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Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents

Paul Theroux

Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents

Author:Paul Theroux
Publisher:Houghton Mifflin

By Jill Yesko | Posted 12/2/1998

Friendship is a slippery slope. Just ask Paul Theroux. Best known for his grouchy travel narratives (The Old Patagonian Express) and irony-laden tomes (The Happy Isles of Oceania), the curmudgeonly Theroux's kiss-and-tell novel takes aim at his 30-year "friendship" with author V.S. Naipaul. In the spirit of At Home in the World, Joyce Maynard's recent warts-and-all story of her seduction and unceremonious abandonment by reclusive author J.D. Salinger, Sir Vidia's Shadow is a lopsided look at the dissolution of an enigmatic friendship between two prickly characters.

Naipaul and Theroux's first encounter takes place in East Africa in the early 1960s. Theroux was teaching English to make ends meet, while the 34-year-old Naipaul was struggling to achieve popular acclaim. Improbably, the misanthropic Naipaul--a man whose list of things despised extends from European expatriates ("[Naipaul] developed the notion that nearly all the expatriates were homosexual") to music, which he likens to "shit"--takes a shine to the young Theroux. The younger writer quickly comes under his tutelage.

But Theroux soon learns that befriending a venomous man such as Naipaul (who labels all but those in his chosen circle as "infies"--short for inferiors) is a Faustian deal--one he likens to being the "Sorcerer's Apprentice." Falling under the long, solemn umber of "Sir Vidia"'s shadow (a reference to the Trinidadian-born Naipaul, who half-jokes that if he were knighted by the queen, he would change his name to Nye-Powell) means that Theroux must defend his friendship with a man who confounds with his genius and his cruelty.

Encouraged by Naipaul, whose benedictions and homilies spur him on, Theroux moves to England and soon achieves popularity. Meeting in London, the two authors engage in long, chatty luncheons at expensive restaurants. (Theroux takes great pains to point out that he's always forced to pick up the check.) Their conversations cover topics from Naipaul's agonizingly slow creative process to scathing character assassinations of contemporary authors. Fans of literary gossip will enjoy these wicked passages, which play like catty variations of the film My Dinner With Andre.

As Theroux's star rises, he becomes less Naipaul's protégé than a rival for critical acclaim and commercial success. During their middle years, Theroux and Naipaul literally drift apart as Theroux publishes bestsellers and Naipaul's books languish while their author moves from continent to continent chasing his inner demons. "He pined for better sales and more money," writes Theroux, who also claims that the money-obsessed Naipaul once tried to gas himself but ran out of coins to feed the gas meter. Inevitably, their friendship unravels, to the point where Naipaul, in their final encounter, barely acknowledges a bewildered Theroux as the latter stands dumbfounded on a London street.

Despite its one-sided slant, Sir Vidia's Shadow is at times a poignant and heartfelt recounting of an unlikely meeting of two great literary minds. Theroux and Naipaul's letters and conversations helped shape and, in an offbeat way, nurture each other's creative souls. References to Naipaul's odd sexual and personal habits aside (he is described as having snuff hanging out of his nose during a meal), in the end, Naipaul actually comes off better than Theroux, whose often clinical and condescending prose makes him sound like jilted lover--one who should have seen the writing on the wall years earlier. "I had known that I was a bit afraid of him," Theroux concludes of Naipaul's deceitful personality. "It is impossible to see a friend lose his temper with someone and not imagine that same fury turned on you."

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