend had said when Vidia insulted her in Oregon.
This exchange takes place on the last page of the book. Theroux could have done a job of character assassination on his old friend, but he chose not to. After all those years, the friendship had meant a great deal to him, even if it ended badly.
I, too, have had prickly friends. Some I walked away from. Some I took up with again after a number of years had transpired. Would I have done differently than what I wound up doing in the end? Probably not.
In the end, I really liked Theroux’s book, which demonstrated that—for a time—his friendship with Vidia had great value in his life.