Warped genius! Sir Vidia’s Shadow (Paul Theroux)


I am more of a fiction reader – murder mysteries, historical romances, science fiction, fantasy and such.  But this book came highly recommended so I began to read what turned out to be part biography, part homage, part autobiography, detailing a friendship between two writing geniuses that spanned several decades and continents.  Paul Theroux (The Great Indian Railway Bazaar, The Patagonia Express, The Mosquito Coast to name a few) was a struggling wannabe writer who was earning his living as lecturer in English at Makarere University in Kampala, Uganda when he first met V. S. Naipaul.  And Naipaul was by then already a writer of repute when he arrived on a fellowship at Makarere for a short term.   As described by Theroux he was even then a curmudgeony fellow, somewhat racist and bigoted and elitist.  But he took to Theroux and took him firmly under his patronizing wing.  The book begins with this unusual friendship in which Naipaul alternately takes complete advantage of, and grudgingly helps Theroux’s career along by critiquing his writing and making many constructive suggestions.  Naipaul’s favorite term for Africa and Africans “Its all going back to the bush (..as soon as the Britishers leave)” typified his general contempt for Africans and most other people he did not think his equal in intellect.  Sir Vidia and his mousy wife Pat, move back to the UK after Vidia finally reads and praises one of Theroux’s writings! Theroux spends a Christmas in the UK with the Naipauls and meets the “prodigal” brother Shiva Naipaul.  As Theroux is guided by Naipaul into a belief in his own writing skills (and there is considerable matter-of fact admiration from Vidia for Theroux’s abilities, in the narrative), he quits his Makarere job and moves to Singapore. After that most of the correspondence between them is by letters.

The 350 odd pages fly by as Theroux has a firm grip on the narrative, slowly revealing VS’s genius, his misogynistic treatment of his British wife who basically lets him walk all over her, his abhorrence of any talk of sex and his self-professed dislike of women of “loose morals” – exactly the kind of women who flock to the young Theroux in Uganda, his disdain for almost any other writer – well regarded or not, and a general disposition of dislike for almost anything, seasoned with an extremely high regard for himself!  As one reads one is almost shocked at what is being revealed about the nature of the great man.  Lest you get a sense that Theroux is somehow out to “get” Naipaul, there is a strong sense throughout this book of a student talking of a revered mentor – whom he is able to see with all his flaws.  He still falls for it every time Naipaul maneuvers him into paying for the meal, and keeps coming back for more.  Then Theroux reveals the shocking fact of Naipaul’s long affair with a lady from Argentina – likely begun while he was still married to his wife, who was dying of cancer.  And to top it all Naipaul’s prodigal brother Shiva commits suicide.


BEWARE, SPOILERS FOLLOW if you intend to read the book!!

This span of time is peppered with landmark events, books that release to rave reviews, a knighthood, and eventually (soon after this book) a Nobel Prize.  While in Uganda Naipual had a chance encounter with a 12-year old Pakistani girl and many years later she marries him and becomes Lady Naipaul!  And this is the turning point in the relationship between Theroux and Naipaul.  According to him Lady Naipaul (Nadira Naipaul) fiercely guards any interaction with the great man, and even warns off Theroux when he writes an obituary for the dead Pat Naipaul.  A blistering letter from Theroux to Nadira says:

“You object to my obituary of Pat Naipaul.  I wonder why.  She was a woman I loved deeply; the piece was not “a favor” as you put it, but a labor of love.  You accuse me of writing a self-serving obituary of, as you termed her, “poor Pat”.  How inappropriate that you should mention her name in this way, since you were associated with Vidia as the woman lay dying.”

Nadira forbids Theroux from writing a biography, and demands that he return all letters and papers that he might have relating to Naipaul.  They have commissioned an official biography of the man and do not want anyone to write anything before that!  Then all relations between Theroux and Naipul are cutoff, as he refuses to return anything and Vidia ignores all of his communications!

A final painful encounter with Vidia is a chance one in London, and when Theorux asks Vidia “Do we have something to discuss?”  His response is a “No” as he is nervously hurrying away, trying to avoid the encounter.  When Theorux shouts after him “What do we do, then?”  “Take it on the chin and move on” is what Vidya tells him, as he scuttles away.  And just like that a friendship that spanned decades and continents is over!  Theroux writes of the amazing feeling of liberation that comes over him then:

“I was dazed, because I was liberated at last.  I saw how the end of a friendship was the star of an understanding.  He had made me his by choosing me; his rejection of me meant I was on my own, out if his shadow.  He had freed me, he had opened my eyes, he had given me a subject.”

