At the 2011 Hay Literary Festival in Britain, Sir Vidia Naipaul and Paul Theroux shook hands. The gesture made news. Bad blood had been assumed ever since Theroux’s memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, had painted Naipaul as a cruel and self-involved crank. “Vidia was the neediest person I had ever known,” wrote Theroux in 1998, sounding like a wronged spouse. “He fretted incessantly, couldn’t cook, never cleaned, wouldn’t drive, demanded help, had to be the center of attention.” Naipaul has been condescending towards Theroux’s travel writing in return. “Travel has become a plebeian, everyday matter, it has become lower-class adventure, and there are books now written for lower class travelers. I think Theroux belongs to that category: he wrote tourist books for the lower classes.”
It’s easy to laugh off Naipaul for being a snob, but his insult is still more stinging than Theroux’s entire memoir. It takes a lot of effort to write 364 pages about someone else’s character flaws. Naipaul found Theroux worthy of only a few sentences and the brutal kiss-off, “Take it on the chin, and move on.” Even in Theroux’s “tell-all” memoir about Naipaul’s monstrous behavior, he seems reluctant to savage his former hero, prefacing his criticisms with the assurance that he still thinks Naipaul is brilliant.
Aside from Sir Vidia’s peculiar 19th-century elitism, it’s hard to disagree completely with his harsh take on Theroux’s writing. If both men are known for their explorations of empire’s aftermath, Theroux is the tourist – a label that has a kind of nastiness to it all on its own. It isn’t at all surprising that a Caribbean writer would look down on Theroux’s Massachusetts upbringing, his Peace Corps earnestness, his adventuring across Africa, his Hawaiian retirement.
It is not Theroux’s fault that his quarrels with the world are less interesting than Naipaul’s. Both men do embody something essential about the immediate aftermath of empire, even if Theroux does not have access to Naipaul’s pain. Both writers can be exasperating. Naipaul’s torment – the torment of the migrant and the colonial – can completely shut him off from questioning his own judgments. Theroux is rarely in the position to have to try. At various times in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Theroux notes that Naipaul often fell into sour moods, complaining of “having no country” and “being placeless.” “Out of politeness, I did not mention that he was the one with the British passport, while I carried an Alien registration card,” Theroux writes, missing the point. In another dubious moment, Theroux, having spent a few years teaching in Uganda, attributes his alienation on a visit to Oxford to his African-ness. “Places like this reminded me that I was in many respects an African. I needed a simpler and less demanding world.” This is a strange statement for a lecturer at the University of Makrere in Kampala to make.
What’s at issue here is not only two writers’ very different assumptions about travel and identity, but their completely opposed views on the activity of writing. Theroux and Naipaul conceive of their vocations in inverse ways. Naipaul, running from what he perceives as a provincial place in the world, sees himself, whether rightly or not, as a solitary genius struggling under the weight of history. As absurd as this makes some of his pronouncements, it is what gives his writing its intensity. Theroux, on the other hand, has a much more democratic view of what it means to be a writer. There is something both admirable and irritating about the fact that Theroux’s huge success has come to him despite the fact that he is a good, not a great, writer. By most accounts, his gifts are his determination to live a writer’s life, his confidence and ease around people, and his discipline. In this formula, the key ingredient to achieving success as a writer is not having a unique vision, as Naipaul might say, but wanting it bad enough.
It’s puzzling that Naipaul and Theroux were able to sustain a thirty year friendship on the basis of writing and travel, two things they agreed so little about. To what extent was Naipaul stringing Theroux along when he praised his books? Was it a cruel game at the expense of Theroux’s naivety? And how appeasing must Theroux have been to not agitate the famously prickly Naipaul for so many years? What do these former friends truly think of each others’ work? A handshake says so little.