Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents by Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin 1998 358 pp. 24.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


"Friendship is plainer but deeper than love. A friend knows your faults and forgives them, but more than that, a friend is a witness." So says Paul Theroux of friendship, in a book many have seen as a reprehensible betrayal of friendship itself. Sir Vidia's Shadow, a testament to Theroux's association with brilliant Trinidadian novelist and social critic V. S. Naipaul, traces their relationship across thirty years, from their original meeting in Africa to its abrupt dissolution that shocked Theroux into writing this book.

They first met in Uganda, where Theroux, twenty-four, was a teacher in a bush school, and Naipaul, ten years his senior, a visiting writer traveling on a grant. Theroux was enthralled: "I had never met anyone so certain, so intense, so observant, so hungry, so impatient, so intelligent. He was stimulating and tiring to be with, like a brilliant demanding child-needy, exhausting, funny."

Not only did Theroux find Naipaul's company stimulating, Naipaul encouraged the obscure young American, imbuing him with confidence and resolve. "I had been working in the dark, just groping, until I had met Vidia. He had believed in me." Years later, Theroux realizes "he gave me everything. The main thing that he gave me was the confidence that I was a writer."

Naipaul returned to England and at the first opportunity Theroux followed him. Naipaul introduced him to editors, agents, and writers and celebrities, as well as his Naipaul's brother, Shiva Naipaul, thirteen years Naipaul's junior. In England Theroux witnessed Naipaul's capacity for cruelty toward those close to him, in his contempt for and mistreatment of his brother, just as he had observed Naipaul belittling and humiliating Naipaul's wife, Pat, in Africa.

Over the next three decades both men pursued their craft, leading peripatetic lives. Theroux's career stumbled along until the publication of his most famous travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar, while Naipaul, despite his need to resort to journalism to support himself, became gradually more successful, complementing with sales the esteem in which he had always been held by critics.

Naipaul, having been "the most wide-awake person I had ever traveled with," now became a faithful correspondent. As Theroux observes, "Face to face, anyone can say he is your friend and can promise to write faithfully, but the test of friendship are the letters themselves, the fondest proof that you are remembered."

Yet, following the death of Naipaul's wife, Naipaul's cruel rejection of his mistress, and his swift remarriage to a simpering, Pakistani arriviste, Naipaul cut off all contact with Theroux. Suspecting Naipaul's harpy wife of interference, Theroux attempted to contact him and finally ran into Naipaul on a London street. Naipaul snubbed him, telling Theroux to "take it on the chin and move on." From this stimulus emerged this portrait of the artist as a monstrously sick narcissist.

We learn that Naipaul was "opinionated and dissatisfied and restless," that "he fussed, he mocked, he made his innocent wife cry, he had impossible standards, he was self-important, he was obsessive on the subject of health. He hated children, music and dogs," that he existed "in an almost constant state of niggling annoyance, [and was] incessantly judgmental." Sir Vidia's Shadow is one of the most unappetizing portraits you'll read of someone not currently incarcerated.

Independent of the small-minded, catty vengeance some readers may see as the raison d'etre for this work, the central question it poses is an interesting one. Must a good writer be a good man? Theroux bludgeons the reader with enough examples of everything from Naipaul's peevishness to his racism-to say nothing of his ongoing failure to pick up the check-to present the reader with a portrait of a despicable, self-loathing, small-minded, arrogant, narcissistic wretch.

Everyone from Aristotle to Shelley to Emerson has questioned whether someone can be a cad and a bounder and write deathless prose, or whether a good character is a precondition of a prose style to die for. Theroux's view comes through clearly: Naipaul is a contemptible human being, and one of the best writers of this half of the century.

One has the image of the writer as private, self-absorbed, disciplined, dogged, and a bit of a crank: qualities needed on the lonely slog toward publication and, in singular cases, success. Theroux's portrait of Naipaul confirms all those prejudices, painting a portrait of a writer, in all his brilliance, who is utterly repugnant in his reptilian treatment of publishers, friends, indeed, entire races of people.

At the end of their friendship, Theroux finally "understood the role I had played from my earliest days with Vidia, for in a sense he had always been a knight. I had always been his squire-driver, sidekick, spear carrier, flunky, gofer; diligent, tactful, helpful-delicately finessing the occasional intervention. Paul, I want you to deal with this. It was my luck. I had never contradicted him; we had never quarreled. Because he was not the perfect knight, I had to be the perfect squire, Sir Vidia's Shadow."

Paul Theroux is an enormously intelligent, gifted stylist whose prose demands the reader's attention. His repayment of three decades of Naipaul's friendship will strike some readers as a betrayal of all that is sacred in the bond of friendship. Others who peruse this unappetizing profile will be left wondering why he hadn't taken it on the chin twenty-five years earlier, and simply moved on.