And thus was born “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”!  The book is an amazing look into the life of a flawed genius through the eyes of another literary giant.  And one is left with a strong sense that however flawed the genius might be, it can still leave an impact on our minds, and shape other phenomenal talents.  The book is well worth reading to see the beginning of Theroux the writer, the turbulent interactions he had with Naipaul, and the life of Naipaul and his inner demons as revealed to Theroux.

Here is what the WIKIPEDIA has to say about Naipaul’s troubled personal life:

Naipaul was married to Englishwoman Patricia Hale for 41 years, until her death due to cancer in 1996. In an authorized biography by Patrick French, Naipaul admitted ill-treating and frequently cheating on her, to such an extent that he contemplated he may have contributed to her death[6]. As well as regularly visiting prostitutes in London, Naipaul often abandoned his wife to travel with Margaret Murray, a married Anglo-Argentinian woman with whom he became infatuated in 1972. Naipaul also would often psychologically abused his wife by telling her how much he missed his mistress; however, he also said that he needed her (Hale) to help him with his books.[7]
Two months after Hale’s death, Naipaul abruptly ended his affair with Margaret Murray to marry Nadira Naipaul, a divorced Pakistani journalist, born Nadira Khannum Alvi. She worked as a journalist for the Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, for ten years before meeting Naipaul. Nadira was divorced twice before her marriage to Naipaul and has two children from a previous marriage, Maliha and Nadir. [8]



17 Responses

  1. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1132743/Misogyny-mistresses-sadism-Why-Nobel-prize-winning-author-VS-Naipaul-centre-vicious-literary-war-decade.html

    Misogyny, mistresses and sadism: Why Nobel prize winning author VS Naipaul is at the centre of the most vicious literary war of the decade

    Bigoted, arrogant, vicious, racist, a woman-beating misogynist and sado-masochist — the Nobel laureate Sir VS Naipaul has not turned a hair since this uniquely ugly list of traits was laid bare about him some months ago.

    But then, again, it was he who allowed the descriptions of himself to be detailed by his authorised biographer Patrick French.


  2. Thanks Bond ji!

  3. NIce review Pakhi. Will definitely check it out.

  4. Hmm – I might have ordered mine through Amazon. But Borders will order it too. I really like Name of the Rose (and the film based on that book). Another Eco I recommend even more is Focault’s Pendulum – a masterpiece.

  5. Pakhi – another one that I would recommend since you mentioned murder mysteries is “The name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco. I read it few years ago and liked it a lot. It is set in the 13th century in a monastery.

    Take care.

  6. The patchup finally happened this weekend!


    Hay Festival 2011: Handshake ends a famous literary feud
    The Nobel Prize-winner VS Naipaul and his former protégé Paul Theroux, who had not spoken for 15 years, had an emotional reunion at the Hay Festival yesterday, helped by the novelist Ian McEwan.

  7. The feud between Sir Vidia and Paul Theroux were NOT the first or last literary slugfest, nor will it me the last. Many many such have entertained the readers through the years! Read about some of them HERE

  8. Several factual mistakes in here, including that V.S.’s brother committed suicide.

  9. Theroux clearly mention V.S’s brother’s suicide in his book. Can you please elaborate on the factual errors?

  10. I don’t have Sir Vidia’s Shadow easily at hand now, but Shiva Naipaul died of heart attack (not committed suicide, as you claim; also see Wikipedia, if you wish) and i do not remember this being reported with errors by Theroux (I remember how Theroux describes Shiva Naipaul’s extensive drinking-eating-smoking, making heart attack a very plausible consequence) (in *other* aspects, Theroux obviously errs, even deliberately, as described in French’s Naipaul biography (see that book’s index for Sir Vidia’s Shadow) and in a Theroux-reaction to that biography in the british Times (can be found online).

    Other lines that don’t correspond with Sir Vidia’s shadow:
    – After that most of the correspondence between them is by letters. (It’s mostly letters only for the three years Theroux spents in Singapore, after that Theroux describes mostly face to face encounters in London, Wiltshire and occasionally the US, by far the biggest part of Sir Vidia’s Shadow)
    – (V.S. Naipaul’s) abhorrence of any talk of sex (not true and not claimed in Sir Vidia’s Shadow and not proved by Naipaul’s writings) (you could say, if you wished, that Naipaul doesn’t write *nicely* about sex, something that Theroux elaborates on)
    – (V.S. Naipaul’s) self-professed dislike of women of “loose morals” (not claimed in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, not a fact of V.S. Naipaul, who was an openly self-proclaimed “prostitute man” until his mid-thirties)
    – Then Theroux reveals the shocking fact of Naipaul’s long affair with a lady from Argentina – likely begun while he was still married to his wife, who was dying of cancer. (The affair began of course while Naipaul was married, and many years (20?) before she fell ill with cancer. Not described with errors by Theroux.)
    – While in Uganda Naipual had a chance encounter with a 12-year old Pakistani girl and many years later she marries him and becomes Lady Naipaul! (The girl is described by Theroux as 7 or 9 years old; this is btw not the 2nd Lady Naipaul, but Theroux wants to make us belief so.)

