Through the Grinder

Graham Coster

  • The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 523 pp, £17.50, November 1995, ISBN 0 241 13504 4

‘Are you making a trip here to write a book?’ inquires the manager as Paul Theroux books into a hotel in Corsica, 136 pages into his latest travel narrative. ‘I don’t know,’ replies the author. ‘It was the truth,’ he adds as an aside. ‘It was too early in my Mediterranean journey for me to tell whether it might be a book.’ From this most assiduous of travel-writers it is an unaccustomed admission. Theroux always finishes his journeys; always writes everything up. Completing the course, accomplishing the marathon challenge, is the point of the exercise.

They are always long books – no miniature monographs like Chatwin’s on Patagonia or Rushdie’s on Nicaragua. Graham Greene spun Journey without Maps out of a few weeks’ trek into the Liberian interior, an itinerary further truncated by illness; for Voices of the Old Sea, perhaps his best travel-book, Norman Lewis hung out in a small Portuguese fishing village. Theroux’s mileage always clocks up a high four figures. And while desultory, capricious travel tends to reveal its elusive agenda only belatedly – Greene’s acknowledgment, in the grip of fever, of an unexpected interest in staying alive or Lewis’s serendipitous discovery of an ancient and embattled subculture – Theroux restricts his personal travelling to a practical, conscientious regime of skating from country to country and brisk note-taking. It is in his fiction, when Allie Fox is displaced from upstate New York to the Honduran jungle in The Mosquito Coast, or the young Jilly Farina goes on the road in an Airstream caravan in Millroy the Magician, that Theroux writes about travel as an existential test, lands people further away than they want to go, imagines the restless momentum that drives an obsession away from any itinerary. His own voyages are a marketing department’s dream, designed with travel-brochure simplicity and accessibility: Cross Asia by Train; Tour Britain by its Coastline; Go Everywhere in China, without recourse to tricky canoes, pack animals or primitive sanitary arrangements behind trees. When Theroux rides the Trans-Siberian Express again on his way out of China, his fellow passengers have The Great Railway Bazaar stowed in their luggage for reference.

Much disapproving peering over glasses greeted the memoir of Bruce Chatwin Theroux wrote for Granta. ‘Who needs enemies?’ people muttered, faced with this fierce appreciation of a bore, an incessant chatterer, an embellisher of fact, a callow enthusiast for pretentious sentences and bogus science, and someone who whinged with unattractive self-absorption about the difficulty of writing anything, when no one was asking him to anyway. But what makes ‘Chatwin Revisited’ an honest homage and not just an assassination is its author’s unillusioned estimation, as a fellow travel-writer, of his own work. While Chatwin wrings his hands at his writer’s block, Theroux is whacking out a book a year. If you’re a writer, you write: not with ectoplasmic magic but an inevitable, unromantic productivity – in his own self-deprecating phrase, ‘turning the big wooden crank on my chomping meat-grinder’. For all that he’s quoted on its cover with a verdict of ‘excellent’, a book like In Patagonia baffles him because it is ‘full of gaps. I used to look for links between the chapters, or between two conversations or pieces of geography. How had he got from here to there? How had he met this or that person?’ Travel is prose, not poetry: one’s own tour proceeds, by implication, according to the same systematic grammar as its subsequent writing up.

So why me sudden doubt, creeping in less than a third of the way round the course? A circuit of the Mediterranean coastline, from Gibraltar to Tangier, is a strange choice for Theroux, albeit an obviously commercial proposition for a publisher. The simple justification is that he hasn’t (as he tells us twice within five pages) been to places like Egypt and Israel before, but in past travel books Theroux’s unexamined but adamant American ethnocentricity thrived on places like Britain (The Kingdom by the Sea) and China (Riding the Iron Rooster), where public-sector strikes in Lincolnshire or nascent capitalism in Shanghai presented inversions or distortions of value-systems he could understand. Even amid the most exotic locations of his fiction, Theroux’s subject is America and the excesses of its society. There’s a significant moment in Riding the Iron Rooster when he snuggles up in his bunk on the Trans-Siberian Express to read Elmer Gantry: American religion, dietary habits, franchise culture – its secular decadence is Theroux’s continuing fascination, just as it was Sinclair Lewis’s. It’s as though he has to travel to Russia, China or, in his fiction, to Africa or Honduras, to see America clearly.

Until we get to Israel, which provokes his trademarked bolshiness about having bankrolled the place personally with his own tax dollars, Theroux on this year’s tour is rather lost. The foreigners are all too foreign: the Spanish with their bloodthirsty bullfights, the Italians chucking litter everywhere, the Greeks picking everyone’s pocket, and the French – why don’t they use pooper-scoopers like New Yorkers do? The kind of misanthropy that entertains as comic rant in the mouths of Theroux’s fictional anti-heroes is here, coming from someone travelling of his own free will, about as attractive, and instructive, as listening to someone bemoan the absence of Watney’s Red Barrel in the local bars. You can’t imagine Theroux summoning up much interest in the history of the aristocratic Grand Tour, and he doesn’t, notwithstanding that this is the context for the journey he’s undertaken. And since he’s always pronounced himself defiantly bored by piles of stones and crumbling ruins signifying vanished civilisations, even the title of this tome heralds a hard time ahead. ‘Nothing was more human than direct speech,’ asserts Theroux’s writer-narrator in My Secret History; but from Pompeii to the Acropolis, it’s dumb stone all the way.

