"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

May 16, 2017

Best European Novels (4): Belgium

Belgium is a small country and its literature is split into two languages, Flemish (Dutch) and French. Happily, there is a lot of talent writing in both languages. The "Big Three" 20th c. classical novelists from Flanders are Willem Elsschot, Louis Paul Boon and Hugo Claus. The greatest Belgian who wrote in French (and therefore was often wrongly thought to be a Frenchman) was Georges Simenon. In fact, Simenon used often Belgian and Dutch settings in his novels, especially in the 1930s, such as in his semi-autobiographical Pedigree.

First the best novels in Flemish:

1. Willem Elsschot, Cheese (1933)
Willem Elsschot (1882-1960; in real life called Alfons de Ridder) was a writer and businessman (in advertising) from Antwerp, who because of the combination of these two functions, has been dubbed the “Flemish Italo Svevo.” He wrote eleven short novels, of which the highly amusing Cheese (Kaas) is the best, a gentle fable, timeless in its skewering of the pretensions and pomposity of the urban bourgeois man. A humble shipping clerk in Antwerp becomes the chief agent in Belgium for a Dutch cheese company and takes delivery of ten thousand full-cream wheels of this red-rinded Dutch delight. But he has no idea how to run a business, or how to sell his goods. He is more focused on setting up his office with a proper desk and typewriter, rather than doing the hard-selling that is needed. When his employer comes to Antwerp to settle the first accounts, he panics... See my full review. Soft Soap and The Leg (Lijmen / Het Been) are two more examples of humorous novels by Elsschot which lead the reader to reflect on the absurdity of life.
English translation and preface by Paul Vincent (Granta Books, 2002).

2. Louis Paul Boon, Chapel Road (1953)
Louis Paul Boon (1912-1979) was a Flemish novelist and journalist who was a serious candidate for the Nobel prize in Literature. He gave up literary language for regional Belgian Dutch words and expressions with which he colored his writing in a Faulknerian way. Boon combines social engagement (an important characteristic of Belgian literature) with advanced literary techniques. Chapel Road (Kapellekensbaan) is his masterpiece. Its interesting construction combines several narrative threads, including an almost postmodern one where the writer and his friends discuss how the story should develop further. The story itself is set in the 19th c. and is about a young woman who wants to escape from a grey industrial town "where it is always raining, even when the sun is shining" (the town is a fictionalized Aalst, the town where Boon himself grew up). A third thread in the book is a reworking of the classic myth of Reynard the Fox. Boon’s other famous novels, both available in English, are My little war (Mijn kleine oorlog) and a sequel to Chapel Road, Summer in Termuren (Zomer in Termuren).
English translation: Adrienne Dixon (Dalkey Archives, 2003)

3. Hugo Claus, The Sorrow of Belgium (1983)
Hugo Claus (1929-2008) has been called the most important Flemish writer of the 20th century. He has written over 20 novels, 60 theater pieces and thousands of poems. Unfortunately, very little has been translated into English, and what has been translated is difficult to find. Claus' best work is the semi-autobiographical "bildungsroman" The Sorrow of Belgium (Het Verdriet van Belgie), a book that has been compared to The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass. It is the story of the coming of age of the protagonist in a right-wing, Flemish nationalist family during the German occupation in WWII. When the young man discovers the anarchist literature that has banned by the Nazi's, his eyes are opened to a new world, one which had been forbidden by his far-right environment and he is inspired to become a writer himself.
English translation: Arnold J. Pomerans (Overlook Books)

4. Dimitri Verhulst, The Misfortunates (2006)
Dimitri Verhulst (born in 1972) was born in Aalst, like Louis Paul Boon. He shares the older author’s critical but compassionate view on Belgian life. Verhulst’s most famous novel is The Misfortunates (De Helaasheid der Dingen), a loosely autobiographical story of a young writer who reflects on his youth growing up in a family that knew no sobriety. Both his father and his uncles had an unwavering commitment to the pub. The boy grows up amid the stench of stale beer, and it seems that the same fate is waiting for him, until he makes his own plans for the future. Both comedic, crude, heart-warming and humorous.
English translation: David Colmer (Portobello Books, 2013)

Then the best novels in French:

