Asked by a friend recently to explain who V S Naipaul is, I found myself struggling to think of much beyond the basic facts – of Indian descent but actually born in Trinidad, knighted for his services to literature and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. Beyond that, my knowledge comes solely from the viewpoint of another Booker prize winning author, Paul Theroux.
The two were once close friends but – as Theroux relates in Sir Vidia’s Shadow - their relationship came to a somewhat strange end on a London street in 1997. The two didn’t speak again until they both happened to be guest speakers at the Hay Festival in 2011 where they were seemingly re-united via a handshake.
Theroux had been very shaken by the rift. It was Naipaul who had encouraged him when his writing career was in its early stages afar their first meeting in Uganda in 1966. It was Naipaul who acted as his mentor over the next thirty years. Theroux delivered a flattering portrait of his friend in V.S. Naipaul, an Introduction to His Work (1972).
Their split supposedly happened after Theroux discovered that one of his books – which he had inscribed and given to Naipaul as a present – had been put on sale for $1,500. But there had already been a thawing of the relationship on Naipaul’s side after Naipaul’s wife wrote a letter to Theroux in which she accused him of trying to make her husband seem fanatical when he interviewed him during a recent Hay on Wye literature festival. Then came the silence – Theroux’s letters and faxes went unanswered; phone calls were not returned. The actual break came one Spring morning as Theroux and his son Marcel walked towards Chelsea and encountered a scowling strutting figure walking quickly towards them.
‘It was Vidia, looking crazy……What disconcerted me was that I stopped and he kept walking…….He was striding, thrashing the pavement with a walking stick; he wore a funny little hat, floppy brim and all, a tweed jacket, a turtleneck.
‘It was he. In a city of seven and half million, our paths had miraculously crossed.’
A brief exchange of banal comments followed and then as Theroux remembers the encounter…..
‘I was nerved and trembly, I could hardly breathe. I stammered saying, “Vidia did you get a fax from me?
‘Yes, Now I must -’
‘Do we have something to discuss?’
‘No. He had almost broken away, He was moving crabwise, crouching a bit, cramming his hat down.
‘What do we do then?’
‘He drew his mouth back. His face went darker. His mouth twisted down. …His grip on his cane was sudden and prehensile.
‘Take it on the chin and move on”
‘The word scuttled came to mind as he moved. He was fearful and in a hurry.
‘He knew. It was over. It never occurred to me to chase him. there would be no more.
‘I was dazed because I was liberated at last. I saw how the end of a friendship was the start of an understanding. He had made me his by choosing me; his rejection of me meant I was on my own, out of his shadow. He had freed me, he had opened my eyes…..’
Extract taken from Sir Vidia’s Shadow, published by Penguin Books 1998