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2003.07.09: July 9, 2003: Headlines: Figures: Theroux: COS - Malawi: Writing - Malawi: The guardian: Theroux Getting Older
Theroux Getting Older
The Stranger at the Palazzo D'Oro, in which a succession of 60-year-olds soothe their injured vanity by taking young lovers, is the title story of Theroux's latest book, a collection of six short stories. They are all about age. He revisits his Boston boyhood and rehearses his decrepitude and does everything in his literary power to "take the curse" off ageing. "My son Louis said to me, 'Sixty is the new 40, dad, don't worry about it,' but I said, 'No, I want to do something about this.'" The infirmities of age have particular resonance in the case of Theroux, who since his first book was published in 1967, has developed a sort of Indiana Jones-style reputation for scouring the globe in search of enlightenment. (Fittingly, when his most successful novel, The Mosquito Coast, was turned into a film, Harrison Ford played the character Theroux had modelled on himself.) It's a question, too, of knowing when to stop. Theroux thinks it is rare for old writers to write well, the few exceptions tending to be women - Muriel Spark and Nadine Gordimer, both in their 80s, "are extraordinary", he says. "There aren't many men of that age who are writing as well." He does not intend to become one of them. "There's a line in the Bible: work in the day, for the night cometh when no man will work. While you can do it, do it. And when you can't, sit back and take it easy." Author Paul Theroux served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi in the 1960's.
Theroux Getting Older
'Travel is nasty'
Paul Theroux, the Indiana Jones of American literature, on sex, writing and his famous son Louis
Monday June 9, 2003
When he turned 60, Paul Theroux decided to mark the occasion by doing something sensible. While other men his age run out and grab the youngest women who will have them, Theroux resolved to sit tight and do what he always does when he wants an experience without the inconvenience of living it; put it in a book. "Men in their late 50s often make very bad decisions. If I write about this, I thought, I'm less likely to be stupid. Fiction gives us the second chances that life denies us."
The Stranger at the Palazzo D'Oro, in which a succession of 60-year-olds soothe their injured vanity by taking young lovers, is the title story of Theroux's latest book, a collection of six short stories. They are all about age. He revisits his Boston boyhood and rehearses his decrepitude and does everything in his literary power to "take the curse" off ageing. "My son Louis said to me, 'Sixty is the new 40, dad, don't worry about it,' but I said, 'No, I want to do something about this.'"
Twelve hours ago, Theroux was in Johannesburg. Now he sits in the restaurant of a London hotel, looking with interest on the mini-heatwave engulfing the capital. At 62, his craggy good looks put him somewhere between Tommy Lee Jones and WH Auden and his owlish glasses give him an air of Clark Kent - the action man disguised as dweeby writer. "My plane got in at six this morning," he says, in a tone half-mocking, half-endorsing the implicit boast: real men don't get jet lag. A stack of chocolate brownies arrives. "Please," he says, genially, "eat."
The infirmities of age have particular resonance in the case of Theroux, who since his first book was published in 1967, has developed a sort of Indiana Jones-style reputation for scouring the globe in search of enlightenment. (Fittingly, when his most successful novel, The Mosquito Coast, was turned into a film, Harrison Ford played the character Theroux had modelled on himself.)
Much of this reputation derives from his non-fiction; Theroux's brand of travel writing is not of the soggy "a funny thing happened to me on the way to Taipei" variety, but fiercely purposeful, with a novelist's knack of turning anecdote into moral inquiry. "You can't just take a trip and think, I might write about it. That won't work. That's just a paragraph in an autobiography: 'I went to Turkey.' This is an account of what happened over a period of time, and ideally there's a change in your thinking or some kind of enlightenment. I don't see it as luxury. It's the opposite. Travel is nasty."
Theroux, too, has something of a reputation for nastiness. His public falling-out with old friend VS Naipaul, and the book (some say assassination) that he wrote about it, Sir Vidia's Shadow, was praised for its brilliance, but few reviewers had the stomach for its unflinching lack of sentiment. Theroux didn't expect them to. In his story Traveller's Tales, he writes scornfully of the journalists who come to interview him: "I should do a profile of them. I would be better at it and they, too, would feel self-conscious when I mentioned how they clawed their hair and dropped their notes and spilled their drink and got my titles wrong."
His severity is, in some cases, so ogreish, so theatrically waspish, as to seem almost playful. He is uncompromising even in the pursuit of pleasure. Born in the US, for 20 years resident in Britain, Theroux now lives, to the amusement and envy of his peers, in Hawaii.
He wrote the Palazzo d'Oro while travelling in Africa. There was nothing else to do. It wasn't safe to go out after dark and anyway Aids has taken the fun out of casual sex on the continent. He says this sardonically. Theroux is married, to his second wife, Sheila, but he still enjoys playing the old rogue, if only rhetorically. "It's something I wrote after dark, at night, alone. You know, in any other place I probably would have gone prowling the streets, drinking in bars, talking to women. Well, I'm always talking to women."
If he had to give up sex or writing, which would it be?
He looks at me as if I'm crazy. "That's a complete no-brainer."
"Yeah. Although, both are creative." A few minutes later he says: "I've changed my mind. I think I'd give up sex. Mmm. It depends on what kind of day you're having."
