Literary suns make up while Hay shines

As literary feuds go, few spats can match the one between American legends Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Their antipathy was so visceral that when Vidal once described Mailer’s work, The Prisoner of Sex, to ”three days of menstrual flow,” the combative Mailer, author of The Fight (about Ali v Foreman boxing epic) among other works, head-butted Vidal in the green room of a TV studio. In a later encounter, he threw a drink at Vidal and punched him for good measure. As he went sprawling to the floor, Vidal is said to have spluttered, ”as usual, words fail him,” — in what turned out to be an immortal repartee in the annals of literary rivalry.

No such violence or wit attended the Paul TherouxV.S.Naipaul quarrel which began a decade after the Mailer-Vidal feud ended in 1985; here, the blood-letting was merely vitriolic. It began with Theroux stumbling on Naipaul selling — online for $ 1500 — one of his (Theroux’s) books, inscribed for Naipaul and his first wife Pat. The purported reason for this slight undermining a 30-year friendship was that Naipaul suspected Theroux of trying to seduce his wife. Naipaul’s retort to Theroux’s pique was to brusquely tell him to ”take it on the chin and move on.”

Theroux responded with Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents, variously described by critics as a ”fascinating” and ”brilliant” account of their mentor-acolyte ties, to a ”venomous” and ”vengeful” chronicle of its decline. Naipaul retorted by trashing Theroux’s works as ”tourist books for the lower classes.” The spat ignited the literary world. The embers were glowing till recently.

So when organizers of the annual Hay literary festival featured the dueling duo on the same day in their 2011 calendar, a frisson of excitement coursed through the idyllic retreat in Wales which is host to the event Bill Clinton famously called ”Woodstock of the mind.” As it turned out, the two were elbowed towards each other by Ian McEwan, the English novelist, with the admonition that life is too short and it’s time to bury the hatchet. Theroux advanced towards Naipaul in the festival green room, proffered a handshake, and said, ”I’m sorry…I missed you.” Naipaul responded, ”I missed you too.” With such mundane words did the two literary egos reconcile. The rest of their engagements in Hay paled before this story.

Hay-on-Wye is not the kind of place you want to throw punches, literal or metaphorical, in. A quaint Welsh village nestled in the undulating landscape on the border with England, it has been the scene of literary love-fests rather than feuds. Books and running brooks are the recurrent theme here. With over 30 used- and antiquarian bookshops, it is a bibliophiles’ delight. Over the years, the Hay Literary Festival, which began in 1988, and runs for ten days in late May, has attracted ever larger throngs who intersperse browsing amid the bucolic surroundings with hearing the best writers of the times banter about their work and the world. The Hay festival has thrown up sisterly galas across the world, including now in Kenya and Kerala. The town is twinned with Timbuktu and Manhattan.

In addition to the literary fiesta, Hay now features a concurrent festival of philosophy and music, with talks on such esoteric topics as ”On Having A Mind” and ”Socrates vs Jesus.” In a charming tea garden behind their home, a local family is serving tea and cakes to visitors who come to the festival from far and wide (this year’s attendance is expected to top 200,000). As the tables fill up and their children struggle to keep up with the orders, the father, spectacles perched on the tip of his nose, apologizes for the muddle, saying ”there’s an air of confusion around here.” It is utterly Wodehousian.

But trust the curmudgeonly Naipaul to set the sleepy enclave alight. No sooner had he made up with Theroux, the Trinidadian, typographically described by someone as the ”best writer of English pose,” roiled the literary world again by dissing women writers, saying their work is generally inferior, and certainly unequal, to his. A tweet by your correspondent that Naipaul was suggesting ”Penis mightier than the word” invited withering responses from women friends, calling him both senile and penile. Someone dryly noted that the foot-and-mouth disease first surfaced only a few miles from Hay-on-Wye.

For Hay, fighting to keep a literary tradition alive in the age of Amazon onslaught and Kindle downloads, (the historian Niall Ferguson now builds his new civilization thesis around six ”killer apps,”) Naipaul’s noxious nattering is manna from the tourist gods. The story of two literary suns cooling off even as one of them ignited another controversy may well help Hay shine longer and brighter. Not since an audience member publicly suggested in 2009 to John Bolton, George Bush’s ambassador to the UN, that he deserved to be water-boarded, has there been such a kerfuffle at the festival.

Across from the Richard Booth bookstore, whose maverick owner first put Hay-on-Wye on the tourist map by declaring it an independent kingdom with himself as the monarch, a young man is strumming a guitar. Nearby, another is playing the digeridoo. The sun breaks through intermittently. There is no rain. And no dirges for Hay-on-Wye.

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