    Hope i don’t look like a troll. If you tell me the page i will look for Shiva Naipaul’s “suicide” in Sir Vidia’s Shadow (i can find the softcover edition if need be).

  11. As you rightly point out – Shiva Naipaul died of a heart attack, and if I read between the lines of the book, of a broken heart too! This was by no means a dissection of VS Naipaul’s life, but a “review” of the book. So I limit myself to what was contained in the book.

    Most of the interaction was by letters, and I described a few other face to face encounters, among several that the book talked about. Many describe Theroux, a near penniless writer, paying for the meals that he and Naipaul had.

    Frequenting prostitutes and approving of women of lose morals are surely not the same thing, are they?

    As I recall Theroux does not go into many details on exactly WHEN the affair Naipaul had with the Argentinian lady began. Theroux seems to have become aware of it late in the day if you claim it started much earlier.

    Whether the girl Naipaul encountered in Uganda indeed became the second Lady Naipaul or not – now that is interesting! I can only rely on what Theroux wrote – and do not know why he would lie about that! Please do elaborate why you think this was not the person who became Lady Naipaul. About her age – 9 or 12, what is the relevance unless she did become Lady Naipaul?

    You seem to have some detailed information on VS Naipaul’s life and times – I am merely an avid reader of books, and presented here a review of Sir Vidiya’s Shadow, parts of my recollection were inaccurate, and I think you for pointing those out to me.

  12. Let’s not talk around and i won’t comment on your confusing statements in your last comment. In your original blog post you say you read certain things in the book Sir Vidia’s Shadow that are NOT in that book. For a private blog review it may be not even important if or not Theroux’s statements are true. But it *is* important that you recount the reviewed book correctly. You recount the book wrongly in several aspects, as mentioned in my previous comment. To repeat it: You claim Theroux says, but he doesn’t say, that
    – Shiva Naipaul died of suicide
    – the desi girl Naipaul met in Africa was 12
    – Naipaul started to see his Argentinian mistress only when his wife Pat was terminally ill
    All that is not in the book Sir Vidia’s Shadow, but you claim it is. There might be more to point out if i would get paid for this writing. Again, at that point i am not looking at the real facts but at what Theroux says (which are two different things).

    I am not an expert. I just read a few books and online reviews from serious sources that are all easily available to anyone, incl. French’s Naipaul-biography, that is highly respected and kind of accepted by Naipaul (he fully cooperated and never contradicted the published book).

    Actually you could avoid making awkward wrong statements about the book by not recounting so much, but by more evaluating that book, discussing the quality of writing, the kind of comment (biographical, literary, geographical etc.) You give away the full plot in your review, that’s a very simple way to fill space and look knowledgeable. But then, many book and movie reviews do just that, recount the plot to the very end. And while just simply recounting, there will be even wrong details, in some private blog reviews as in a few professional reviews. Usually i click away when i see the first mistake. I don’t know why i read on here. I guess it’s because i kind of get “trolly” when i see wrong “quotes” that could easily have been avoided.

    • Excellent. You have done your research and your comments have been enlightening and added much to the original (very well written) blog. From reading this and other materials myself, all I can say is VS and his utterly vile, gold-digging wife Nadira deserve each other as they both seem united in their hate for other women! Where’s the sisterhood? Thank you for posting.

  13. Whoa there! I do not get paid to write this blog either. It is my personal space and I write reviews as I would like to write them. Why should I rely on any “official” biography of Mr. Naipaul? Maybe I find Mr. Theroux more credible? Shiva Naipaul died a bitter man, clearly self destructive, but NOT a suicide. Granted. The age of the girl is what you pick on? Please tell me why you claim she was NOT the woman who became the second Mrs. Naipaul, that is infinitely MORE interesting than her age. While you are at it, please read the following carefully:

    “Then Theroux reveals the shocking fact of Naipaul’s long affair with a lady from Argentina – likely begun while he was still married to his wife, who was dying of cancer.”

    The wife was dying of cancer, long standing affair, likely begun while he was still married to her – clearly you read wrongly.

    Yes, it is getting kind of “trolly”, because you are telling me how to write my reviews. That is advice that you could follow and write your own, then provide me with links. Don’t you think it is a little impolite to enter my house and then try to tell me what should be in there?

  14. Ok, no more comments. I also turn off notifications.

  15. You know, I kind of like it that henrik bothered to add to the debate. It’s a shame you took it so personally, you are both clearly smart people who care a lot about the accuracy of your writing. Pakhipakhi – you should reign in your ego a bit 🙂

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