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‘Travels with Paul Theroux’ | Nick Smith in conversation with Theroux in the August 2011 edition of Geographical magazine

September 13, 2011

Arguably the finest travel writer of his generation, Paul Theroux has spent as much of his life in the world of books as he has on the road. By Nick Smith

Paul Theroux saunters onto the stage in a dark grey chalk-stripe suit and a white straight-from-the box Nehru collar shirt. His circular tortoiseshell glasses complete the image of the metropolitan intellectual. Urbane and media-groomed, he pauses to stride across the boards, pours himself a glass of water. If he has notes he doesn’t use them, preferring to tell a string of apparently unconnected anecdotes about his favourite travel books. For an hour he weaves the threads of his immense knowledge into a richly textured fabric. The packed house is enthralled.

Paul Theroux at the Royal Geographical Society. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Paul Theroux at the Royal Geographical Society. Photo: Nick Smith

The following afternoon Theroux and I meet for a drink in the courtyard of his swanky hotel in Buckingham Gate to discuss his new book The Tao of Travel. Looking relaxed, he admits he ‘winged it last night. I don’t do a lot of public speaking and it can be very stressful.’ It’s hard to imagine how the author of such classics as The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonia Express and Riding the Iron Rooster could find sharing his passion for travel literature with 750 well-read geographers as anything other than an easy stroll. But then again, he’s never happier than when on the road. Or to be more precise, travelling by train.

In his lecture at the Royal Geographical Society’s Ondaatje theatre, Theroux midway through his delivery, makes the observation that as a traveller, ‘if you go to an island, you can only be up to no good.’ This seems like a good place to start: after all, he lives part of the time in Hawaii and here we are in the British Isles. So what’s he up to? ‘Nothing.’ This isn’t quite true, but at the time, neither of us could have known that before his promotional tour of the UK was over, Theroux would be patching up a 15-year feud with his nemesis V.S. Naipaul. A historic handshake in Hay on Wye. ‘I’m sorry. I miss you,’ said the 70-year-old to Naipaul.

It comes as no surprise that Theroux loves decent travel writing, although he admits ‘felicitously written, well-observed books are rather rare.’ As an example of one of the best of its genre he cites Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. ‘I mention that not just because it’s stylish, but because the voice is so consistent, so right, so measured.’ I mention that this might be in some way related to Cherry-Garrard being George Bernard Shaw’s close friend and neighbour. Theroux says: ‘Yeah. He looked closely at Cherry-Garrard’s book.’

In his wrapping up statement at the end of Theroux’s lecture, the Society’s President Michael Palin took a positive view of the state of the art, saying: ‘rumours of the death of travel writing have tonight been proved to be greatly exaggerated.’ Theroux agrees. It’s not all bad: ‘it’s just that publishers fear a certain type of book won’t sell. But that’s not a reason not to write it. And it doesn’t mean that people won’t do proper travel or write proper travel books. It just means that it’s going to get harder for them to get published.’

He goes on to argue that in this respect ‘the future of travel writing greatly resembles the past’. But the future of books doesn’t. ‘That’s the $64,000 question. No one knows what’s going to happen to books. We never foresaw the effect of the internet, or e-books or Kindle. We’re in the middle of some kind of revolution, but I’d like to think that the book with a binding and a jacket, that’s full of good writing, will endure. And I think it will, only maybe there will be fewer.’

The problem with making predictions, says Theroux, is that everything looks superficially identical to how it used to. ‘Sitting here in London today it still looks pretty much the same as when I first came here in 1965. When people write science fiction the first thing they do is change the look of a place, but actually places look the same. It’s on the inside that real differences happen.’

This can be especially true of returning to a place after a long absence, and I ask Theroux what happens on a writer’s return. Is it the writer or the place that has changed over time? ‘The truth is I’ve changed and I’m a different person when I go back. It’s a wonderful and educational experience to go back to a place, because you see what the future will look like elsewhere. In general the quality of life is vastly different and yet not as good.’

Ideal travel books have the gifts of description and a human element, says Theroux. For sense of place Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, ‘is wonderfully written, dramatic.’ But that’s not a travel book. ‘He’s not travelling, but he’s in a foreign place. It’s an experience of solitude and confinement. Not a lot of people think of that as a travel book, you’re right. But I think it’s terrific.’

