With Friends Like These

With Friends Like These

Sir Vidia’s Shadow:
A Friendship Across Five Continents
by Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, 1998 368 pp $24

Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer
by Norman Podhoretz
The Free Press, 1999 256 pp $25

These revenges dressed up as memoirs are untrustworthy, not necessarily in the facts presented, but in the sense Orwell meant when he wrote, “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.” They suffer from the problems of tone and meaning that arise when books claim to be doing something other, and higher, than what they’re really doing. They present themselves as dispassionately truthful remembrances. In fact, the spirit of rancor is so corrosive that it strips the glamour off the back of the most stubbornly glamorous literary fantasies: the writer as traveler and exile, the circle of New York Intellectuals. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to speak of betrayal in the ordinary sense. Because these two books call into question the very notion that literary friendship itself is possible, the real betrayal here is not of the subject-targets but the self.

Paul Theroux’s account of his three decades as V.S. Naipaul’s protégé has been made out to be a worse book than it actually is, and Theroux himself is to blame for this. He did himself a disservice by allowing the New Yorker to run a version before the book appeared that squeezed together the choicest slices of incriminating detail: Naipaul’s contempt for Africans and white “infies,” his cruel treatment of his long-suffering wife Pat, his affairs, his monumental prickliness, his cheapness, his second marriage to a domineering Pakistani woman—who apparently prevailed on him to cut Theroux off. The New Yorker beckoned and Theroux obliged with his nastiest gossip fodder. In doing so he violated one of the teacher’s most important maxims: “The man must never precede the book!” In punishment, the book became the object of venom and rebuttal before it had even come out. And Theroux compounded the damage post-publication, in an exercise of blunt self-justification, by writing more Naipaulia for the New York Times Book Review, like a machine that can’t be turned off.

But the first hundred pages of Sir Vidia’s Shadow have some good descriptions of East African travel and of expatriate life in Uganda, where Theroux, age twenty-four, and Naipaul, a very old thirty-four, met at the university in Kampala in 1966. For Theroux, at the start of his career, encountering in that unlikely place this uncompromising, “almost unlovable,” yet curious and intimate man, who encouraged him and then pronounced him a writer, was one of the “miracles” that Naipaul told him sometimes happen. These pages are vivid with the rush of youthful good luck, of guileless ambition ...