1. Georges Simenon, Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1945)
At his death in 1989, Liegeoise writer Georges Simenon had published over 375 works, including 75 novels and 28 short stories in his fictional detective series featuring Inspector Maigret. The Maigret series has been translated into over 50 languages, making the Belgian Simenon the most translated French-speaking author in the world. More than that, Simenon also wrote more than a 100 serious novels, called "romans durs." These "hard novels" were not detective stories but darkly realistic psychological novels, books in which he displayed a sympathetic awareness of the emotional and spiritual pain underlying the routines of daily life. Some famous titles are: Dirty Snow, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Pedigree, Tropic Moon, The Engagement, The Blue Room, The Widow and Red Lights. In the "romans durs" Simenon tried to display the full range of his talent, often addressing existentialist themes. One of the best is Monsieur Monde Vanishes (La Fuite de Monsieur Monde, 1945), in which Simenon addresses one of his favorite themes: the urge to cast off a familiar, restrictive life. The middle-aged Monsieur Monde is a prosperous Parisian businessman, the owner of a factory and conservative family head. One day, feeling unloved by his family and associates, he just walks out on his life, leaving everything behind. He travels to the Riviera where he happens to strike up an acquaintance with a prostitute, then moves on to Nice with her. He has no plan and no ambition; when his money is stolen by a chambermaid, he shows no anger. But then by chance he meets up with his first wife, now an opium addict, and the question of moral responsibility poses itself. Can Monsieur Monde remain uninvolved, a person on his own? See my article on Simenon.
English translation: Jean Stewart (NYRB, 2004)

2. Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Monsieur (1986)
Jean-Philippe Toussaint (born 1957) is a Belgian prose writer and filmmaker, who was educated in Paris. He was strongly influenced by Beckett and the Nouveau Roman. Monsieur, which was filmed by Tousssaint himself in 1990, is typical of his work. It is a minimalist series of vignettes from the life of an introverted, quiet man who lacks any strong interests or will power. Although he is utterly passive, he still manages to keep his head above water and seems always content. You might compare him to the "uncarved block" of Daoism, while his way of life embodies the idea from the Daodejing that the qualities of flexibility and suppleness, especially as exemplified by water, are superior to rigidity and strength. Nothing happens in this novel, but Toussaint still manages to keep his readers interested. In his quirkiness, Monsieur Toussaint also has some traits of that other nay-sayer, Melville's Bartleby.
English translation: John Lambert (Dalkey Archive, 2008)

3. Amélie Nothomb, Tokyo Fiancée (2007)
Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan of Belgian parents in 1967. In fact, her father was the Consul-General for Belgium in Kobe (later also Ambassador in Tokyo). Despite her background in a diplomatic family, in her public persona and her writing Nothomb is the embodiment of unconventionality. Since her debut with Hygiene and the Assassin in 1992, she has written a novel a year (of the concise French type, it should be admitted). She has been widely translated and won many prizes. One of her best novels is the semi-autobiographical Tokyo Fiancée (Ni d'Eve, ni d'Adam), in which an affair with a Japanese suitor, Rinri, serves as the impetus for fun discoveries about the Japanese way of life, especially food culture. Rinri is really in love, and although Amélie likes spending time with him, she doesn't love him. She also doesn't want to give up her independence. After he proposes, she struggles with the question how to best refuse this sweet and shy boy. Another excellent book set in Japan is the popular Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et tremblements), in which a Belgian woman returns to Japan, where she lived as a child, for a job at one of the country's major corporations. The cultural misunderstandings pile up like a train wreck until the woman (again called Amélie - both novels are semi-autobiographical) gives up trying to adapt to the Japanese way of working. See my full reviews of Tokyo Fiancee and Fear and Trembling
English translation: Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2008).

May 7, 2017

Best European Novels (3): The Netherlands

It's time for novels from my own country, the Netherlands. I have already written about Dutch novels a few years ago, but here I would like to present a somewhat longer list while excluding Flemish authors as these will come in a separate post about the Belgian novel.

As I wrote in my previous article, Dutch literature has long been largely unknown abroad, but thanks to active promotion by writers, publishers and the Dutch Foundation for Literature, that has changed. Today, Dutch novels are, for example, very popular in Germany and Scandinavia and several authors have higher sales figures there than in their own (small) country.

