Tag Archives: Paul Theroux

Travel Writers Unleashed: The Smithsonian Six

News Editor

Jan Morris, author of 40 books about travel and history, reflects on the current relevance of travel writing in Smithsonian Magazine by way of introducing the project it instituted. The September issue is devoted to the dream destinations of six name-brand travel writers. Morris tells why these folks are top-notch. Among other things, she says:

They are recording the effects of places or movements upon their own particular temperaments-recording the experience rather than the event, as they might make literary use of a love affair, an enigma or a tragedy… It is not invention that you will find in these pages, but something subtler: the alliance of knowledge and sensation, nature and intellect, sight and interpretation, instinct and logic. It is more real than fiction, but more genuine than mere fact, too.

Paul Theroux has said the greatest reward of travel is not so much in seeing exotic things, but in experiencing everyday things for the first time. Travel writers are addicted to the unfamiliar and the new — but only in their own self-defined ways. Theroux, for instance, says it is against his temperament to go sightseeing. His choice for the Smithsonian assignment was to drive across the United States, a journey he had never made before, and which he approached in I-Am-a-Camera mode. In “Taking the Great American Roadtrip” Theroux says, “My idea was not to linger anywhere, but to keep on the move, as though to create in my mind one long panning shot…” The cross-country drive led to his being chosen to write the foreword for Joseph Sohm’s Visions of America, a book of classic photographs, as reported by Alyce of At Home With Books.

Frances Mayes is a very well known writer about the Italian region called Tuscany. For this challenge, she chose Poland. Her husband and a lot of other people in his hometown were of Polish descent, and they had employed some very nice Polish builders in Italy. Geoff Ward, we are told, grew up in India, and went back many times as an adult, but had never visited the Punjab region. Susan Orlean chose Morocco, and Caroline Alexander made a return trip to Jamaica to see the fabulous botanical gardens of a village called Bath. Francine Prose decided to report on the western coast of Japan.

Now, here’s the question you just had to know was coming: What would be your dream destination, and why?

photo courtesy of Gret@Lorenz, used under this Creative Commons license

Corsica: Small Island, Many Facets

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In The Washington Post, Tracy Dahl reports on the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival, and if you’re wondering, “What is the possible relevance to Corsica?,” just wait till you hear this. The story of the sweet onion began, Dahl says:

[…] in the late 1800s, when a French soldier found a sweet onion seed on the island of Corsica and brought it to Walla Walla. The Italian immigrant farmers there were impressed with the onion’s winter hardiness, and they began to cultivate it. Years of selecting each crop’s sweetest and largest specimens for seed harvesting made “Walla Walla” synonymous with huge, sweet onions in much of the Pacific Northwest.

Science pop quiz: If they all sprouted from a single seed, where did the genetic diversity come from that allowed sweeter onions and larger onions as time went on? Sounds like a rural legend. Maybe the soldier found, like, a handful of seeds.

Another product of Corsica was, of course, Napoleon. In The Seattle Times, Associated Press writer Ron Todt gives us an overview of the hundreds of Napoleon-related items on exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia through early September. As Todt points out, this is the man who sold the United States 28,000 square miles of land for a nickel an acre.

All the artifacts are from the collection of Pierre-Jean Chalençon, who was interviewed for The Wall Street Journal by Julia M. Klein. Chalençon, who is a scholar as well as a collector, calls Napoleon a visionary because he liberalized the treatment of the Jews in the territories he conquered and tolerated gays in the military. The patron/curator also says, “Of course, he sometimes made some mistakes — nobody’s perfect.”

At Drapers Online, Sushma Sagar tells us about a “boutique festival” in the Corsican town of Calvi (pictured), a four-day music event with a lot of bikini beach action, the whole scene being “reminiscent of Ibiza ten years ago.” She mentions the non-commercial, sparsely-sponsored ambiance of the festival but, with a nod and a wink, suggests that “any brands wanting a fast track to the hippest kids in France might want to take a look.” A self-described brand courtesan, Sagar says of the brands in her past that she “was always faithful and genuinely loved each one at the time.”

And does Kevin Dolgin write about Corsica? Why yes, quite frequently in fact — at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, where he contributes one column per year in praise of that loveliest of islands, in amongst all the other places he writes about. And of course there’s plenty of Corsica in The Third Tower Up From the Road, where he says, “While on a map Corsica looks very small, there are whole worlds packed into that island.” Truer words were never spoken. Kevin is partial to a certain town with 29 buildings, and does not fear “roads that are more like glorified, semi-paved mule tracks.”

It’s worth noting here that another travel writer of renown, Paul Theroux, has said, “There are no bad drivers in Corsica. All the bad drivers die very quickly.”

And, as long as we’re doing quotations, Kevin Dolgin quotes his native Corsican father-in-law: “When a Corsican tells you that he’ll kill you if you do something, it’s usually best to believe him.” And maybe there’s some validity in that old saying, “An armed society is a polite society.” The Corsican people are also characterized by visitors as among the most sincerely welcoming hosts on earth. Go figure.

