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Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents [Paperback]

Paul Theroux
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 15 2000
An intimate portrait of that rarest and most fragile of alliances, a literary friendship. In this personal account Theroux recalls his relationship with Vidia and how their positions were frequently reversed as they became each other's editors, confidants and teachers.
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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In several of his recent fictions, Paul Theroux has visibly mined his own experience for raw material, going so far as to provide the protagonist of My Other Life with his own name and curriculum vitae. Now, in Sir Vidia's Shadow, he casts a cold and cantankerous eye on his friendship with V.S. Naipaul. The two first met in Uganda in 1966, when the 23-year-old Theroux was teaching at the local university and trying, with only limited success, to transform himself into a writer. The arrival of Naipaul--at 34 already a world-class novelist, with A House for Mr. Biswas under his belt--was a signal event in Theroux's life: "I had been working in the dark, just groping, until I had met Vidia."

After being squired around Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda by the author, Naipaul returned to London. Their correspondence continued, and the relationship--in which Theroux was very much the junior partner and acolyte--deepened. During a holiday visit to London the next year, he realized that their rapport "was as strong as love. He was my friend, he had shown me what was good in my writing, he had drawn a line through anything that was false." And indeed, over the next three decades the two exchanged a steady stream of letters, visits, phone calls, and authorial confidences. Yet this most productive of literary friendships came to an abrupt end in 1996, when Naipaul--now knighted and recently remarried--burned a number of bridges and tossed his relationship with Theroux into the conflagration.

All of which brings us to Sir Vidia's Shadow, a peculiar mixture of autobiography, Boswellian chronicle, and poison-pen letter. In many ways, it's a fascinating and devilishly skilled performance. For starters, Theroux spent more time in his subject's company than Boswell ever spent in Johnson's, which gives his portrait a widescreen verisimilitude. He documents Naipaul's loony fastidiousness, his passion for language, "the laughter in his lungs like a loud kind of hydraulics," and the very sound of his typewriter (which, just for the record, goes chick-chick-chick). Theroux also gives a superb sense of how such literary apprenticeships can function to the mutual benefit of master and disciple--and how they can erode. By 1975, after all, Theroux had become the bestselling author of The Great Railway Bazaar, while Naipaul remained an under-remunerated critics' darling. Out of habit, Theroux stayed in the older man's shadow. Still, as the book progresses, it becomes harder and harder to tell precisely who's got the anxiety and who's got the influence.

It also becomes harder and harder to ignore Theroux's late-breaking animus toward his subject. His goal--stated not only in the book but in various tailgunning replies to his critics--was to write an accurate account of a long, rich friendship. "This narrative is not something that would be improved by the masks of fiction," he declares. "It needs only to be put in order. I am free of the constraint of alteration and fictionalizing." Yet every book has a tendency to break free of the author's intentions, and Sir Vidia's Shadow is no exception. For each reverent (and convincing) passage about his subject, there's another in which Theroux seems to be administering some deeply ambivalent payback. He contrasts Naipaul's sexless misogyny with his own erotic enthusiasm, and his own generosity with his hero's miserly behavior (although Naipaul's penny-pinching and check-dodging can make him strangely endearing--the Jack Benny of contemporary letters). At times Theroux seems determined to explore all seven types of ambiguity, which makes for both deliberate and not-so-deliberate hilarity. He also sounds uncannily like a spurned lover. And perhaps that residue of expired passion accounts for both the brilliance of Sir Vidia's Shadow and its disturbing, sometimes queasy pathos. --James Marcus --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

