SIR VIDIA'S SHADOW by Paul Theroux


A Friendship Across Five Continents
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The detailed story of a long, top-heavy friendship that took a sudden nosedive, from novelist and travel writer Theroux (Kowloon Tong, 1997, etc.). They met in Africa 30 years ago: Theroux was 23, a university lecturer and aspiring writer; V.S. Naipaul (Vidia) was only 34 and already a respected writer. Theroux was ready to please: “He was stimulating and tiring to be with, like a brilliant demanding child—needy, exhausting, funny, often making a po-faced joke just to please me, and who was I?” What is clearly a teacher-student relationship deepens into an ill-balanced if mutually advantageous friendship. Theroux needed encouragement to build confidence as a writer. Naipaul needed someone to buff is ego, nurse his ills, pay the lunch bill. This Theroux did, bearing Naipaul’s dismissive manner, his mockery and imperiousness. Theroux put up with all this because he was awed by Naipaul’s talent, because “his talk was unexpected and original. He was contrary and he was often right.” And perhaps Theroux was smitten, confused; he might like to believe that “I could say what I wanted to him,” but really “you got nowhere arguing with Vidia. You needed to listen, to indulge him, not to debate every illogical point.” One day, apparently out of the blue, Naipaul writes Theroux off. Baffled and hurt, Theroux is nevertheless now a grown-up who has felt pain before. He vents a little (Naipaul had “stopped trying to please the reader. He lost his humor, he blunted his descriptive gift”), though not peevishly. It would be overmuch to say Theroux sighed with relief at the end; yet, undeniably, there is a sense of liberation. This friendship is no easy subject for portraiture—oblique, intuitive, unspoken, irrational as it often is. Theroux does his best to explicate, filling this memoir with telling incidents, blending passion with dispassion, writing with elegance. As for Naipaul: “Never give anyone a second chance.”

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1998
ISBN: 0-395-90728-4
Page count: 358pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1998


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