Three themes stand out in Dutch novels: Calvinism (the results of a strict Calvinist upbringing), colonialism (the relationship with the former East Indian colonies) and the War (World War II when Holland was occupied by the Germans).

Here are the best novels from the Netherlands:

1. Multatuli, Max Havelaar Or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (1859)
The first Dutch novel of stature - and according to some, still the best - was written in the mid-19th c. by a colonial administrator. A passionate novel that woke up Dutch society by blowing the whistle about the oppression of the Javanese people in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Max Havelaar is an idealized self-portrait of the author, Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker), who, like his protagonist, was a colonial official in the Javanese town of Lebak. The book is advanced in its almost "postmodern" composition, with a self-reflexive frame story and countless digressions and stories-in-stories. A beautiful story at the heart of the book is the tragic tale of Saïdjah and Adinda, two Javanese children whose lives are crushed by the double heaviness of indigenous and Dutch rule. Read my full review.
Translation: Roy Edwards in Penguin Classics (1987). An older English translation at Google Books.

2. Louis Couperus, The Hidden Force (1900)
Louis Couperus (1863-1923) was born in The Hague but grew up in the Dutch East Indies. His first novel, Eline Vere, was a psychological masterpiece about the tragic fate of a young heiress, a neurotic woman with a turbulent family, set in fin-de-siecle The Hague. It was an immediate success. Couperus wrote more novels with a setting bourgeois circles in the Hague, but also Symbolist novellas, as well as historical novels situated in the ancient world (like Flaubert's Salammbo). His greatest achievement is The Hidden Force (De stille kracht), written in 1900 and inspired by a year long visit to the Dutch East Indies in 1899-1900, the country of his childhood. It is the story of the decline and fall of the Dutch resident Van Oudyck due to his inability to see further than his own Western rationalism. The "hidden force" can be interpreted as the silent opposition of the colonized, as the symbol for the cultural gap which in a colonial situation can never be breached successfully. We could also say that colonial society, founded as it was on the right of the strongest, led to moral decay, which slowly but irresistibly wrecked the Europeans, as another hidden force. Read my full review.
Translation: Paul Vincent, Pushkin Press (2012). Older translation by Texeira de Mattos at Gutenberg.

3. Nescio, Amsterdam Stories (1910-18)
Three wonderful novellas (The Freeloader, Titans and Little Poet), bittersweet accounts of artistic, idealistic young men, their big plans and mad longings, all ending in sadness and resignation. The individual is no match for the world and helplessly comes to grief if he tries to resist. Nescio (Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh, 1882–1961) writes about our complete insignificance in the grand scheme of things - but also that our insignificance doesn't matter, for there is something wonderful in that, too. All three stories provide a good picture of Amsterdam at the beginning of the 20th century. Above all, Nescio's style is wonderful: utter simplicity combined with humor, irony, understatement and sentiment (but never sentimentality), all elements miraculously balanced. Read my full review.
Translation: Damion Searls, published by NYRB Classics (2012). 

4. J.J. Slauerhoff, The Forbidden Kingdom (1931)
The Forbidden Kingdom (Het Verboden Rijk, 1932), the masterwork of poet-maudit and ship's doctor Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898-1936), is a classic of modernism with an experimental narrative, and at the same it is also a romantic tale of travel and adventure. The novel starts with two historical tales: the founding of Macao in the 1550s, by Portuguese soldiers and colonists, the fortress-trading city on the South Chinese coast, and back in Portugal itself, we get the story of Luís de Camões ("Camoens" in the novel), courtier and poet, author of the classic epic, The Lusiads. To this is added a story about a nameless 20th century Irish radio operator. This man works on a small ship steaming around Asia, and finally ends up in Macao. He describes himself as "the most rootless person alive." These two stories are then closely linked together by Slauerhoff. Much of what Camões felt and said appears again, as an after-echo, in the twentieth-century sections. Slauerhoff even goes so far as to drop hints that the 16th century Camões and the 20th century radio operator may be the same person! The radio operator recognizes places where he cannot have been before, his memories become a mixture of his own and those of Camões. At the end, like the 16th century poet, his highest wish becomes to be absorbed by the anonymous millions of China. Past and present merge as if a hidden passage through time has been opened. Read my full review.
Translation: Paul Vincent. Published by Pushkin Press (2012).

