Sir Vidia's Shadow

Paul Theroux <em>Hamish Hamilton, 384pp, £17.99</em>

"Right," I pompously proclaimed to my wife after lunch today, "I shall repair to my study to write that review of Theroux's book, Sir Vidia's Shadow."

"What?" She was bemused. "I can't believe you haven't long since given up on that, it came out ages ago."

"That's as may be - but I'm not interested in what this book means at an ephemeral level, I'm interested in the timeless questions that it raises about friendship, writing, autobiography." She looked at me with something approaching infinite pity as I quit the room.

In truth, the reason this review is so long delayed has nothing to do with procrastination (I bagged the book from the NS books desk the minute it came in and read it within hours). Most serious writers I know completely abjure literary biography - almost as an article of faith. "Oh, I never read the stuff," says Famous Novelist A, who is considering presenting a television series on 20th- century fiction. "Do you?" Do I? Of course I bloody do, and so do you, you hypocrite - to the writer, literary biography is flat-out porn. Wank material. There is nothing more enjoyable for someone locked up in the solitary confinement of a career in letters than to read of someone in the past in the same predicament.

Also, writers like to pretend that their lives are extremely boring. "Oh, I just sit at my desk and write," moans Famous Novelist A, "there's nothing more to my life." Bollocks. The truth is that while the money may not be great, the hours are infinitely flexible. Sexual escapades, moonlighting as a spy, exotic intoxicants - all can be found time for. Naturally, a literary biography that concentrates too much on its subject's writing will tend to be dull, but the best biographers stick to sex and quarrels (something else that writers have ample time for).

Not that Theroux's book is strictly speaking a literary biography; indeed, it's hard to know what sort of book it is at all. I think it should be more properly described as a suicide note for two reputations. Here's the storyline. Uganda, early 1960s, the young Theroux meets the prematurely middle-aged V S Naipaul, already a successful writer. They become friends. Naipaul is a mentor, nurturing Theroux's talent; Theroux is an acolyte, burnishing his mentor's sense of literary mission. Thirty-odd years pass, during which the two men write books, live in different countries, marry, have affairs, write letters and occasionally meet for unpleasant social gatherings. Eventually Naipaul's long-suffering wife dies and he remarries. The new wife takes a dislike to Theroux and Naipaul drops him as a friend.

That's it. Big deal, you're tempted to say - and I would agree. To sit down and write a 356-page book about all this seems all of the following: a) gratuitous; b) petty; c) meretricious; d) dishonourable. And the book that's resulted is all of these and more. The nicest, most symmetrical irony in all this is that as Theroux showers more and more vilification and abuse on the head of the man who's snubbed him, we come to realise that really they deserve each other. I mean, what kind of an idiot sticks around to be friends with a man like Naipaul, who by Theroux's own account is ungenerous, cold, ludicrously arrogant, snobbish beyond belief, sadistic and - as far as I could make out - quite devoid of humour? I'd sooner spend an hour sandpapering my genitals than conversing with Naipaul - whether he's the world's greatest novelist or not.

It's a commonplace of writers as well to moan about their works being regarded as an outgrowth of the individual. And it's true, that not knowing the writer personally, the average critic's personal remarks are wholly unwarranted. But we do know Theroux - at least we have a wide selection of his memoirs, quasi-memoirs and thinly fictionalised memoirs. And now, through his good offices, we know Naipaul as well. Interestingly, it is Theroux who emerges as the worse man, but the better writer.

I don't mean worse man overall - how could I possibly know that? And I certainly don't mean "not nice" (what could be more trivial?). Rather, I simply mean that through this one, intensely dishonourable act, he ends up dishonouring himself. His oeuvre, on the other hand, remains exactly as it was: interesting, vigorous, at times entertaining, upper-middlebrow novels and travel writing. Nothing can detract from that. Naipaul's works, on the other hand, are retroactively rendered - through the agency of this helpful manual - stale, otiose, affectless and, frankly, irrelevant. Don't get me wrong - I've read most of them. I thought A House for Mr Biswas a masterpiece when I read it - but then I was 14.

I read others as well, at least five, although I won't burden you with the titles. But then there were the books on India, and the books on Africa, which revealed their author's consuming bigotry, intolerance and racism. And then there was The Enigma of Arrival, a novel which was exactly concomitant with the ludicrous spectacle of its author - the Brahmin, Trinidadian son of an unsuccessful journalist - attempting to insinuate himself into the back passage of the English establishment. One sublimely politically incorrect friend of mine suggested it should have been called "Coon in Wiltshire".

As I grew to appreciate, more and more, the narrowness and the lack of sympathy which informed the character of the author, so I came to admire the works - and I mean all the works - far less, if at all. By the time I read Among the Believers, I was among the complete disbelievers; Sir Vidia was the Great Sham. Even Biswas now appears to me to be a consummate copy of a 19th-century naturalistic novel, rather than anything interesting in its own right.

Theroux does us the favour of explaining how Naipaul's talent auto-destructed - he eschewed literary style, he didn't read enough, or with enough sympathy. The question of why Theroux should have written this suicide note for his own reputation is more difficult to analyse, but perhaps a clue lies in an exchange he has with one of his sons, which he reports towards the end of the book. Apropos of Theroux's agonising over Naipaul's snub, Theroux Jnr says: "But Dad, you always say you don't have any friends."

Well, he was down to one . . . and now?

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage