Paul Edward Theroux "The difference between travel writing as fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows. Fiction is pure joy -- how sad that I could not reinvent the trip as fiction." From “The Great Railway Bazaar” Presentation by Natasha Khan Literary Journalism, Spring 2011 Theroux: the Basics • American professor, novelist and travel writer • Born April 10, 1941 in Medford, Massachusetts “The travel book was a bore. A bore wrote it and bores read it. It annoyed me that a traveler hid his or her moments or desperation or fear or lust. Or the time he or she screamed at the taxi driver, or mocked the folk dancers. And what did they eat, what books did they read to kill time, and what were the toilets like? I had done enough traveling to know that half of travel was delay or nuisance – buses breaking down, hotel clerks being rude, market peddlers being rapacious. The truth of travel was interesting and off-key, and few people ever wrote about it.” – 2008 Preface, The Great Railway Bazaar Early Life • Graduates high school in 1959; leaves Medford “the first chance I had” • Takes Creative Writing course from poet Joseph Langland at University of Massachusetts Amherst; this would change the way Theroux saw writing as a career • Joins Peace Corps after graduating, and that brought him to Malawi (Southeast Africa), where he taught from 1963 to 1965 • While in Malawi, writes for Christian Science Monitor, Playboy, and Esquire • Gets thrown out of Peace Corps and Malawi for involvement in failed coup d'etat of the Malawi presidentdictator Early Life (Continued) • Moves to Uganda, teaches at Makerere University, where he meets Nobel Literature Laureate V.S. Naipaul (a long friendship ensues until public fallingout 30 years later) • Begins publishing novels: including Waldo (1967) and Fong and the Indians (1968) • 1968: joins the University of Singapore and teaches at the Department of English for three years • Gets bored of teaching and decides to become a professional writer • Writes more novels in the UK, since his first wife gets a job in London (she has since worked as a producer at BBC World Service) Begins Travel Writing “Money is an awkward subject for most writers, but it was a crucial factor in my decision to write my first travel book – I simply needed the money.” Gets advance for “The Great Railway Bazaar,” about travelling by train through Asia -- from London to Turkey to Iran to India to Burma to Malaysia to Vietnam to Japan (Had always felt a romantic notion for train travel.) “Travel had to do with movement and truth, offering yourself to experience, and then reporting on it.” Leaves for his trip in September 1973. “(My wife) had been very angry at my going, leaving her with the children. But my answer had been: Soldiers leave home, so did sailors and fishermen – they have to leave their families. Think of me that way – I’m not abandoning you, I’m working, pursuing a book.” Comes home to find that “in my absence I had been replaced in my wife’s affection by another man. ‘I pretended you were dead,’ she said. This was something horrible to me, especially in my fragile mental state at the end of the difficult trip… I looked for refuge in my book and through the weird alchemy that turns misery to humor, much of what I wrote was comedy.” Writes More Travel Books • The Old Patagonian Express (1979): travels by train from Boston to Argentina • The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992): kayaking in the South Pacific • Riding the Iron Rooster (1988): travels through China • Dark Star Safari (2002): travels from Cairo to Cape Town • Also writes a series of novels in the meantime, including Kowloon Tong (1997) – on British Rule in Hong Kong Good to Know • Famous Family: Theroux is the father of British authors and documentary makers Louis Theroux and Marcel Theroux; brother of authors Alexander Theroux and Peter Theroux, and uncle to American actor and screenwriter Justin Theroux • Now lives in Cape Cod and Hawaii with his second wife, where he also apparently keeps bees and makes his own brand of honey • Is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the UK • Accolades include Thomas Cook Travel Book Prize and American Book Award nomination • My Secret History (1989) and My Other Life (1996) (both fiction) believed to semi-autobiographical • Theroux picks up languages quite quickly. Languages he seems to know include Italian, French, Spanish, Chichewa, and Swahili Travel Writing Style • Provides vivid and rich descriptions of places, people, experiences • Puts himself in the story – interactions and feelings • His observations are unsparing, frank and sometimes cynical (some have called him a misanthrope -- a person who dislikes or distrusts others) From the Guardian (2003 Article): 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." Writing keeps him going (from the Guardian profile: 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." 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." What, writing? "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.