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Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents (2000)

Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents (2000)
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3.97 of 5 Votes: 5
ISBN
0618001999 (ISBN13: 9780618001996)
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English
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mariner books
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Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Acro...
Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents (2000)

About book: I am so glad I picked up this memoir as an accompaniment to my book club’s choice of “Half a Life” by V.S. Naipaul. In this book, Paul Theroux documents an apparently very close friendship with Naipaul, beginning in 1966 in Africa and ending nearly 30 years later with a falling out. During this time, both men publish many books and articles, travel extensively, take lovers and get divorced. When they meet, Naipaul is already famous and has won several prizes, but Theroux is just beginning his writing career and looks up to the slightly older Naipaul as a mentor. The book ends before Naipaul is awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, but Theroux has by this time also become a world-famous author and credits much of his success to the advice and encouragement received from Naipaul through the years. The literary nature of their friendship was one of the most interesting parts of the book. Theroux describes the loneliness and discouragement he felt early on in his career, when he was unsure of his path and didn’t know where his next nickel would come from. He attributes similar moments to Naipaul and shows how they understood and encouraged one another at these crucial points. Theroux also provides many insights into Naipaul’s writing philosophy, which he sums up as “tell the truth.” Naipaul feels there is nothing quite so distracting as when a writer uses words carelessly, misapplying or mystifying or prettifying rather than clarifying. Naipaul’s insistence on simplicity in prose and exactness in word choice is evident in those of his novels which I have read; I am inspired to achieve this simplicity in my own writing from now on.Naturally, friendship is another driving theme of the book. Theroux casts himself as staying in the shadow cast by Naipaul, who was the better-known and more critically acclaimed writer of the two, throughout their relationship. Naipaul comes across as being a forceful personality with strong opinions who enjoys playing Jedi Master to Theroux’s Padawan. Despite (or perhaps because of) living continents apart and conducting much of their relationship by letter, the two were able to pick up the threads of friendship instantly no matter how much time passed between meetings. They accepted each other’s weaknesses and supported each other in both good and bad times. I saw connections between the fact that Naipaul was close to very few people besides Theroux and the solitary, friendless protagonists in his novels.I have read in several places that Naipaul has been accused of perpetuating a vision of the third world as inferior to the developed, Western democracies. This memoir shows that he loathes many aspects of his own culture, calling it a “small and incomplete world” that exists in “spiritual blight.” He sees colonies as “dependent and inferior” by their very nature and says they have “a self-destructive instinct for chaos.” But he also calls colonialism a farce and says the modern world’s primary issues are race and class. And he says “unless one hears a little squeal of pain after one’s done some writing, one has not really done much.” This book makes it clear that he is by nature highly critical and desirous to reveal the reality behind the façade, themes which strongly informed the two Naipaul novels I read (“A House for Mr. Biswas” and “Half a Life”). Naipaul’s sense of alienation was another recurring topic of this memoir which I found helpful in understanding his novels. Naipaul feels he is an exile, a man without a country. Born in India, raised in Trinidad and settled in England, he says he “has no home.” Like the protagonist in “A House for Mr. Biswas,” the real-life Naipaul is obsessed with buying a home in one of the “fashionable” parts of London and seems unhappy until he achieves this level of security. But he is also homeless in the land of literature, saying that the Great Books he read as a child in school in Trinidad had nothing to do with the world he knew. He sees his writing as bringing into existence the “destitution and alienation” of the world he knows. I found myself wondering whether, like the unexamined life or a tree falling unwitnessed in the wood, the unwritten world in some sense does not exist? If no one has written about a life/people/place/country, does it make a sound? “Mr. Biswas” made Trinidad a real place populated by real people for me. Had Naipaul not written about it, and, let’s be fair, had he not gotten a Nobel Prize, how many people outside of Trinidad would have given the island a second thought? This leads me to my final takeaway from this book. Naipaul says “most people have no idea what they think of a book after they’ve read it” and points out that writing book reviews (something both Theroux and Naipaul did frequently throughout their careers in order to make money between novels) forces one to reach conclusions about what has been read. This is what makes me a fan of both book clubs and book review websites like GoodReads and Amazon. I find that having to articulate my feelings about a book to my book club friends or in a review on the internet really helps crystallize my opinions. Taking a stand publicly forces me to acknowledge my own prejudices and biases. No more simply “liking” something, I must back this up with evidence and this makes me think more deeply about what I have read. So here’s a summation of why I liked this book enough to give it five stars. Theroux’s memoir depicts Naipaul as a man with an enormous ego, but it also shows how important belief in oneself is in the writing process. I admire Naipaul’s tenacity in writing about obscure places and ordinary people, and trusting that eventually, someone, somewhere would appreciate what he was trying to say enough to publish it. I respect him for having an opinion and putting it out there for the world to judge. Naipaul is quoted several times in this book as saying the author must never come before the work, but for me, having a better understanding of the man definitely enhanced my ability to understand his novels and his world.