5. Ferdinand Bordewijk, Character (1938)
Ferdinand Bordewijk (1884-1965) was a lawyer and novelist who wrote in a violent style reminiscent of New Objectivity. Karakter (Character) is his most famous novel. It tells the story of Katadreuffe, a clerk who is struggling to work his way up in society, but who is time and again blocked and even bankrupted by his biological father, the formidable Rotterdam bailiff Dreverhaven. Dreverhaven is a massive man who enjoys evicting the poor from their houses or declaring people bankrupt. He knows no mercy. To challenge his enemies, he has his office in one of the darkest and poorest areas of Rotterdam, but although he is generally hated, nobody dares stick a knife in his back. At the end of the book, in a final confrontation with the son, the father declares that he has in fact worked for his son - by putting obstacles in his way, he has made his son "a man of character." But there is no reconciliation, as Katadreuffe exhibits the negative side of a strong character - he is unable to love others or even connect to them. Katadreuffe finds success, but not personal happiness. Character is also a great portrait of pre-war Rotterdam where the drama is set. Character was filmed in 1998 by Mike van Diem. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in that year. Read my full review.
Translation: E.M. Prince (Ivan R Dee; 1st Elephant Pbk., 1999)

6. Gerard Reve, The Evenings (1947)
In The Netherlands, Gerard Reve (1923-2006) is considered as one of the three greatest writers of the postwar period, together with Hermans and Mulisch. However, he remains completely unknown abroad. His greatest novel and one of the best novels ever written in The Netherlands, had to wait until 2016 before its first English translation finally appeared. Set during the last ten dark days of 1946 in Amsterdam, the story of The Evenings revolves around Frits van Egters, a young man who lives at home with his parents, whom he finds annoying and embarrassing. Each of the ten days is the object of one chapter, and as Reve skips the time Frits spends as a clerk in the office, we indeed get descriptions of his "evenings," plus his time off on Sundays and Christmas. Frits spends his free time by withdrawing to his bedroom and doing nothing, listening to the radio, or visiting friends, whom he tries to provoke and challenge. Central themes in The Evenings are loneliness, boredom, disillusionment, lack of self-esteem, social isolation and the cynicism of the protagonist. Although Frits has several friends, he is in fact very lonely, as the conversations he has with them are generally superficial and unimportant, even nonsensical. The relationship Frits has with his parents, and especially his father, is plainly bad - although he also hides his love, which becomes apparent in the conclusion of the novel. He is also suffering from repetition compulsion: he regularly has to look at his watch, cannot stand pauses in conversations and has an obsessive fear of the future, especially the process of aging and physical decline - baldness is an important subject in his conversations and he studies his own scalp every night in the mirror. He delights in reminding his brother, who is only a couple of years older, that his hairline is already receding. According to most interpretations, Frits van Egters' character primarily reflects the problems of the generation that had matured during WWII, when the Netherlands was for five years occupied by the Nazis, and of whom many came dazed and without faith or ideals out of that war. The novel may strike one as gloomy and cheerless, even negative and cynical, as it did readers in the 1950s, and also me when I first read it in high school. But reading it again after several decades, I now enjoyed the grotesque and liberating dark humor that peppers the whole novel. The author has a sharp eye for absurd and poignant details. Perhaps because I don't live in Holland anymore and am not bothered by the dark and gray weather described in the book, I only registered the comical effects, which are made stronger thanks to the businesslike style of the author, setting down even the smallest things in detail. Also funny is the solemn and needlessly complicated idiolect Frits uses, even when talking to himself. This "ultimate book on the art of boredom" ends with a beautiful and moving epiphany when on New Year's Eve, Frits begs God’s forgiveness for mocking his parents so brutally.
Translation: Sam Garrett, Pushkin Press (2016)