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/jun/09/artsfeatures.fiction Writing keeps him going (from the Guardian profile: 2003) (Continued) 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." "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 Van Golu (‘Lake Van’) Express Turkey Chapter 3, The Great Railway Bazaar Using Characters as Story-telling Yarn Theroux is known for his descriptions of people he encounters -- locals and tourists (instead of describing all the sights and sounds like a ‘typical’ travel writer might do) His evocative and descriptive portraits illustrate the places he visits effectively because often the characters he chooses to highlight correspond to the situation or place p. 57: “’I beg you to look at this scroll and look at me,” said the antique dealer in Istanbul’s Covered Bazaar. He flapped the decaying silk scroll at his ears. ‘You say the scroll is stained and dirty! Yes! It is stained and dirty. I am forty-two years old and bald on my head with many wrinkles. This scroll is not forty-two years old – it is two hundred years old, and you won’t buy it because you say it is stained! What do you expect? Brand shiny new one? You are cheating me!’ “He rolled it up and stuck it under my arm, and stepping behind the counter he sighed. ‘Okay, cheat me. It is early in the morning. Take it for four hundred liras.’” Varying Sentence Lengths and Controlling Pace • (p. 57): “Finally I broke away. I had overslept. I was hungry, and I had provisions to buy for my trip on the Lake Van Express, which had a reputation for running out of food and arriving at the Iranian border as much as ten days late. Food was on my mind for another reason.” • (p. 67): “He held his head. His children were crying; I could hear them through the window. The man has a narrow moustache and his expression was that of the comedian to whom everything bad happens, the sad figure who suits comedy. He made another helpless gesture, somewhat apologetic, and lit a cigarette. Then he sat back and smoked it. He did not speak.” Transitions Theroux’s transitions are smooth and flowing (p. 57-58): “I had drawn up a menu for myself… two irresistible ones, ‘Lady’s Thigh’ (Kadin Badu) and ‘Lady’s Navel’ (Kadin Bobegi). “There wasn’t enough time for me to try more than the last two. I stopped at a coffee shop on my way to the ferry and wondered if the Turk’s taste in anatomy was revealed in their choice of names: the thigh was meaty, the navel sweet.” p. 58: “I had been warned that most of the alley cats were transvestites, who, during the day, worked as crew members on the Bosporus ferries. (Alley cats are women of easy virtue/ prostitutes seeking clients on the street) “I believed that when the epicene voice of a youth in a sailor suit, addressing me sweetly as Effendi, urged me to hurry as I boarded the ferry for my last trip to Haydarpasa.” (Epicene means loss of gender distinction… Effendi is a respectful way of saying Sir in Turkish) p. 66: After a lengthy but summarizing history passage*, Theroux begins the next paragraph with a short, present tense (indicating his return to the present): “It is dusk, the serenest hour in Central Turkey: a few bright stars depend from a velvet blue sky, the mountains are suitably black, and the puddles near the spigots of village wells have the shimmering colour and uncertain shape of pools of mercury.” Details p. 60: the German-speaking Turk cross-examines him, while the old man smears spittle on his book, “Little Dorrit”* p.63: the German marathon runner who could be seen “at any hour of the day doing isometric exercise in second class.” (Isometric: muscular actions) p. 64: the spotty-faced Australian girl p. 67: One of the subchiefs sits with him. He has “long blond hair in the page-boy style affected by aspiring prophets. His shirt had been artistically cut from a flour sack, and he wore… an elephanthair bracelet on one wrist.” *“Little Dorrit” is a satire on shortcomings of government. That he includes this may be symbolic of his experiences, for example: how the Turkish authorities run the railroad. Interesting inclusion: p.60: “The old man (who spoke no language but his own) had picked up Little Dorrit and was turning the pages, marveling at the tiny print and weighing the 900-page volume in his hand.” Images p.58: groups of hippies “fought past soberly dressed Turkish families” p. 59: little men in cloth caps alighting from the train, getting lost in the smoke of cigarettes p. 59: locals gathering at stations to watch the train pass p. 61: “There, one saw tall fellows with pigtails and braids, and short-haired girls who, lingering near their boyfriends, had the look of pouting catamites.” (Catamite: a young man who has a sexual relationship with an older man.) p. 62: teenaged girls who “would eventually appear on the notice boards of American consulates in Asia” as missing persons p. 63: “Moto-Guzzi” t-shirt guy who has a wife and children in California and is now a leader for some of the girls (Moto-Guzzi is Italian motorcycle manufacturer) Images (Continued) p. 65: looking out the window, “there was little to remark upon. The landscape was changeless and harsh… from nowhere a little girl in a charming skirt hobbled with two pails of water, a futile example of the desert’s