This is important for Theroux, and the demarcation lines between genres are endlessly fascinating for him. As with two other great travel writers of his generation – Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban – he’s also a novelist. And these two existences, for Theroux at least, are not entirely separate or separable. He says that writing novels is – just like Levi’s book – all about confinement, stuck in a house, stuck behind a desk. At the end of typically eighteen months ‘you really want to get out and do something.’ While travelling to South America for The Old Patagonia Express, Theroux passed through Costa Rica and came back with the idea for his novel The Mosquito Coast. Recently, while in India for Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he developed the idea for The Elephanta Suite, three novella which ‘I think are great. I loved writing them.’

It is this combined affection for travel and literature that led him to crystalise his vast reading in The Tao of Travel. There are plenty of literary anthologies in print, many with generous travel sections, but Tao is much more than simply a commonplace book of interesting snippets. For Theroux it deconstructs his reaction to people ‘who don’t travel alone. A lot of people who write believe that they have to come up with a certain type of book. They conceal the fact that they didn’t spend as long a time in a place as they should have. They conceal the fact that they were doing other things or were with another person.’

Theroux says there’s a virtue in travelling alone, but it’s difficult; there’s a virtue in travelling for a long period of time, but that’s difficult, too. ‘It’s much easier,’ he says, ‘to travel for a month than a year. And people conceal this. They conceal the fact that they have to pay bills, they’ve got a family and there’s someone on the other end of the phone saying come home. I don’t know where it will end.’

It’s this artifice of concealment that rankles with Theroux, who confesses not to understand why authors write books that ‘appear to be one thing when they’re really another. In Tristes Tropiques Claude Lévi-Strauss makes out he’s travelling alone, but he’s not. He’s travelling with a whole expedition. And his wife.’

Theroux is equally critical of his former enemy V.S.Naipaul, whose A Turn in the South is an exercise in this type of concealment: ‘his mistress is driving the car and yet she’s never mentioned in the book. He paid her $40,000 to drive, find restaurants and fix tickets, while his wife is back in London. As a reader you don’t know that. And that’s kinda interesting, but it’s not what the book is about.’

Despite a literary career in which he’s often blended fiction with reality –sometimes with legal and emotional consequences – when it comes to travel writing, ‘the truth is always more interesting than what’s made up. This is my objection to some travel writing and this is what informs my selections in Tao.’ Theroux says he wanted to expose other writers’ concealments, and so one of the tasks he set himself was to compile a league table of how long famous travellers claim to have spent on the road and then to hold their claims up against reality. One of Theroux’s ambitions was to dissect and atomise travel books in ‘my own eccentric way of evaluating the truth.’

As the conversation threatens to become a metaphysical disquisition of the nature of truth, Theroux suggests that too many travel writers get hi-jacked by an unknown reader that increasingly requires the writer to have travelled alone, suffered, had moments of great incident and enlightenment. He goes on to say that publishers get bothered too when these boxes don’t get ticked. As a consequence, the writer is often tempted to take the path of least resistance and fabricate an experience that conforms to these expectations. I ask him if there’s an absolute relationship between the travel writer and the literal truth? Theroux adjusts his Ray-Bans, considers the question, before restating the challenge that has tripped up virtually every travel writer since the dawn of the genre. ‘You have a great duty to tell the truth, without being boring.’

At this point the sky turns black with helicopters and our voices are drowned out. ‘That’s Obama,’ shouts Theroux reminding me that we’re a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. ‘I think he’s staying with the Queen tonight. Great president. Nice guy. I just hate his political decisions on things like Iraq and Afghanistan.’

Soundbites: Travelling with Paul Theroux’s books

Tearsheet of Nick Smith's interview with Paul Theroux in Geographical magazine

How the interview appeared in Geographical magazine, September 2011

The difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows – The Great Railway Bazaar

A train isn’t a vehicle. A train is part of the country. It’s a place – Riding the Iron Rooster

The best of travel seems to exist outside of time, as though the years of travel are not deducted from your life – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

A landscape looks different when you know the names of things, and conversely, can look exceedingly inhospitable and alien when it seems nameless – Fresh Air Fiend

In countries where all the crooked politicians wear pin-striped suits, the best people are bare-assed – Dark Star Safari

Villages endure destitution better than towns, and rural poverty can perversely seem almost picturesque – The Pillars of Hercules

The nearest thing to writing a novel is travelling in a strange landscape – Sunrise with Seamonsters

When something human is recorded, good travel writing happens – To the Ends of the Earth

Travel, which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion the opposite. Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture – The Happy Isles of Oceania

Nothing is more bewildering to a foreigner than a nation’s pleasures – The Kingdom by the Sea

Quotations taken from The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton £16.99