7. W.F. Hermans, The Darkroom of Damocles (1958)
Both a dark wartime thriller and a metaphysical mystery, based on the doppelganger motif. During the German occupation of Holland, tobacconist Henri Osewoudt is visited by a shadowy figure named Dorbeck, who looks exactly like a "positive mirror image" of himself - everything that is effeminate and weak in Osewoudt, is strong and manly in Dorbeck. Osewoudt is a man without beard growth and a high squeaky voice who is just a nondescript tobacconist in a suburb of The Hague, living with his mentally ill mother and an unattractive wife who is also his niece. He has no self-respect at all. Dorbeck instructs Osewoudt to execute a number of dangerous secret assignments on behalf of the resistance movement against the Nazis, including several killings. Although things quickly go awry, these violent actions give Osewoudt a feeling of dignity. After the war, Osewoudt is regarded as a traitor and captured. He is unable to prove that he received assignments from Dorbeck - Dorbeck has vanished completely and Osewoudt cannot even prove that his doppelganger ever existed: Osewoudt has taken a photo of himself with Dorbeck, but the film is empty. Hermans shows us the moral ambiguity prevalent in a society in the grip of war and chaos and the impossibility of heroism. In the darkroom of life in wartime, the sword of Damocles is always dangling above one's head. Read my full review.
Translation: Ina Rilke, published by The Overlook Press (2008)

8. Cees Nooteboom, Rituals (1980)
Although in the first place known as a travel writer (see my post about Roads to Berlin), Nooteboom has also created a fine novelistic oeuvre for which - strangely enough - he is more famous in Germany than in the Netherlands. The protagonist Inni Wintrop wanders the streets of the free "flower power" Amsterdam of the 1960s and 1970s, looking for meaning in the "wonderful, empty universe." He happens to encounter Arnold Taads and his estranged son Philip, who in a universe without god, are attempting to create their own meaning in life through rituals. We even have a Japanese tea ceremony here! Arnold Taads is rigidly tied to time, his son Philip in contrast tries to escape time through Zen-like rituals, and as regards Inni, "women had become his religion," but that also leads to complications: when his wife Zita leaves him for an Italian, he attempts suicide. "A parable about  the importance of learning to ride the unpredictable waves of life in a universe devoid of God," as the website of the Dutch Foundation for Literature calls this novel. Read my full review. Another great book by Cees Nooteboom is the novella The Following Story (see my review).
Translation: Adrienne Dixon, published by Quercus, London (2013)

9. Harry Mulisch, The Discovery of Heaven (1992)
Huge novel containing all the themes that are important in Mulisch oeuvre. As mankind has discovered DNA and therefore the secret of creation, God wants to end his covenant and have the tablets he once gave to Moses returned to him. Events on earth are manipulated by a couple of angels so that two men (an astronomer and extrovert ertomaniac, Max Delius, and a withdrawn linguist who later turns politician, Onno Quist) and a woman (Ada Brons, who is a cellist) meet and a child (Quinten) is conceived who is to become the person who will find the Tablets and return them to Heaven. This setup results in many bizarre and humorous complications. The novel paints an interesting picture of Holland in the 1960s and after, before turning into a sort of Foucault's Pendulum with Raiders of the Lost Ark mixed in. In the two main characters, who are each other's opposites, the reader can recognize Mulisch (Max) and his friend, the chess master, Jan Hein Donner (Onno); it is also the first part of the novel dedicated to their story which is the most beautiful. Read my full review.
Translation: Paul Vincent, Penguin Books (1996)

10. Hella Haasse, The Tea Lords (1992)
When the trio of four great postwar authors is expanded to a quartet, it is usually Hella Haasse who is added to the team. Hella Haasse was of the same generation and also started writing in the years just after the war. Hella Haase was born in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and won fame with the novella The Black Lake (Oeroeg), which came out in 1947. It is a Bildungsroman about an anonymous narrator growing up on a plantation in the Dutch colony, who has a childhood friend of native descent; the story describes their inevitable estrangement as time goes by. Is friendship between a Dutch colonial and an Indonesian child possible and can they really understand each other? Besides colonial themes, Hella Haasse excelled in historical novels, such as In a Dark Wood Wandering, a novel of set during the Hundred Years War and focusing on the mad Charles VI, the brilliant Louis d'Orleans, Joan of Arc, Henry V, and, most importantly, Charles d'Orleans, a poet and scholar who suffered decades of captivity in England. Equally famous became The Scarlet City, set in 16th c. Italy and bringing to life the Borgias, Machiavelli and Michelangelo. But in my view her greatest achievement is The Tea Lords, a later novel in which she brings historical themes and the Dutch East Indies together. The story is based on family archives of the heirs and relations of the tea plantation owners featuring in the book, so there is a historical basis to it all. Protagonist is Rudolf Kerkhoven, scion of an established family of planters in Java, who after his studies in Holland, returns - young, idealistic, and ambitious - to the colony to be introduced into the mysteries of the tea trade. The core of the story is formed by Rudolf’s struggles to establish his own remote plantation in the jungle, so to speak hacking it out from the teeming undergrowth, in the damp uplands south of Bandung, and in his marriage to the resolute but troubled Jenny, daughter of another old-established Dutch dynasty in Java. The greatest strength of the novel is its atmosphere: a powerful sense of the overwhelming greenness of the Javanese countryside and the steaming jungle pervades the book. But empathy for plantation life does not mean that judgement on colonialism itself is suspended.
Translation: Ina Rilke, Portobello Books (2010)

