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Sir Vidias Shadow : A Friendship Across Five Continents

PAUL THEROUX

Published by Houghton Mifflin November 1998, 1998
ISBN 10: 0395907284 / ISBN 13: 9780395907283
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Bibliographic Details


Title: Sir Vidias Shadow : A Friendship Across Five...

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin November 1998

Publication Date: 1998

Binding: Hardcover

Book Condition: Fine (F)

Dust Jacket Condition: As New

Edition: First Edition.

Description:

Very collectable condition. Appears unread, crisp, clean, bright and tight. Near fine book/Near Fine Dust Jacket. BEAUTIFUL copy. Theroux's expose of his friendship and eventual falling out with writer and former mentor V.S. Naipaul. Bookseller Inventory # 20080818102452

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Synopsis: This is an intimate portrait of a friendship, its beginning, middle, and end. And it describes that rarest and most fragile of alliances, a literary friendship. One year before he published his first book, Paul Theroux met V. S. Naipaul--Vidia, as he was known. For thirty years both men remained in close touch, even when continents separated them. Sir Vidia's Shadow is a double portrait of the writing life, but it is much more, for travel and reading and emotional ups and downs are also aspects of this friendship, which is powerful and enriching and often a comedy--and, ultimately, a bridge that is burned. The two writers' paths crossed in 1966 in Uganda, which Naipaul saw as a dangerous jungle and Theroux regarded as a benign home. Theroux became Naipaul's driver, interpreter, and apprentice--he was twenty-three and Naipaul thirty-four. Theroux was guided by the older writer, but as the years passed their positions were frequently reversed, as Naipaul sought Theroux's guidance and advice. They became each other's editors, confidants, and teachers. From Singapore to London, India to South America, the United States and back to Africa, the writers corresponded and crossed paths. Naipaul's brother, Shiva, is part of the story, and so is Margaret, Naipaul's Anglo-Argentine companion. A formidable and intensely private figure, who was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth and is often cited as a contender for the Nobel Prize, Naipaul was close to few others except his first and second wives and Theroux himself. Naipaul was the first to read and champion Theroux's earliest efforts. Over time, they witnessed each other's successes and failures. Built around exotic landscapes, anecdotes that are revealing, humorous, and melancholy, and three decades of mutual history, this is a very personal account of how one develops as a writer, how a friendship waxes and wanes between two men who have set themselves on the perilous journey of a writing life, and what constitutes the relationship of mentor and student. Told with Theroux's impeccable eye for place and setting and his novelistic instinct for character and incident, Sir Vidia's Shadow recalls Nicholson Baker's U and I: A True Story, Rainer Maria Rilke's classic Letters to a Young Poet, and Boswell's Life of Johnson, but it is nearly without precedent in anatomizing the nature of writing as well as the nature of friendship itself.

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

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