One writer theorized that there are four Corsicas, but that seems to be an underestimation by far. Please report in on your favorite facet of Corsica; we’d really like to hear about it!

photo courtesy of urbandigger.com, used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writing Highlight: Paul Theroux

near Herat
News Editor

There’s an annual event called the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, that happens over in Denton, Texas. The 2009 edition, which runs July 24-26, features travel writer Paul Theroux. This we learn from Alyssa Aber, spokesperson for the University of North Texas. But we learn even more from George Getschow, who is writer-in-residence and describer of the event. About Theroux, Getschow says, “Readers depend on his uncompromising, sometimes brazen reportage, his witty, acerbic asides and the tremendous breadth of literature he brings to his work.”

He goes on to explain the scope and consequence of Theroux’s work, of which travel writing is only a part, and the aspect of a many-faceted career that interests us. Oh, it’s cool that Theroux is an authority on V. S. Naipaul and Graham Greene. But we like the wheelbarrow full of travel books. This guy has been on a trip in Malawi where he had to go through 14 roadblocks to get from Point A to Point B. He informs us, “The daily annoyance of living in a dictatorship…is like suffering an unhappy family in a locked house.” Theroux is a very smart man who says that watching television results in severe brain trauma.

From Malaysia in 1973, Theroux wrote about a native tree that smells ghastly, but is adored by bats. And about the riots that caused the US military to quit sending its soldiers to Penang for R&R leave, and how this decision caused economic ruin for several hotels, hundreds of trishaw drivers, and most of the hookers.

About another particular place, Theroux says, “Herat is a town of clumsy craftsmen, who have forgotten the fine points of their trade,” and speaks of “women in spooky pleated shrouds.” In 1974, the year after the king was deposed, he arrived in Afghanistan and made the immediate decision to book on out of there ASAP. Due to lack of transportation, he ended up staying a few days, and found the Afghans he met “lazy, idle and violent.” When a seasoned world traveler is so sharply negative about an indigenous population, you have to wonder. On the other hand, the only two local sites he visited were a “hotel” without electricity, water, or food, and an insane asylum.

But if Afghanistan ever pulls itself together, what a great opportunity for literary tourism the country will own. Without even straining, we can think of three books to read before joining up with the traveling book club tour. One is Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner. Two are nonfiction accounts of lives so unfathomably different from Americana that they might as well be fiction: West of Kabul, East of New York by Tamim Ansary, and The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad.

Anyway, back to Paul Theroux. There’s more to this travel writing game than describing one particular place or another. There’s the drawing of conclusions about things that are true everywhere. For instance, here’s a typical Theroux saying: “Any country which displays more than one statue of a living politician is a country which is headed for trouble.

(Speaking of statues, no reader of this page will be surprised to learn that Kevin’s book contains a piece called, “In Search of Frank Zappa: Vilnius, Lithuania.” In fact, he seems to pay pretty close attention to statues, so if sculpture is your bag, some nice discoveries are in store.)

Paul Theroux traveled for many years without a camera, though it doesn’t seem to have been a lifelong rule. The point is, there’s a whole philosophy around being camera-free, having to do with how you don’t really see a thing when there’s a device between you and it. In the spectrum of meditations on the relationship between photographer and subject, the dark end inspires such works as Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool, and in fact an entire genre of philosophical fiction and nonfiction devoted to exploring the boundaries of that voyeuristic relationship.

And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there are folks like Kevin Dolgin, who admit to holding the camera backwards. Even this is amenable to a philosophical explanation. Kevin says, “Instead of taking pictures, I have always simply counted on the formation of memories, sitting back from time to time just to reminisce about a place in all its lush (or squalid) detail.”

One of Paul Theroux’s sayings is, “Travel is a creative act.” Another is, “Only a fool blames his bad vacation on the rain.” He also says, “My way of traveling is completely personal.” Exactly. That’s what all these top-drawer travel writers have in common. Nobody else could have done it, seen it, or said, it like they do.

Near Herat photo courtesy of Jayanth Vincent , used under this Creative Commons license

Unique in the Annals of Travel Writing


News Editor

Seldom, if ever, has a member of the travel writers’ pantheon faced such a challenge: choose for your material a tawdry artificial paradise, and still be taken seriously in your field. Paul Theroux has done this very thing, in a gem among travel essays called “My trip to Neverland and the call from Michael Jackson I’ll never forget,” brought to us by The Telegraph. The staff had apparently turned everything in the park on for Theroux’s visit, or maybe everything just ran all the time. He describes too much music in the air and empty rides whirling around. And bad-tempered animals. It must have been eerie. He says:

Neverland occupied an entire 3,000-acre valley, yet very little of it was devoted to human habitation… Here and there, like toy soldiers, uniformed security people patrolled on foot, or on golf carts; some stood sentry duty – for Neverland was also a fortress.

Theroux visited Neverland because that’s where Elizabeth Taylor was, and she needed to be interviewed. As everyone knows, she got married for the seventh time in the park’s gazebo. And, as the Virgin Mary is said to intercede with God, Liz Taylor promised to petition Michael Jackson to get Theroux an interview with him too.

When Jackson called the writer a few weeks later at 4 in the morning, the phone conversation that took place elicited an astonishing remark from Jackson: “Even though I missed out on a lot, I wouldn’t change anything.” Then the two men had a long talk about Judas, the one in the Bible.

Paul Theroux is of course famous for such non-fiction travel books as The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, and The Kingdom By The Sea. He’s written some funky novels, too, several of which have been made into movies.

Which brings us neatly to the question of the day: Will Paul Theroux be remembered more comprehensively for his fiction or his non-fiction? Please state your opinion forthwith.

photo courtesy of San Sharma, used under this Creative Commons license