Perhaps the most celebrated literary conflict in modern times may be set for another round at this year’s Hay Festival. V.S. Naipaul’s London Library lecture has been well publicised. What is less well-known and does not yet appear on the official Hay site, is that Paul Theroux will also be at Hay just the day before (Saturday 28 May) to promote his new book ‘The Tao of Travel’ (Hamish Hamilton). It seems likely that if they visit the tiny market town on the same weekend their paths will cross. Could such an event even be in the programme? Their penultimate meeting was at Hay in 1996 when Naipaul reportedly would not look Theroux in the eye.
The Hay Festival has something of a reputation for juxtaposing the protagonists of textual spats. In May 2005 Christopher and Peter Hitchens took to the stage to settle a score that as Christopher said at the time had been maturing “in the cask”. It was the first time that the Hitchens brothers had spoken in four years after Peter had joked about Christopher’s alleged former fondness for the Soviet Republic.
Paul Theroux met VS Naipaul in 1966 when teaching English at the University in Kampala, Uganda. Naipaul was already a successful writer and became Theroux’s friend and mentor. Naipaul returned to England and Theroux followed and sought to maintain the relationship in London. Although they occasionally had lunch Naipul disavowed the friendship. Theroux’s emergence as a successful travel writer if anything drew them further apart.
In 1998 Theroux published ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’, in which he characterised Naipaul as bad-tempered, snobbish, bitter and racist. Naipaul claims to have not read the book. The friendship is no more likely to be rekindled in Hay than that of the Hitchens brothers who ended their reunion with the words;
Peter (to the audience) – “They want everything to be all right.”
Christopher: “They want a happy ending – that’s their problem.”
V.S. Naipaul will give the London Library Lecture in the Barclays Wealth Pavilion at 1pm on Sunday 29th May.