Critics have called Theroux a male chauvinist - one review of the new book said it "bore traces of misogyny" - although it amounts to no more than a few unlikely sex scenes. Unlike his breezy dismissal of most criticisms, Theroux is stung by this one. "You don't think it's sexist?" he says, indicating the cover of the book, which bears the photograph of a woman in an old-fashioned corset. No, I say. "Good, good. I thought it a striking photo."
The moral of the Palazzo d'Oro is, be careful what you wish for. A young boy seduces a beautiful older woman and gets more than he bargains for. The phrase running through it, like a musical refrain, is: "I want your life." It is the subtext of all advertising and, says Theroux, stupid and dangerous. "The story is like a folk tale, the person whose wish is granted. But having had it, you have to live it to the end. My God, how horrible."
So it was that, in 1980, instead of uprooting his family from London and taking them to the South American jungle, as he had a strong desire to do, he stayed put and wrote the adventure into a novel, The Mosquito Coast. At the time, he was married to Anne, a producer at the BBC World Service, and the couple had two teenage boys, Louis and Marcel. Through his television work, Louis is now more famous than his father, a fact that tickles Theroux. "He's in Nevada, filming," he says, when I ask, and with the protectiveness of a father alert to the perils of favouritism, adds: "Marcel is in Sri Lanka. They can't sit still."
Louis once said in an interview that he felt, as a child, that he was always working to make his father laugh.
"Yeah. Well. He did. Marcel sees himself as the serious one and Louis saw himself as the clown. But I used to get Louis to say and do things that were ludicrous. There was natural wit there anyhow. Now both of them wind me up all the time; that's my role in life. It's great, actually. Teasing is a form of affection."
How do they wind him up?
"By saying that I'm repetitive, always telling the same story, just teasing me. They interrupt a story - you can imagine. Making a concerted effort not to take me seriously. If I'm talking about a subject they'll find a way of deflating it. That's a very good thing. They're not intimidated. If the subtext of their interaction with me has been wind-up, that's OK. I used to do that myself."
Theroux's own childhood, as one of seven children growing up in Medford, a suburb of Boston, is revisited in the new book. "I realised I grew up in a time when people talked differently," he says. "There was an accent that people don't have any more. I knew all these words and remembered these conversations, and I thought, I've never read them in a book. I thought, I have this small thing to contribute, the historical value of certain words, preserving the language of that period."
The dialogue between the boys in the stories is sublime. They insult each other with words such as "fungoo" and "banana man" and phrases such as, "stick it up your bucket":
"'Vinny Grasso is a lying guinea wop.'
'And you're a pisser.'
'Eat me, I'm a jelly bean.'"
Did writing it make him nostalgic?
"No. When I write about my childhood I think, oh my God, how did I ever get from there to here? Not that any great thing has happened to me. But I felt so tiny, so lost." His childhood was dominated by feelings of "anxiety and ignorance" and the question, "How's this all going to turn out?"
It turned out that he could write, and writing allowed him to travel. It meant he was away a lot when his children were growing up. But, says Theroux, he was doing it "to enrich them", rather than for selfish reasons, and when he was at home, he was very present. "I had a room in the house; I never had an office and I never had a secretary. I was around a lot. My father had an invisible job outside of the house; I didn't know what he did. But my kids were privy to the ups and downs of a writer's life."
Writing, he says, is like whittling a stick, a physical pleasure. When he has time, as he did in Africa, he loves to recopy his work longhand, like a handwriting exercise in school. Like most writers, he is an impatient reader of his own prose. "I hate discussing it. I feel as if you have to move on, keep doing it, don't imagine that you're building some big edifice. You're just writing one thing at a time; that gives you pleasure, and if it gives you pleasure it must be good."
Does he feel guilty when not working? "Not guilty. Discontented. I feel as if my mission is to write, to see, to observe, and I feel lazy if I'm not reaching conclusions. I feel stupid. I feel as if I'm wasting my time."
His career, he says, "has just rumbled on", largely thanks to the fact that neither the public nor his publishers know how to classify him. "I haven't been branded. But if I was the sort of novelist to whom corporate publishers said, 'If you write this book, we'll make a million,' I'd say, well, I don't care, I'll write what I want to write."
It's a question, too, of knowing when to stop. Theroux thinks it is rare for old writers to write well, the few exceptions tending to be women - Muriel Spark and Nadine Gordimer, both in their 80s, "are extraordinary", he says. "There aren't many men of that age who are writing as well."
He does not intend to become one of them. "There's a line in the Bible: work in the day, for the night cometh when no man will work. While you can do it, do it. And when you can't, sit back and take it easy."
Not, says Theroux, that writing is the unimaginable horror it is often made out to be. "People say writing is really hard. That's very unfair to those who are doing real jobs. People who work in the fields or fix roofs, engineers, or car mechanics. I think lying on your back working under an oily car, that's a job. There are people who say, oh, writing's agony - Naipaul used to say that - oh, God, the agony! - and I'd say, you want some agony? You want some agony?" A sly smile surfaces. "Go pick fruit."
· The Stranger at the Palazzo D'Oro is published this month by Hamish Hamilton, price £14.99.
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