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Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Musing About VS Naipaul

After reading Paul Theroux’s book Sir Vidia’s Shadow, I found myself wondering just how much of the tone of the book was merely the taste of bitterness in Theroux’s mouth over a friendship grown cold. Was VS Naipaul really the man portrayed by the words and actions in Theroux’s book, or was he someone else entirely.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow is a well written book that draws the reader into the writer’s world and, very particularly, that kind of world as inhabited by these particular writers. It’s a world of intriguingly shallow people--writers, politicians, their loved ones--who see themselves as people of great depth and importance. It is also perpetually unflattering to Naipaul as it shows him as being cheap, petty, cruel, fickle, rude, and whiny.Wherever a ray of humanity shines through to give some view of Naipaul as something other than small, it is often immediately ripped away by a deep contrast that nudges the memories of his failings.

That Theroux was willing to publish such a personal, raw look at a former friend and mentor speaks volumes about his personality, too. Of course, after reading his books, it would be hard to imagine wanting to like Theroux in his personal life as he has portrayed himself (and thinly disguised versions of himself, as in My Secret History) to be a painfully difficult and selfish person, too. For that matter, in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, he’s certainly showing himself as another victim of Naipaul’s fickle nature, but he doesn’t imagine himself as an angelic figure.

The honesty is compelling, but it is a vicious kind of person who can write a memoir about a relationship and reveal, in such brutal terms, the warts and flaws of a former friend.

So, recognizing the book’s viciousness, I did wonder at its truth.

This, from the Telegraph, makes me wonder if Theroux was understating Naipaul’s flaws.

They have led French to paint a picture of a bleak, largely loveless marriage in which Sir Vidia frequently put his wife down - he refused even to buy her a wedding ring. He often abandoned her to go travelling with Mrs Gooding, the married Anglo-Argentine with whom he fell in love in 1972, and they periodically lived apart.

When in a self-pitying mood, Sir Vidia, who was born to Indian parents in Trinidad but has lived in Britain since winning a place to Oxford, would tell his wife how he was missing Mrs Gooding but then say that he needed Lady Patricia to help him with his books.

Trapped and unable to leave the husband she worshipped, Lady Patricia’s diaries reveal how she became little more than his cook and carer, and how for a time she became dependent on Mandrax, the prescribed sedative.

Sir Vidia’s sister, Savi, regarded her brother’s claim that Lady Patricia accepted the situation as “absolute rubbish, such profound vanity”.

Both of the men are wonderful writers, and both of them look less impressive when you see them up close. VS Naipaul’s personality--so profoundly sour and self-indulgent--might make it completely impossible for me to read his work in the future. It’s lost its shine.

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