October 12, 2015

"Writing was a forbidden profession – half crime, half magic – and it made me want to be a writer."

Paul Theroux in Zimbabwe, USA

There was something there once. It was a plantation, and then factories set up. The agriculture is now mechanized. The factories are closed. So what have you got? You have something like the post-colonial world. It’s like Zimbabwe, in that the farmers have been kicked out so the fields are dead. There’s no activity. There’s people sitting in the shade, drinking, like Africa — black men drinking beer in the shade. Many of them are war veterans – guys who’ve made major contributions are sitting there with no job, living on welfare. And the shopkeepers are all from India. They’re from Gujurat – the inevitable Mr. Patel. So the Indian shopkeeper, the unemployed man drinking, children running around, careworn women, trying to keep the family together, defunded schools — very hot, very dry, very dusty. You look on the horizon and it’s just dust in the air. And you think: where have I seen this before? Yeah, Zimbabwe, Mozambique. The Western part of Kenya. The Eastern part of Uganda…

Paul Theroux, in conversation on Deep South, a first travel venture into his native United States.

Paul Theroux is my age, my model of what we’ll call “the young old man.” He remembers the sense, growing up near Boston, that “books were banned, writers were outlaws, and writing was a forbidden profession – half crime, half magic – and it made me want to be a writer, and also to leave home.”

Fifty-plus years and fifty-plus books later – novels, stories, a whole genre of grumpy, curious travel books – Paul Theroux is a world-class original: a tart American stylist with an acquired half-English accent and wardrobe, but “no province, no clique, no church,” as Whitman said of Emerson. On the page and more so in person, he’s great fun not least because he’s ever testing your reflexes and surprising you with his breaking ball.

For example: On the writers to be remembered forever, Paul Theroux thinks less of Albert Camus than of Georges Simenon, best known for his detective sideline, who has 400 titles in his name and wrote four books while Camus worked on L’Etranger in the 1940s, and was annoyed not to win the Nobel Prize. Theroux still isn’t sold on The Stranger: “It’s set in Algeria, with all French characters, no Arabs and no women in it. That’s a book? So Camus doesn’t do it for me. Orwell does. In my time? Maybe Noam Chomsky – not a stylist, and not Orwell’s sense of humor; but he has a backbone of iron, and he knows his mind. If people listened to him it would be a better world.”

We’re putting personal frames around the half-century we saw – from JFK’s Peace Corps, in which Paul served, to ISIS and the popular clamor around Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border. It’s the same 50-year span that Barney Frank put in a subtitle of his memoirs: “From the Great Society to Gay Marriage.” In Paul Theroux’s melancholy summing up, it’s the arc from colonialism in Africa (where he led several schools) up through freedom-fights, independence, five-year plans and post-colonialism then down to something like despair and a mass longing to emigrate. “Now,” he’s saying, “if you go to any country in the world – and that includes China, India, Brazil, successful countries – go to any classroom… and they’ll say: I want to go to America. I want to leave this country. They won’t say ‘hell-hole,’ but hell-hole is in the back of their mind.”

Of his own writing life, he cites the Chuck Close line (as Philip Roth used to): “ ‘I don’t believe in inspiration; I go to work every day.’ Writing every day – it’s a joy. I never believe people when they say writing is hard. I say: you’re lucky. You’re not a soldier. You’re not a fisherman. You’re not picking pineapples. It’s a wonderful profession.”

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