The subject of considerable attention well ahead of its publication date (which the publisher has now moved up), this frank and revealing study of two writers, longtime friends and mutual supporters, who finally come to a decisive parting of the ways, is sometimes sad, often funny and occasionally touching. Such is Theroux's apparently effortless recall of conversations, scenes and currents of feeling that it reads more like a novel with a particularly vivid central character than a memoir. That central character is of course the novelist V.S. Naipaul, seen here as brilliant, eccentric, irascible, often, it seems, purposefully outrageous. The two met in Africa in 1966 when Theroux was just beginning as a writer and Naipaul was already an acknowledged star. Theroux, who portrays himself as much more accommodating than Naipaul, puts himself in the background, delighted with each crumb of approbation from the master. There were many things Theroux found odd about his friend: his snobbishness, his apparent racism, his selfish willingness to let other people take care of his every need. (He recalls one especially costly meal with Naipaul, for which he paid, as usual, that left him without the fare home.) But it seems to have been Pat, Naipaul's long-suffering English wife, who finally came between them; Theroux, who confesses to having once pondered an affair with her, remained always an admirer of her decent stoicism, and wrote a touching tribute on her death. This was then seized upon by Naipaul's hastily married second wife (a Pakistani newspaper columnist who would seem, in her bumptiousness and careless writing, the antithesis of everything Naipaul cherished) to create a rift with Theroux. A last chance meeting in the street produced Naipaul's memorable line "Take it on the chin and move on," and the indefatigable Theroux had himself the theme for this vastly readable book. Is it fair to Sir Vidia? Impossible to be sure, but it is an enthralling examination of a seldom-treated subject, a thorny literary friendship. First serial to the New Yorker; author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and well written April 4 2002
By A Customer
I guess there are really two questions here. Is this a good book and should the author have written it?
Certainly it is fine writing, excellent characterization, evocative descriptions, and, of course, it is mesmerizing when two top writers have problems and then have a falling out.
Many years ago, a friend did some things I found out about through another friend and, when I confronted him, I eventually started getting some weird letters from his Filipina wife totally distorting all that had gone on between her husband and myself. This is not quite the same thing as what happened with Paul Thereoux but I have been on the receiving end of strange letters from someone who has been schooled but not educated, and someone both immature and insecure who wanted to change the past before closing the door. I think Theroux was both dismayed and hurt by the fax he received which also did this.
In a way, Paul Theroux was betrayed twice. Once by his friend Naipaul and once by his friend allowing - apparently without objection - his new wife to put her spin on the past and to clean house, including Paul. It seems to me that the only sin of Paul Theroux was his naivete. When you deal with the type of person Naipaul is, you should know he is capable of cruelty as well as egocentric behavior.
Paul Theroux wrote this book out of the pain of betrayal but kept it literary and honest. I am pleased this book was written. Absolutely fascinating.
Dean Barrett
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4.0 out of 5 stars A tribute to a difficult man March 21 2002
This is a fascinating book about a fascinating, inscrutable man whose books are widely read since he received the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. It is also a book about a friendship that came to an unexpected and painful end.
"Sir Vidia's Shadow" has been widely criticized for being petty and revengeful. Unexpectedly though, it is not. In a very Naipaulian way, Paul Theroux turns his feelings for Naipaul and his sense of loss into detailed description, and in this imitation of Naipaul's style the book is much more a tribute to Naipaul than a work of slander.
"Sir Vidia's Shadow" is at its best when Paul Theroux balances the human weaknesses of Naipaul with his strengths as a writer. For example, when he reminisces, "I was a young man in Africa, trying to make my life. He was one of the strangest men I had ever met, and absolutely the most difficult. He was almost unlovable. He was contradictory, he quizzed me incessantly, he challenged everything I said, he demanded attention, he could be petty, he uttered heresies about Africa, he fussed, he mocked, he made his innocent wife cry, he had impossible standards, he was self-important, he was obsessive on the subject of his health. He hated children, music, and dogs. But he was also brilliant, and passionate in his convictions, and to be with him, as a friend or fellow writer, I had always to be at my best."