An excellent, highly engaging chronicle of a literary friendship between a writer and his mentor. Theroux is, it seems to me, a trust-worthy guide, an insightful observer and commentator. He offers acute observations on friendship, loyalty, the writing life, Africa, sex. Naipaul is a prick (but we already knew that), someone whose ideas, judgments and opinions become more and more calcified. Details abound. One admires the friendship between Naipaul and Theroux nonetheless, for its steadfastness (for a good thirty years) and its literary aspects. ----------Theroux on friendship:"At its most profound, friendship is not a hearty, matey celebration of linked arms and vigorous toasts; it is, rather, a solemn understanding that is hardly ever discussed. Friends rarely use the word "friendship" and seldom speak of how they are linked. There is a sort of trust that is offered by very few people; there are favors that very few can grant: such instances are the test of friendship. With your ego switched off, you accept this person--his demands, his silences--and it is reciprocal. The relationship does not have the hideous complexity of family sibling rivalry--that struggling like crabs in a basket. Nor does it have the heat of romantic love or the contractual connection of marriage. Yet a sympathy as deep as love springs from the moment you detect any disturbance or intimation of inadequacy in this other person. You take the rest on faith. It is not belief but acceptance, and even a kind of protection. "Friendship arises less from a form of an admiring love of strength than a sense of gentleness, a suspicion of weakness. It is compassionate intimacy, a powerful kindness, and a knowledge of imperfection." [283-84]
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Reviews
Aileen
A fan of both Theroux and Naipaul, this book was a voyeuristic journey throughout their lifes and friendship. Theroux portrays their relationship in which he is the underling, always expected to pick up the restaurant tab and listen to Naipaul's diatribes without comment. The lessons learned (and, I would argue, the contacts gained) from Naipaul justified the occasional harsh treatment. I met Theroux briefly in February and he told the audience that it was a book on the unexplored theme of friendship. Indeed. But Theroux demands an explanation for the friendship's demise and is told by Naipaul to "take it on the chin and move on." That's more of a rationale than most people ever receive for failed friendships and relationships.
Kit
A wonderful read. There is a decidedly 18th century quality to this portrait of the literary friendship between Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul. Theroux clearly acknowledges this tone when he describes himself as playing Boswell to Naipaul's Johnson. A scene of a luncheon party at Naipaul's house is hilarious and could have come right out of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson. I think it is important to keep this book in the context of literary history and not get too narrowly focused on whether or not Theroux is being fair or bitchy. As noted by others, the book is ultimately about Theroux, his development as a writer, and the part that Naipaul played for him. It is also a picture of an era and a celebration of honesty in writing, writing that is not "tainted" (to borrow from Naipaul) by academia or writers' workshops. It takes courage to live and write as both Theroux and Naipaul have, whatever their failings.
Arna
I found this difficult to rate, as I have read neither Theroux nor Naipaul. I was however interested in the story a frienship between two men, working in the same field. This recollection by Theroux, whileI thought was technically well written (and I am unaware of any suits for defamation, so probably accurate) is not likely to inspire me to read anything written by eithger of them. They both appear to be deeply unpleasant, and not people that I would really want to know. Elements of misogyny are througout, and the weaknesses in both their characters were clearly displayed. I was interested in the dynamics and logistics of a relationship mostly in letters - the rapid advances in technology mean that an equivalent relationship would likely be on very different terms today. This may be a book that I come back to if I ever do read anything by these authors, but would have to say that there is a certain dignity in silence, and I am not sure what the point of Theroux's lament to his lost friendship really was.
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