Happy Birthday, Paul Theroux

Tom Swick: Contemplating and celebrating the world of travel

04.10.09 | 3:42 PM ET

Tom SwickPaul Theroux, who singlehandedly brought the travel book to prominence with the publication in 1975 of “The Great Railway Bazaar,” turns 68 today.

He has sometimes disparaged the genre through which he made his name, saying that he does his travel writing with his “left hand.” A lefty, I asked him about this when I interviewed him in the mid-’90s. “Have you ever written fiction?” he asked. “I’ve tried,” I said. “See,” he replied.

He’s also been criticized for being a crank, even by himself. In an interview about his most recent book—retracing the route of “The Great Railway Bazaar”—he described the young man who took that first train journey as a “young punk.” The tone of haughty criticism was, I always thought, borrowed from British writers like Evelyn Waugh and the make-believe-Brit V.S. Naipaul (Theroux lived for many years in London, where he was friends with Naipaul) and it struck me as unseemly for an American. But at the same time it was an understandable reaction to most travel writing, which was—and in many places remains—unbearably rosy. In person, Theroux is a charming and engaging subject—one of the few people I’ve interviewed who asked me questions.

He is also, now, a kind of throwback, the last of that long line of authors—Trollope, Dickens, Twain, Lawrence, Huxley, Pritchett, Waugh, Durrell, Naipaul—who, as a matter of course, wrote travel books between their bouts with fiction.

The slow departure of novelists from the travel writing game has hurt its prestige, while in reality it’s been an indication of the genre’s increasing sophistication. Travel books have become more specialized (Peter Hessler), analytical (Pico Iyer), and political (Jeffrey Tayler, Robert Kaplan). Theroux may be one of the last writers to set off on a journey with no specific purpose (“No one’s ever accused me of traveling with a theme” he boasted in one of his books) and no particular expertise. He is the last of the immensely talented amateurs.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

13 Comments for Happy Birthday, Paul Theroux

Jim Benning 04.10.09 | 4:15 PM ET

That’s a lovely appreciation, Tom.

I liked your observation about Theroux asking you questions when you interviewed him. I had the same experience and found him to be very charming when I conducted this interview:


Jenny 04.10.09 | 4:36 PM ET

I am a full-fledged, fierce and unabashed Paul Theroux fan. Long-live crabby travel writers! And long live Paul Theroux.

Miss Expatria 04.10.09 | 6:18 PM ET

Ugh, I love Paul Theroux so much.  I’ve read everything of his, but The Pillars of Hercules is the book that made me stop futzing around and become a professional writer.  And that’s saying something, given the number of amazing books I’ve read in my lifetime. I guess I owe him a percentage!

Cate 04.11.09 | 11:23 PM ET

Paul Theroux maybe a self confessed crank but that makes him an even better writer and observer of people and life. I love his writing, his style.Not only does he take you on a journey, he takes you into the journey, which for me is what true travel writing should be about. Thanks for the interview and your insights on Mr Theroux.

chuck 04.12.09 | 9:05 PM ET

Happy Birthday Paul!
just wanna say I really enjoyed your one of your older books the Old Patagonia Express and all the books you wrote I’ve read. By the way in the new one which he wrote I rode the Eurostar on my first trip in Europe. A ride I appreciate to this day. I rode for two and half hours to the Gare du Nord,Paris; and since that ride I would ride a train now from London to St. Petersburg,Russia,Federation. My last train ride was in Catalonia Spain. I rode norte of Barcelona to Gerona and sur to Terragona. And of course from Stiges to Barcelona more than once.

pam 04.13.09 | 7:01 PM ET

I love to read Theroux even while I can’t stand him, I seriously suspect he’s a misogynist, in addition to being a crank. Reading the Hotel Honolulu in Hawaii totally galvanized both of those sentiments for me. And to travel without purpose, what a way to go.

Here’s to many more.

Migration Mark 04.14.09 | 12:49 PM ET

Theroux is definitely immensely talented.  He has given me a lot inspirations to continue and pursue a lifestyle of traveling.

Jenny 04.14.09 | 2:14 PM ET

Sorry, I can’t stand Paul Theroux because his books follow the same pattern:  a) come to new place b) dislike it c) strike up ambiguous (or not) sexual relationship with local woman d) come to new realizations about i) self ii) the woman and iii) therefore, the culture e) return home with another notch on belt and a slightly improved impression of place. 

I simply don’t believe the most authentic way to understand a foreign culture is through the portals of another human being.

Roger 04.14.09 | 2:33 PM ET

I’m a fan. He’s a definitive travel writer in every way. I envy those of you who have met him.

Grant Currie 04.15.09 | 5:35 PM ET

Hi Tom
I have always thought of Paul Theroux as a bit of an old fuddy duddy and quite lofty. After your post I am going to go back and re read some of his work to see if I can view his books in a new light
Keep up the good work.

James Dalglish 04.17.09 | 3:53 AM ET

Great comment on Theroux. For travelers and expats, Theroux’s travel writings are a gift. Sure some of his opinions are crotchety, and he sometimes does get carried away with a place, but he delivers more info and insight on places that interest me than anyone else. It would be sheer folly for anyone in a position to appreciate his works not to read him based on the negative attacks by local critics who are either grinding a stone or just don’t belong to the club of dedicated travelers. This includes his latest Ghost Train to the Eastern Star which I hesitated to buy on the basis of its being a sequel. I was quickly won over however by the humorous and subtle portrait of Orhan Pamuk (in Istanbul), a second with Arthur C. Clarke (in Colombo) and yet another with Haruki Murakami (in Tokyo). For these scenes alone the book is worth the price.

Ram 04.20.09 | 8:36 PM ET

Hi Tom,

Good piece on Theroux.  Most people either love him or hate him. I happen to think very highly of his honesty in writing, and I don’t think he is that much of a crank, just opinionated.

I read the Great Railway Bazaar and Ghost Train To Eastern Star years apart. If anyone reads them one after another, I think that the juxtaposition will be really revealing.

Barbara Dix 05.25.09 | 8:53 PM ET

Reading “Dark Star Safari,” looked up Theroux, and found you—again. Good piece on Theroux. But your essays and books are as honest and enjoyable as his.

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