To make matters worse, Theroux goes out of season. That avoids the ghastly tourist masses: in fact, it ensures meeting hardly a soul. Once he has checked into the hotel in Ajaccio, he tells us: ‘I went for a walk through the empty town, got a drink at an empty bar, then went back to my room to read Anthony Burgess’s autobiography.’ The next day, having decided to catch the ferry across to Sardinia, ‘I bought a croissant and a cup of coffee, and then climbed to the fort and walked along the cliff path and found a warm rock and read my Burgess book, and snoozed.’

We endure this grim slog, from windy seafront to pizza restaurant to early night, all the way to the former Yugoslavia, standing outside phone boxes while Theroux calls his partner in Honolulu to tell her how he’d much rather be there than here; learning that Bari in Italy is a ‘useful’ place as it allows him to catch up on his laundry; suffering a commentary on the price of mid-market hotel rooms at the same time as the virtues of Barcelona are extolled because it has plenty of Theroux’s books on sale. You wonder if Theroux’s editor really bothered to read the first half of this book: the text shows little sign of any editing, from the embarrassing literal of ‘V.S. Naipul’ in the opening list of Theroux’s other publications through sentences without main verbs and the graceless, low-pressure prose of ‘so forths’ and book-puff clichés that laud Tender Is the Night as ‘brilliantly observed’ and Death in Venice and Ulysses as ‘masterpieces’. The same person who, in Riding the Iron Rooster, could describe a wife sleeping with her fat husband as ‘curled around him like a wood shaving’ is certainly writing down to his enervated subject. A few years ago Theroux took Edward Heath to task, in a review collected in Sunrise with Seamonsters, over the deathless prose of his book Places, that gilded nowhere in the world less or other than ‘pleasant’. Remarkable and depressing, then, to read in The Pillars of Hercules of Barcelona as ‘pleasant’, the fish soup in Nice ‘quite pleasant’, the weather in Bari ‘pleasant’ and the people of Bari ‘pleasant’. And the town of Chioggia? Theroux does not mince words: ‘pleasant’.

Things pick up once Theroux gets to Croatia and finds himself in a war zone. Split still makes him want to split, in his tired pun, but the burden of aimless, obligated travel is lifted by the confrontation with undeniably extreme events. The Yugoslavian conflict prompts Theroux to the pertinent observation that this is a new outbreak of medieval warfare by siege. But the best part of The Pillars of Hercules is stimulated by two cruises Theroux joins, the first taking wealthy American retirees to Istanbul, the second a ramshackle Turkish steamer calling at Egypt, Israel and Cyprus. This is a return to generic Theroux: sharp, colour-piece journalism with a readymade, large and heterogeneous cast of characters whose inconsequential, demotic monologues crowd out his own fulminations. The latter voyage, among tourists who have saved long for their holiday and are sadly deflated by their tatty conveyance, is narrated by Theroux with an acknowledgment of the generosity and forbearance of these American retirees. Now absolved from the fuss of getting himself from A to B and sharing every solitary pizza with us, he’s at home among his own kind. Genuinely waggish, dismissing Athens and its sights as ‘a four-hour city’, they share his impatient, snap-judgment approach to travel, and Theroux turns his voyage with them into congenial comedy.

Here you feel, for the first time in the book, the inkling of a genuine subject as opposed to simply another marathon course. This was where I decided there was a book in it – with these ingenuous, dismissive, worldly and enormously well-travelled elderly people, on their never-ending and frenetic retirement voyage, devouring the Galapagos last year and Vietnam next. Their Flying Dutchman passage through their last years made me wonder about an alternative scenario for exploring the Mediterranean, with Desert War veterans revisiting cemeteries in Tobruk, Christian pilgrims enabled by maturing life insurance policies to see the Holy Land for the first time, and British pensioners wintering out in Benidorm apartments. We think of old age as sedentary, and travel as the priority of the young, reckless adventurer: Theroux marks the obvious comic irony of these Americans competing at dinner to drop names of places visited, but not the mysterious pathos of travel in old age, driven to huge geographic displacement by nostalgia, affluence, boredom, or a whole life’s anticipations and regrets.

Such wider, more self-effacing possibilities for exploration are lost not only in the relentless chomping of Theroux’s meat-grinder, but also because, as he has already told us in Riding the Iron Rooster, he regards travel-writing as ‘a minor form of autobiography’. Writers like Norman Lewis may travel the world invisibly and unselfconsciously, their subject and destination the lives of others to the specific exclusion of their own, but Theroux’s journeys are ultimately only his own. In The Pillars of Hercules, moreover, the preponderance of on-the-hoof justifications of travelling and writing – a weight of special pleading which indicates once more the author’s own doubts about his material – is remarkable for its banal absence of ambition, in contrast with the oblique and profound variations on the autobiographical genre he develops in his fiction. ‘Just looking’ is how Theroux meekly glosses it in the most extended of these ponderings. ‘Curiosity was my primary impulse – sniffing around ... The look and feel of a place, the people – what I could grasp of their lives ... I was a spectator, certainly, but an active one. I was also passing the time, and there was nothing unworthy in that.’

Contrast this listless tourism with the ferociously direct navigation of a life in My Secret History, a kind of fictional travel-book, in which, through his narrator André Parent, Theroux writes, if not as himself then as though himself, ruthlessly cutting across the passage of years and continents in the certainty that it is all of great significance. Even the dateline uniquely appended to that book, ‘East Sandwich – Shanghai – London’, suggests an intense, necessary collaboration of travel-writing and autobiography. Where V.S. Naipaul could write of his return to India that it was ‘a journey that should never have been made’, breaking his life in two, the flat verdict on this journey is that it need not have been. Better to have set up the typewriter on some sunny Mediterranean terrace above the beach, and made the year’s book another novel.