11. J.J. Voskuil, The Bureau (1996-2000)
A series of seven novels (5,000 pages) called a "soap for intellectuals," filled with detailed descriptions of the daily affairs over a period of thirty years at the "Bureau for Dialectology, Folklore and Onomastics" (based on the Mertens Institute in Amsterdam where Voskuil himself worked for thirty years; the novels have a strong autobiographical component). One the one hand, the novels are a parody of academic specialization, on the other hand a demonstration of office politics. In that last respect, they mercilessly describe the petty irritations and teasing, the conniving and crawling that over the years take hold of people obliged to spend their days working together in a hierarchical setting. The academic satire is evident from the fact that Maarten Koning, the protagonist and Voskuil's fictional alter ego, is charged with research into the most obscure of folk traditions, such as the belief in elves, or the uses of scythes and harrows - nobody knows what purpose the research is meant to serve. Scene by scene and through vivid dialogues Voskuil builds up a picture of a surrealistic agency of which Kafka would be proud and gradually The Bureau itself emerges as the real main character. A classic of Dutch literature.
No English translation available; the novels have been translated into German.

12. Arnon Grunberg, Tirza (2006)
Arnon Grunberg belongs to the younger generation of Dutch writers. He wrote his first novel, Blue Mondays, in 1994. Two other novels, Phantom Pain and The Asylum Seeker, won the AKO Literature Prize (the Dutch Booker Prize). But his best novel is Tirza, about a father's obsessive love for his graduating daughter. This novel won another important literary prize and was also Grunberg's first novel to be made into a movie. As J.M. Coetzee has written, it is a novel filled with "wit and sardonic intelligence." It is the hilarious and tragic story of Jörgen Hofmeester, a man who had it all according to bourgeois norms: a beautiful wife, two intelligent daughters named Ibi and Tirza, a nice house with a garden in an upper-class neighborhood of Amsterdam, a respectable job as editor for a publishing house, and a large sum of money stashed away in a Swiss bank account earned by renting out part of the big house without informing the tax office. But during the preparations for his beloved daughter Tirza's graduation party we come to know what Hofmeester has lost: his wife has left him (and now come back after three years to harass him), Ibi has broken off her university course to start a bed-and-breakfast in France, Hofmeester has been laid off at the publishing house and his Swiss savings have evaporated due to hedge fund speculation. So he has only Tirza left, the apple of his eye... but Tirza tells him she is leaving on a trip to Namibia with her new North-African boyfriend Choukri. Hofmeester is shattered when she disappears on that holiday, and travels to Africa to search for her, but the heat, his drinking and bad memories combine to unhinge him. Finally, in a surprising conclusion we discover the beast that had all the time dwelt within him. Grunberg is an even stronger nihilist than W.F. Hermans - again and again he shows us how thin the veneer of civilization is.
Translation: Sam Garrett, Open Letter Books (2013)

Previous posts in Best European Novels:
Austria - Germany & Switzerland

May 3, 2017

"Sir Vidia's Shadow" by Paul Theroux (Non-Fiction)

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 rather remote 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 - he not for nothing 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 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.

[This is a revision of a post written some years ago]

Best Non-Fiction


(Auto-) Biography
Sir Vidia's Shadow by Paul Theroux

Food & Drink
Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson



The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering
Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler


The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.