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Book Review: Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow

I confess to having a nerdish interest in books about literary influence. I read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence with interest and loved Nicholson Baker’s U & I, a book about Baker’s infatuation with John Updike. (Baker is jealous that Updike is playing golf with someone other than him, even though Baker doesn’t even play golf!) I’ve had Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow in deep storage for years now, and I finally pulled it out to read in the idle moments of my trip to Spain. I read it on the plane and I read it in Spain.

In the late sixties, Theroux meets V.S. Naipaul in Uganda. The relationship is mutually beneficial: Naipaul serves Theroux as a literary mentor while Theroux serves Naipaul as a sort of guide and facilitator in Africa. This first section of the book is especially enjoyable, not so much for its literary history as for its evocation of late sixties Uganda and Theroux’s youthful lust and enthusiasm.

As time goes by, there are periods when they see each other frequently in England, and other times when their respective travels keep them far apart. As Theroux makes a name for himself as a writer, the mentor/mentored relationship gives way to a friendship between equals. They keep in touch by writing letters.

If I were to choose just two words to describe the Naipaul portrayed by Theroux, they would be “stingy” and “fastidious.” I started out liking Naipaul. I appreciated his insistence on telling the truth, his disdain for affectation, and his principled approach to writing. With time, though, I began to be put off by his finicky attitudes and his tendency to make sweeping generalizations. He even reminded me at times of the fictional Ignatius Riley; as when he critiques a movie by saying, “the people responsible for making that film should be punished. They should be punished. Whipped.”

Naipaul, in spite of his Nobel Prize and his genius, strikes me as an asshole, to put it plainly. It seems that Theroux went out of his way to make the friendship work, but that Naipaul was incapable of meeting him half way. It is a sad turn of events when, at the end of the book, the two cross paths in London and Naipaul, instead of speaking with Theroux, rebuffs him: “Take it on the chin and move on.”



May 2019



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