Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Pillars of Hercules by Paul Theroux

Reading enthusiasms often wax and wane, and it's the lucky reader who can read quickly enough -- or fall in love with a writer with a small enough oevure -- to make it to the other end of a new favorite writer's work before that enthusiasm departs. And so one's reading life will proceed in fits and starts, perhaps because that old favorite suddenly got a new publisher for his extensive backlist, or because some new book reignited a particular old enthusiasm, or for no obvious reason at all.

I've written glancingly about several of my reading enthusiasms of the '90s, the decade when I both read the most books and read as an adult and independent critical thinker for the first time -- about my dive into Anthony Trollope, about my brush with the intellectual end of American conservatism, about my periodic binges on private-eye novels, about the eternal joys of P.G. Wodehouse, and, of course, more than anything else, about the metric tons of SFF I read that decade. But there are other enthusiasms I don't think I've brought up, such as Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books, the first half of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, the big chunk of Dickens I read at SF conventions, Evelyn Waugh, and probably a half-dozen others I can't call to mind right now. Another one of those enthusiasms is a taste for travel books, especially those by Paul Theroux. (I had a half-dozen of them on the too-be-read shelves at the time of my recent flood; two were saved because they had bookmarks in them, including The Pillars of Hercules, the book I was actively reading at the time -- I'd saved it for that vacation.)

I think I began Theroux sometime in the mid-'90s with The Kingdom by the Sea, his crabbed and cranky journey around the coast of Great Britain -- led there mostly by Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, a less idiosyncratic and more conventional tour of that island -- and moved on to his great railroad books, Riding the Iron Rooster and The Great Railway Bazaar. I'd been slowly poking through his odds-and-ends travel collection, Fresh Air Fiend, but I don't think I've otherwise read one of his books during the course of this blog -- which is odd, since I deeply enjoy his travel writings and think of myself as reading one every year or so. (In one's thirties and forties, though, "every year or so" can mean something you fully intend to do, but never actually accomplish.)

Theroux is the kind of traveler I'd like to think I would be, if I had his time, freedom, and publishing contracts: grumpy in odd and unlikely ways, intensely solitary but continually engaging strangers in conversation, adaptable enough, probably too smart for his own good, intensely engaged in both the small details and big pictures of the places he visits. In Pillars -- the story of a journey around the Mediterranean, in two clumps, over the course of a little more than a year in the early '90s -- he's all of those things, plus more than slightly snobbish about tourists...while furiously denying that he is one, and inwardly wondering whether he is.

Perhaps I picked up Pillars -- and not The Happy Isles of Oceania (about kayaking through the Pacific) or Dark Star Safari (about revisiting parts of Africa he lived and worked in forty years before) or Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (another train journey on the Orient Express) -- because of the Arab Spring; Pillars begins at Gibraltar, but its second half promised a look at Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco, and those nations had been much in the news. Perhaps I was drawn to his views on the then-simmering wars in the nations that fissioned out of Yugoslavia. Or maybe I just grabbed one Theroux book, because it had been too long since I'd read him. I'm never entirely sure of my own motives, and instinctively distrust anyone who claims to completely know himself.

The joys of Theroux's travel books are in the small moments, the things he notices and comments on, from the equally shrieking and appalling tourists and apes at Gibraltar to his pilgrimage to the tiny Italian village of Aliano, the setting of Carlo Levi's memoir Christ Stopped At Eboli. His voice is always mildly misanthropic; he enjoys the company of many of the individuals he meets along the way, and is friendly to nearly all of them, but the masses of men put him on the verge of disgust, and sometimes -- as with a particularly dog-merde-filled stretch of the French coastline -- shoves him right over the edge.

Any travel book is a snapshot, not a complete picture, so it can be helpful to wait until they're seasoned a bit. If a powerfully persuasive writer tells you something about what he saw this year, you're likely to believe it. But if you read him nearly twenty years later, it's much more clearly his specific experiences at that particular time, with those particular people, and not the explanation of All Those People. Theroux, with his nasty undertones and distrust of humanity in general, benefits greatly from this distance -- so I do recommend reading his travel books, which are thoughtful, piercingly observed, and brilliantly written, but I also recommend starting with those at least ten years old, for maximum advantage.

1 comment:

karlonazarian said...

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Karlo Nazarian

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