Happy Birthday, Paul Theroux
Tom Swick: Contemplating and celebrating the world of travel
04.10.09 | 3:42 PM ET
Paul 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.