"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 27, 2012

"Sir Vidia's Shadow" (1998) by Paul Theroux (book review)

Sir Vidia's Shadow, written in 1998 by Paul Theroux, is a fascinating account of a mentor-disciple relation between two unusual men, the authors Paul Theroux (the disciple) and V.S. Naipaul ("Sir Vidia"; the mentor). The book details how that long friendship started, how it developed when the disciple became a successful author in his own right, and how it ended when Naipaul gave Theroux the boot. Theroux's reaction was typical: he started writing the present book, as he felt liberated, he says - he finally had come out from under the shadow of his mentor.

The friendship began in 1966 in Uganda. Theroux was then 25 and teaching at Makerere University, Kampala, after originally having come to Africa (Malawi) for the Peace Corps. While enjoying the African continent and the free life, he was also trying his hand at poetry and magazine articles. Naipaul was about ten years older and the already famous author of five novels including A House for Mr Biswas, and several non-fiction works as his account of India, An Area of Darkness. He came to Uganda for six months as "writer in residence." The two soon met and Theroux, who spoke the language and drove a car, became Naipaul's guide and interpreter, while Naipaul coached him in writing - having him rewrite an article almost ten times.

Theroux provides a good portrait of the brilliant but eccentric Naipaul, but also of himself as an ambitious starting writer. We see Theroux literally at the feet of the idolized older artist, studying his work in detail and listening to the smallest scrap of advice. Theroux also proofread the book Naipaul was then working on, The Mimic Men. Naipaul in his turn gave the young Theroux the confidence to continue writing and later helped him find a publisher.
“Friendship is plainer but deeper than love. A friend knows your faults and forgives them, but more than that, a friend is a witness. I needed Vidia as a friend, because he saw something in me I did not see. He said I was a writer.”
When Naipaul left Uganda and returned to the U.K., Theroux soon visited him during the Christmas holidays, staying with Naipaul and his wife Pat. And when Theroux moved on to a University job in Singapore, he kept up a frequent correspondence with Naipaul, what he himself calls a "correspondence course in writing."

In 1972 Theroux settled down in the U.K., where he would remain for the next decades - in 1967 he had married an English woman whom he had met in Uganda; they had two children. This gave Theroux the chance to meet with Naipaul again, although not very frequently as both writers were also busy world travelers and on top of that, Naipaul lived in the deepest English countryside. After Theroux himself became famous thanks to the publication of The Great Railway Bazaar, which was published in 1975, the relation started to change subtly as both men had become more like equals - they also started drifting somewhat apart and in Theroux's opinion, Naipaul became more moody and self-important. Theroux also became more financially successful than Naipaul, although according to general critical opinion Naipaul is in a higher class than Theroux and deservedly received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992.

The end came in 1996, when Naipaul snubbed Theroux in the street, apparently angered by Theroux's attitude towards his second wife, a Pakistani journalist he had unexpectedly married. Theroux felt deeply hurt (something which shows in the last two chapters, which are a bit venomenous and self-pitying), but was also free to write Sir Vidia's Shadow.

Is it a good book? In general, opinions are sharply divided, but I would strongly say Yes, it is a fascinating Johnson-Boswell account, difficult to put down. On the whole, I think Theroux writes truthfully - this is not a tale of sour grapes or dirty laundry. Theroux greatly admires Naipaul as an artist and that shows through on every page. Theroux does in this book what he does best: he is not a superb stylist or deep thinker, but he excels in sharp observations (the African scenery!) and memorable characterizations, here in the first place of his subject, V.S. Naipaul.

By the way, all bitterness is now out of the air again, as both authors have shaken hands in 2011 at the instigation of Ian McEwan.