emphasis; standing in sluice, like a weed, was a Turkish man in his pinstripes, woolen golfer’s cap, V-neck sweater, and tie, his big moustache framing his big grin.” p.66: the animals and children outside his window: ‘At several halts children chased the train; they were blond and lively and might have been Swiss, except for their rags.’ p. 67: the “Saffron-faced” man exhausted from his children (Saffron is a golden yellow color) p. 69: his companions in third-class: “bandy-legged gang of dark Japanese,” “Germanic tribe: bearded boys and porcine girls with crew cuts” (Porcine means resembling pigs) p.69: The Australians in second-class: “At my lowest point, when things were at their most desperate and uncomfortable, I always found myself in the company of Australians, who were like a reminder that I’d touched bottom.” The Mandalay Express Burma Chapter 17: The Great Railway Bazaar Similes p. 203: “I arrived at this hour: the bats were tumbling past the crows, and the pale yellow sky was inked like Burmese silk with the brush marks of the black bodies.” p. 203: “Sule Pagoda Road, with its five theatres, was mobbed with people, dressed identically in shirt, sarong, and rubber sandals, men and women alike puffing thick green cheroots, and looking (as they waved away the smoke with slender dismissing fingers) like a royal breed, strikingly handsome in this collapsing city, a race of dispossessed princes.” (Notice also the incredible pace of this sentence.) p. 207: “A Buddhist monk went by, smiling broadly. He was a fat man and he carried his umbrella like fasces, a Roman senator in an orange toga.” (Fasces is a bundle of rods containing an ax with the blade projecting, borne before Roman magistrates as an emblem of official power) Dialogue In this chapter, we see a fair amount of dialogue: this one portrays the detached and nonchalant Burmese attitude. (At Ticket Window) p. 205: ‘I’d like a ticket to Mandalay.’ ‘Sorry, the window is closed.’ But the window is open. I mentioned this ‘Yes, it is open so to say, but it is closed for selling.’ ‘You come at six o’ clock, morning time,’ said the second man. ‘Are you sure I’ll get a ticket?’ ‘Maybe. Even much better come at five-thirty.’ ‘How long does it take to get to Mandalay?’ ‘Twelve hours. But it breaks down. You might arrive Mandalay at eight.’ ‘Or nine?’ They both laughed. Or nine, but not later!’ Astute and Telling Observations p.204: “There were two men at the window. The first said there was no printed timetable I could buy. The second said, ‘Yes, we have no timetable.’ It seemed to be the practice in Burma to have two men at each job, the second to confirm whatever the first said.” (Very true! At the airport immigration today they still have two people working where in most countries they only have one.) p. 208: “I was questioning one of the cardinal precepts of Buddhism, the principle of neglect. Because no animals are killed all animals look as if they are starving to death, and so the rats, which are numerous in Burma, co-exist with the dogs, which have eliminated cats from the country. The Burmese – removing their shoes and socks for sacred temple floors where they will spit and flick cigar ashes – see no contradiction. How could they? Burma is a socialist country with a notorious bureaucracy.” (Also very true – in terms of the temple floors, at least.) p. 211: “He was a good Burmese. He could not turn me away, though he did not want me to stay. He allowed me a little shelter but no food, treating me, literally, the way he would a pariah, with a kind of grudging reverence.” Scene Painting p. 209-210: “I wandered around the station and heard flutes, gongs, and the rattle of the snare drum, and there on the road next to the track a little procession appeared, weirdly lit by a sky layered red. It marched to the fence beside the track and made a semi-circle for a small girl, no more that ten years old. She had tucked up her sarong in a way that allowed her movement and she wore a delicate beaded cap on her head. The music stopped, then started, blaring and chiming, and, crooking her hands, the girl began to dance; she bent her knees, lifting one leg, then the other, in a jerky motion the swiftness made graceful. The passengers turned to watch, puffing cheroots from the windows of the stalled train and strolling closer along the platform. The dance was for them; there was no talking – only this tinkling music and the dancing child in that empty place. It continued for perhaps ten minutes, then stopped abruptly, and the procession trailed off, the flute still warbling, the drum sounding. It was part of the Burmese sequence: the breakdown and delay softened by sweet music, a lovely sky, a dancing child, and then, the unexpected resuming of the train.” Class Discussion • What did you like about the two chapters? How did you feel when you read it? • What is your impression on Turkey and Burma? Of Theroux in those countries? • How does Theroux use the plot (him on a train) to guide the story? • At times the writing is so dynamic it reads like a novel – how did Theroux achieve such vivid yet true-to-life writing? • What was a literary device Theroux used that jumped out at you?