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Lit Snit

Authors V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux were chums for more than 30 years--until a wife gave away hundreds of books, which, in turn, led to a vengeful tell-all. Their falling-out is the talk of literary London.

June 15, 1998|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — In waspish literary London, where rumor, feud and insult are natural accompaniments to the canapes and white wine of the book-launch circuit, battle lines and lines of defense are being drawn up in a feud between celebrated writers Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul.

After more than 30 years of friendship, Theroux, the 57-year-old American author of "The Great Railway Bazaar" and "The Mosquito Coast," has fallen out with Naipaul, his former mentor. Theroux has completed a draft of a revenge memoir that reportedly savages Naipaul and his second wife, Nadira.

Theroux's attack is so harsh that his British publisher, Hamish Hamilton, apparently fears that the book may have to be recast before it can be printed here, because libel laws in Britain are among the strictest in the world. The book will be published in the U.S. in November by Houghton Mifflin.

"We've just seen the early manuscript. Obviously, it's kept very much under lock and key because it's such explosive stuff," said Sarah Thornton, Theroux's publicist at Hamish Hamilton. She said Hamish Hamilton has submitted the draft of the memoir, "Sir Vidia's Shadow in Hawaii"--Naipaul's first names are Vidiahar Surajprasad--to lawyers.

"We don't know yet how much might have to be cut," Thornton said. "Partly we're just being extremely cautious. Partly it's a question of V.S. Naipaul's copyright. Some of the e-mails exchanged between him and Paul Theroux are his. He has copyright. So we have to be cautious."

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Their quarrel began in spring 1996, shortly after the death of Naipaul's first wife, Patricia, when he suddenly married a 38-year-old Pakistani newspaper columnist.

When Nadira moved into Naipaul's London apartment and country cottage--styling herself as Lady Naipaul, although her husband does not use the title he received for services to literature in 1990--she cleared out hundreds of books.

Among the works she sent off to the antique-book dealers for auction were several of Theroux's first editions, complete with affectionate inscriptions to his friend Vidia. Hurt and insulted, Theroux dispatched a heated fax to his old friend. Nadira answered it. The dispute escalated; six months ago, Theroux cut off all communication and decided to write a book about the friendship instead.

"It is a very complex work. It does not shy away either from the debt he felt he owed Vidia or the anger he feels about the past two years," an associate of Theroux told the Sunday Times newspaper. "The faxes are red hot: Neither side was backward in saying what they thought."

Theroux and Naipaul first became friends in 1966 while working as teachers at Makere University in Uganda.

"He [Naipaul] never gave a lecture: I don't think he set foot in the department. He developed a reputation as a crank, but he woke me up," Theroux has said. "He was the first good writer I ever met. It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of Naipaul's friendship at that time."

The remote and publicity-shy Naipaul has not commented on Theroux's memoir. A British citizen born in Trinidad of an Indian family, he has been based in London since he began writing in 1954.

Although his books--including "A House for Mr. Biswas" and the novel "In a Free State," which won Britain's Booker Prize in 1971--return repeatedly to the themes of alienation, mistrust, rootlessness, mockery and self-deception, the 65-year-old Naipaul has usually kept out of literary disputes.

But literary London is prone to them. Recent squabbles have included last fall's falling-out between two of the country's most famous novelists, Salman Rushdie and spy novelist John LeCarre, which filled national newspapers with mutual outpourings of invective for weeks. Rushdie called LeCarre an "illiterate pompous ass," while LeCarre called Rushdie a "self-canonizing, arrogant colonialist."

That spat, played out in letters to the editor, was ostensibly about freedom of speech and respect for religion, although personal grudges lurked just below the surface. Such grudges were even more openly displayed in a quarrel a few years ago between writers Martin Amis and Julian Barnes after Amis fired his agent, Pat Kavanagh, Barnes' wife.

The Sunday Times suggested that the literati would now take up arms on behalf of either Naipaul or Theroux. It said Theroux would rely for support on American friends such as Bill Buford, the former editor of Granta magazine who now heads the fiction department at the New Yorker magazine. Naipaul would likely be championed by such friends as playwright Harold Pinter and his wife, author Lady Antonia Fraser.

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Theroux is no stranger to feuds. The most infamous was two years ago, when his older brother Alexander, also a writer, claimed that Paul affected a "fake British accent," was a "possession snob" and a "grumpy and oddly fussy traveler."

Theroux shrugs off suggestions that he is prickly or irascible.

" 'Dyspeptic' is another one they use. . . . I don't know how to take it. But I think that what people call grumpy, prickly or dyspeptic is really a misunderstanding of irony. Because a lot of irony looks like dyspepsia," he said in an Internet interview with Salon magazine. "Irony looks like prickliness. But actually it's just another form of humor, isn't it? It's veiled sarcasm. I think the people who read my books and like them--and there are plenty of them--wouldn't read me if I were merely a bad-tempered person."

But at Hamish Hamilton, where Naipaul's books are published as Penguin paperbacks, there is clear relief that the two men have not had a chance to cross paths.

"Paul Theroux no longer lives in England. He's been in Hawaii and upstate New York for some time," Thornton said. "So there have been no direct clashes, no punches thrown at the reception desk or anything like that."

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