A lip-smacking sentence from the first page of Sir Vidia’s Shadow by Paul Theroux. It's about Theroux’s relationship with V.S. Naipaul. They met when Theroux was a young lecturer in Kampala. Naipaul was on a junket, a visiting lecturer who did not lecture. His contribution to Makerere University was to judge a writing competition and award only a third prize because none of the work was good enough for 1st or 2nd. Naipaul became a friend and mentor to Theroux, and in return, Theroux picked up the tab.
"The bill was brought, I paid it, I left the tip. Vidia had not seen it. He did not see bills even when they were brought on the most expensive china and folded like origami and presented to him. It was one of his survival skills…"
"With no money for dinner, I took the early train to Dorset so that I could eat at home. It puzzled me that I had spent so much on lunch… it had cost me the equivalent of one month’s rent.... I was at work on my seventh novel, and still doing journalism, and it did not seem as though I could make a living. All this in spite of burning the midnight oil and getting wonderful reviews."
Naipaul also needed cash. Theroux tried to help his friend by setting up a sale of his papers to an American library. The librarian laughed at the suggested price. He had never heard of the Trinidadian writer.
"He had won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, the Hawthornden Prize, the W.H. Smith Award, and… the Booker Prize. He was been spoken of as the greatest living writer in the English language and… he pined for better sales and more money."
Sir Vidia’s shadow is a great read. It is, sentence by sentence, beautifully written. And it makes you think. At least, it makes this pale native think. Not least when Naipaul remarks that Africa is:
"“...an obscene continent, fit only for second rate people. Second rate whites with second rate ambition, who are prepared, as in South Africa, to indulge in the obscenity of disciplining Africans.” You either stayed away or you remained, with a whip in your hand. Uganda proved that they only survivors in Africa were second raters and savages, masters and slaves."Disciplining Africans? Masters and slaves?
Naipaul won the Nobel in 2001, but I’ve never really got him. I tried Mr Biswas and gave up. I did enjoy A Bend in the River. And I enjoyed his brother Shiva’s book about Africa. Theroux, on the other hand, has written a couple of books that I love. Mosquito Coast. The Happy Isles of Oceania. And most of all, Sir Vidia’s Shadow. I think it is because, behind the surface subject, is the real one: the writing life; Theroux’s marriage breaking up; his world falling apart. One of the last things he says to Naipaul, before the friendship ends, is “I’ve lost my way.”
But he survived. He bought a collapsible canoe, left London and wife, and went paddling among the cannibals. And wrote about it. When Paul Theroux gets into trouble, he writes his way out. Maybe that’s what writing is. A way of being. A technique of survival.