Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul passed away last month. In memory of his valuable contribution to literature, I am featuring two of my reviews of books that offer different perspectives on him. The first, Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents by Paul Theroux, is a work of non-fiction, and the second, The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi, is a work of fiction.
Sir Vidia’s Shadow:
A Friendship Across Five Continents
- by Paul Theroux
The record of a friendship that lasted over 30 years is the next best thing to a biography that Paul Theroux comes close to chronicling on V.S Naipaul.
Theroux couldn’t have come up with a more difficult subject. In his words, Naipaul is “one of the strangest and most difficult men I have met. He was contradictory, he challenged everything, he demanded attention, he could be petty, he uttered heresies about Africa (a land Theroux had a strong connection with), he made his innocent wife cry, he had impossible standards, he was self-important, he hated children, music, and dogs. He was also brilliant and passionate in his convictions.”
And yet there is a warmth between these two men, Naipaul the mentor and Theroux the willing acolyte, and their lessons on writing that span continents in shared conversations, letters, and essays are invaluable even today. They were totally dedicated to their craft, suffering the vicissitudes of the career writer who has no other outlet for self-actualization. Money was always a lack and a need, for they alternated between selling critically acclaimed but financially lean books while dabbling in journalism and taking teaching assignments to keep the bills paid while roaming the world, often alone, in constant search of material for their pens.
Some of Master Naipaul’s lessons to his student Theroux are worth noting:
a) Don’t get rich on writing before the age of 40.
b) Tell the truth.
c) Create original turns of phrase and words.
d) The Man (writer) must never precede the work (yet Naipaul was pleased with the literary honours heaped upon him, including the Nobel that came after this book was written).
e) Story is not important, narrative is better. Style is not important, structure and form are better.
f) Literary agents are “idlers” and publishers are “crummy.”
g) Writers steadily cancel each other out; the new (generation) replacing the old.
h) There is no middle way, a writer must be a free man. Anyone with a salary and a boss isn’t a free man.
i) On English courses in university: “It’s a silly parroting of political tripe. Close down the English departments.” (and yet Theroux and Naipaul accepted teaching jobs when times were tough).
j) On Literature: “Literature is for the old, the experienced, the damaged, who find echoes of their own experience and is balm of a sort.”
k) On Titles: “They should be purchased for stamps at the post office.” (yet Naipaul was a willing recipient of the title of Knight - i.e. “Sir,” from the Queen).
l) On literary prizes: “A dreadful corrupting of publishing.”
m) “All great writing has its own new form.”
Those who live in Sir Vidia’s shadow quickly become visible: Theroux himself, who remains the eternal mentee; Naipaul’s long-suffering first wife, Pat, who slept in a separate bedroom and had to keep the home fires burning while her husband hogged the limelight and was often seen in the company of a long-standing mistress; his brother, Shiva, who was an accomplished writer in his own right but who could never escape from under Big Brother’s fame in the literary establishment.
Through countries, books, publishers, mistresses, and wives, the two writers keep a strong bond of friendship that waxes and wanes but never dies, until Pat herself passes away and Naipaul immediately marries a younger Pakistani divorcee with teenage daughters. Ironically, this same woman had crossed their paths when she was a child and when the two writers had been debating the merits of having children, using her as an example. Theroux and the new wife do not hit it off from the inception and that spills into damaging his relationship with Naipaul.
The final meeting between the two writers prompts the writing of this book, when Theroux realizes the wisdom in Naipaul’s words, “To all relations, there is a time to call them off.” Looking after the master scuttle up the road to Hyde Park, Theroux discovers that his giant literary friend is indeed a small man with no shadow. “Take it on the chin and move on,” are the final words from the great author that keep ringing in his ears, and with that, Theroux heads home to settle down and write this book as his form of preservation and purgation of a relationship that greatly informed his career as a writer.
The Last Word - by Hanif Kureishi
“The madness of writing is the antidote to true madness”- one of the myriad of insights into writing and publishing that pepper this book, suggests just that: this is a writer’s novel, a novel about writers and their hangers-on, and one that discards pretensions of plot, character, pacing and all those other elements of craft that readers come to expect in a novel, but which writers consider necessary evils to accommodate when delivering a novel. It is also rumoured to be a thinly veiled fictionalized account of the interaction between V.S. Naipaul and his biographer, Patrick French.
The story covers a month in the life of a biographer, Harry, who spends it with his subject: a renowned but fading Nobel-prize winning, Indian-born, colonial writer, Mamoon, and his gatekeeper Italian wife, Liana, in a crumbling country manor. Mamoon is a despicable man and so is his biographer; both are libidinous, adulterous and self-absorbed. The wives, partners, and lovers of these men crave love and attention from them, which they are unable to provide because they are absorbed only in themselves and their work. As Harry plumbs into Mamoon’s life, pulling out as much salacious detail as he can, the Nobel winner, in turn, is getting his own back on the biographer by writing a novel about him, exposing Harry’s own peccadilloes. As for the women, Liana has a “see-but-don’t-touch” flirtation with Harry, while the aging Mamoon has a “see-but-we-are-not-sure-whether-he-has-touched” relationship with Harry’s pregnant partner, Alice. And Harry has a sexual relationship with the maid, Julia, while proclaiming his undying love to Alice. No one feels guilt, they just get on with it.
The modus operandi of the publishing industry is laid bare: write a saucy biography of this fading literary star and rekindle interest in him; issue reprints of his many books in their many translations to catch this wave of renewed interest; sell the salacious bits unearthed during the research for the biography to the tabloids; spin off into a TV show; republish the biography in five years as a second edition with a new chapter detailing the writer’s death (which is surely to have occurred by then) and start the circus rolling all over again.
The storyline is haphazard, the characters are one-dimensional; all that matters is what spews from their mouths in terms of their insights into the “madness of writing.” Quotes are abundant:
“Literature was a killing field—no decent person had picked up a pen”
“Words were the bridge between chaos and reality.”
“Art is seduction. Indiscretion is the essence of biography.”
“Marriage domesticates sex but frees love.”
“All sex must include a poisonous drop of perversion to be worth getting into bed for.”
“A writer is loved by strangers and hated by his family.”
“In London, you never see white people working.”
“Frustration makes creativity possible.”
“All religions are concerned with weaning their adherents off desire.”
Why am I regurgitating these quotes? Because they are all that is merit-worthy in this book. The storyline spirals into a cartoon and the scenes jump around with a lack of continuity and fluidity. Character information is strewn all over the book, some at the very end, resulting in us not quite knowing these people even by the time the novel concludes.
One thing is obvious: biographies can lead to fractured relationships and ill health, and there is no guarantee of the planned outcome. A lot of emotion gets released, many secrets are revealed, and new and tangled relationships are formed.
As for the work itself, the fictional publisher pores through the biographer’s manuscript at one stage and says, “This is shit. Improve a million times,” and I wondered whether this was a true quote hurled at Kureishi himself while he was wrestling with this book, a criticism that he didn’t quite take to heart, or if he did, resulted only in a half improved version. I suppose he set himself up with a tough challenge when, given its premise, this story is derived primarily from encounters between the biographer, his subject, and the supporting cast, and when all there is to work with is a dialogue between the players about events that had occurred in the past. The only way I could reconcile myself to reading this book was to say, “It’s a book about a writer and a touchy subject called “the writers’ biography.” How would you feel if people went poking into your personal life trying to find skeletons in the closet?”
The last word left with me was more a question: can one separate the life of an artist from his work, and appreciate or depreciate each side separately and distinctly? This is a question for our times as many artists are falling off their pedestals today for lives improperly lived. As for Naipaul, if indeed this was a book about him, he should be flattered that like other larger-than-life authors such as Hemingway and Poe, people continue to immortalize him on the page.