The book is at its worst when Thoreaux tries to analyze Naipaul: "I also saw that the man who dislikes children and doesn't have any of his own is probably himself childish, and sees other children as a threat. Vidia was the neediest person I have ever known. He fretted incessantly, couldn't cook, never cleaned, wouldn't drive, demanded help, had to be the center of attention.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and fair portrait. March 4 2002
Paul Theroux's "Sir Vidia's Shadow" has taken quite a beating in some quarters. Many feel Theroux betrayed V.S. Naipaul by writing this memoir, but the fact remains that this is Theroux's story as much as it is Naipaul's. This book has been attacked for being nasty and unfair, but is actually an evenhanded and penetrating look at writing, friendship and human frailties.
Theroux meets Naipaul in Uganda in 1966. Over the next 30 years, they remain friends through wide distances, triumphs and failures, divorces and deaths. Naipaul emerges as an extraordinarily compelling character. Perceptive, brilliant, egocentric and obsessed with writing, he abuses and uses his friends, family and professional acquaintances. He is also generous, needy and sometimes kind. What we end up with is a portrait of a supremely gifted but infantile man who is a fascinating but sometimes repugnant human being. Theroux is brutally honest not just about Naipaul's faults, but his finer qualities. He uses that same objectivity towards himself as well. In the end, "Sir Vidia's Shadow" betrays Theroux's hurt feelings after Naipaul terminates their relationship following his second marriage; it does not display meanspiritedness.
This superb memoir is a gripping read, from the first page to the last. The story it has to tell is well worth reading, and Theroux writes beautifully (as ever). All in all, I highly recommend "Sir Vidia's Shadow."
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Secret Life of Writers Feb. 16 2002
Sir Vidia's Shadow tells the story of the thirty-year friendship between Paul Theroux and V. S. Naipaul. They met in Uganda in 1966 where Theroux was teaching English at Makarere University. Naipaul was already famous and had published several books; Theroux was unknown but aspired to be a novelist.
Naipaul takes a liking to Theroux (in his own way) and encourages and helps him. Naipaul introduces Theroux to his British publisher. He invites Theroux to parties where he introduces him as an up and coming author. Meanwhile, even though Naipaul is famous (and is already in the late 60's being referred to as one of the greatest living writers in English), he struggles to earn a living. He takes unappealing teaching and journalism jobs to make ends meet; the very kind of work against which he warns Theroux. Theroux meanwhile, by the early seventies, had published seven books but was still struggling financially. He has a low paying job teaching in Singapore and must endure the humiliation of being ordered to cut his hair by his department head.
Theroux does not become financially secure until he strays away from "pure" writing and writes the first of his travel books. Theroux's fame eventually equals and perhaps surpasses Naipaul. His subsequent travel books are enormously successful. Several of his novels are adapted for motion pictures while Naipaul books are always critically admired but poor selling. Near the end Theroux makes the point that he find many of Naipaul's later works dull and uninteresting; he says that he must skim to get through them. Theroux feels that some of these later works would never have been published had an unknown written them. If you're like me and have read lesser works of famous authors and felt exactly the same way; it's nice to see this sentiment in print.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Shadowy
There is something of Graham Greene in "Sir Vidia's Shadow," Paul Theroux's account of the end of his relationship with Nobel laureate V.S. (Vidia) Naipaul. Read more
Published on Feb. 11 2002 by Robert E. Olsen
4.0 out of 5 stars Unexpectedly Quite Good
First off, I think that when it comes to travel narratives, Paul Theroux is unsurpassed. His ability to describe the misery of a trip is classic. Read more
Published on Feb. 1 2002 by D. Yasko
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb account of the writer's craft
This is the story of Paul Theroux's thirty-year friendship with his fellow-novelist V. S. Naipaul. Part social history, part biography, part autobiography, it is above all a... Read more
Published on Aug. 4 2001 by William Podmore
5.0 out of 5 stars Paul theroux never fails to amaze me
This book was actually a page turner! Paul's memory, perception, and generosity towards his great friend was a special gift to those of us who love VS Naipaul's writing as well as... Read more
Published on June 21 2001 by Isis
4.0 out of 5 stars Boys Boys boys...
Certainly a very good book, and well worth a read. I must say it is one of the best Theroux books I have read in quite a while, something seems to have driven him with this book,... Read more
Published on March 28 2001 by shane@toke.com
5.0 out of 5 stars what is friendship all about?
Theroux explores this with some interesting details about someone who thinks he is above everyone else. A common attitude among writers.
Naipaul is depicted perfectly. Read more
Published on Feb. 15 2001 by Amazon Customer
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