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

Ex-Friends: 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 allow...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: