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Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents Paperback – January 8, 2001

4.2 out of 5 stars 82 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1st Mariner Books ed edition (January 8, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618001999
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618001996
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #213,117 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on December 4, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Sir Vidia's Shadow contains all the queasy excitement of Theroux's trademark train trips, but this time we're clattering along with him over 30 years of friendship with VS Naipaul -- and bumpy ones at that. We get several books here: first, the Theroux travel book. Readers who complain of Theroux's crankiness will find his loving descriptions of Uganda (where "even the crops were pretty") refreshing. Second, we get a minutely detailed book about the writing life. There is Naipaul the perfectionist demanding an explanation for each word in an early Theroux essay, weeding out every piece of obfuscating extra baggage. My favorite anecdote concerns the memorable first sentence of Naipaul's Bend in the River ; anyone who has savoured this quintessential Naipaulism will be enlightened on the subject of tedious re-drafting and the editor's role in all good writing. Then there is the book about Naipaul himself: I can't imagine that anyone who's read and enjoyed Naipaul will be too offended -- or even much surprised -- by Theroux's portrait. The neurotic obsession with food and hygiene, the fear of "the bush", the ever-deepening melancholy and misanthropy, the overcompensations and fears of a "barefoot colonial" -- Naipaul himself has given us all this in his novels and travelogues. Theroux reveals this side, but also unexpected glimpses of Naipaul's kindness (especially as mentor to PT), self-doubt, childish good humor (Naipaul singing calypsos!) and even physical bravery (Naipaul fending off wild dogs in Kampala). It would be easy to turn Naipaul into a "character" (Naipaul loathes "characters"), and Theroux never stoops to this.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
An opinionated writer is often a pleasure to read. A diplomat is always a bore. SIR VIDIA'S SHADOW contains two writers, fully opinionated, and no diplomats. There is much about VS Naipaul in this portrait by Paul Theroux that is the sort of thing that is normally obscured by diplomacy: ambition, egotism, overbearance, intransigence, candor...Naipaul is a real piece of work, and Theroux shows him in all his glory. Perhaps he went further into the personal than was proper, but that is Naipaul's misfortune, not ours.
I've read many other books by Theroux and Naipaul, some good, others less than that. I like the nonfiction of both better than their fiction. But never have I read anything by either of them as compelling as this. I tore through SIR VIDIA'S SHADOW in two sittings. I don't know whether it's due more to Naipaul's charm or the skill of SIR VIDIA'S author, Theroux.
They begin in Uganda, sparring, as writers do, over other writers. Theroux mentions his admiration for Nabokov, whom Naipaul rejects: "Forget Nabokov. Read Death in Venice. Pay close attention to the accumulation of thought." This dismissal was surprising because as the persona of Vidia the Great Writer was developed through the book I was reminded constantly of Nabokov, particularly Nabokov's volume of criticism called STRONG OPINIONS. And Nabokov's scorn of Mann was second only to his scorn of Freud. But Naipaul and Nabokov have in common their legendary erudition, their strong opinions expressed elegantly, seldom dipping into vulgarity, their rootless lives lived mostly far from their natal homes, their wary eyes kept peeled for the brutes of the world--Naipaul sees at once that Uganda is on theverge of anarchy and goes around asking the people what they will do when the "crunch" comes.
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In many ways, this is Theroux's best book (at least of those I have read), because it is his most personal. I am amazed at some of the criticisms I have read of this book, especially the allegation that it is a "poison pen" document. It is nothing of the sort. It is a coldly objective, detailed, and analytical chronicle of the author's thirty year friendship, with the writer V.S. Naipaul, that ended abruptly. Naipaul ended it; the termination of the friendship was totally unilateral.

Some of the editorial reviews would give you the impression that the reader will be left totally clueless as to why the friendship ended. Not so. The reason it ended can be summed up in two words: new wife. Naipaul's wife of thirty or so years, with whom Theroux was friends and with whom he once fantasized having an affair, died of a lingering illness, and Naipaul, to everyone's astonishment, remarried within two months, to a woman that no one in Naipaul's inner circle even knew existed. The new wife apparently took an instant dislike to Theroux and let him know it. Soon all communication stopped. Theroux later runs into Naipaul on the street; Naipaul tells him to "take it on the chin and move on." Naipaul also discarded his long term mistress, whom Theroux quotes in an afterward as affirming that every word in the book is true. Naipaul appears to have been cleaning house and to be starting over in every respect.

Theroux portrays Naipaul as, in my view at least, a thoroughly repugnant person. Arrogant, racist, ill-mannered to the point of rudeness at times, Naipaul has an incredible sense of entitlement. He is in effect a moocher, letting Theroux pick up the lunch tab at an expensive restaurant at a time when Theroux had little money.
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