Any reader who has even dabbled in the travel genre will be well aware of Paul Theroux and his vast oeuvre of books and essays about a lifetime spent zigzagging across the world, adventuring in places many of us would likely not choose to visit. He is credited for singlehandedly reviving the travel genre in the ’70s with his book, The Great Railway Bazaar (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1975) an account of a four-month train journey from London through Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, returning on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Theroux has always been the kind of traveler (as opposed to tourist) that the historian Daniel J. Boorstin describes as follows:
The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes “sightseeing”.
It’s an amazing feat, that in addition to undertaking so much travel, Theroux has also managed to write so many books. At last count, this comes to: 29 novels; six short story collections; 21 books of nonfiction. Though some of his fiction has been adapted for film, he remains best-known for his nonfiction. Despite his early reminder in this collection that he thinks of himself as a novelist who also travels and writes about his journeys, it’s Theroux’s travel-writing that many readers seek out first.
Figures in a Landscape is his third collection of essays that have already appeared, from 2001-2016, in slightly different forms in various publications (The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, The Guardian, The Smithsonian, New York Times Magazine, etc.) or as book introductions. With travel pieces, literary critiques, people profiles, and personal essays, the 30 pieces here cover a wide range of subjects and are, together, his most polished collection yet. They give us everything we have come to expect from Theroux in his nonfiction: the attentive traveler’s sharp eye and canny ear for everything that goes on around him and, to a certain extent, what goes on in his mind as he engages fully with life and everything that comes at him. Whether he’s being seriously earnest or ironically satirical, Theroux’s prose manages to hit just the right notes so that, at the end of any particular essay, even if we might not be in agreement, we want him to continue on.
First, the places: Ecuador, various African countries, Hawaii, England, Alabama. True to form, Theroux seeks out the unusual and the dangerous and finds that these always come packaged with petty human behaviors. Still, his genuine thirst to capture the complete sensory experience of a place that cannot be grasped from guidebooks or carefully curated tourist vacations draws us along, even when he’s expressing his disillusionment. He understands and illustrates what old-fashioned adventuring is all about:
The whole point of adventure is that it is unplanned; a leap in the dark, verging on the unfortunate, offering glimpses of danger; and what separates adventure from disaster is that you live to tell the tale … Adventure is the unexpected experience of discovery, of course; but it is also a kind of death, an end of innocence.
In particular, his disgust with aid organizations and celebrities like Bono and the Jolie-Pitts trying to make Africa “better” is, though controversial, worth considering:
Africa is a lovely place — much lovelier, more peaceful, more resilient, and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed. But because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth. Such people come in all forms, and they loom large. White celebrities busybodying in Africa loom especially large.
Writers are featured here either through profiles or book introductions: Henry David Thoreau as a gleeful Boy Scout; Graham Greene as the serial adulterer (in both life and fiction); Joseph Conrad as the immigrant alien; Hunter S Thompson as the reclusive outlaw; Georges Simenon as the anti-intellectual graphomaniac; Paul Bowles as the solitary observer; Somerset Maugham with the larger-than-life image that fiction writers of a certain era had; Muriel Spark as the witty woman of the world, and Harper Lee as the enigma she has always been. Along the way, there are many references to other writers too: Dickens, Burgess, Henry James, Henry Miller, Rebecca West, and more. All of these writers are well-known and canonical enough that there are no new facts or anecdotes to be gleaned. Filtered through Theroux’s literary sensibilities, we get fresh perspectives.
Yes, most of the writers profiled or mentioned are white, male writers. Given all the diverse places Theroux has traveled, it would have been more interesting to include some essays or references about writers beyond the Western Canon. That said, these insightful essays do show off Theroux’s love for literature and his incisive, skilled literary criticism, whether he’s dissecting a particular work by a writer or exploring how a writer’s life and works are closely-intertwined. Most of all, they make visible the connecting threads with which Theroux has woven particular philosophies from each of these masters into his own thinking and writing.
Rather unexpectedly, the people profiles stand out the most. With his essay on Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson, Theroux is at his satirical best when describing their excesses and idiosyncrasies. Oliver Sacks comes across much as we might expect from his own writing but Theroux also shows us the gentle patient interactions of a deeply observant “street neurologist”, With Robin Williams, Theroux manages to capture that unique manic energy onto the page while avoiding the trap of easy caricature. With Nurse Wolf, Theroux takes us on an entirely different kind of journey through the life of a Manhattan dominatrix. There are a couple more profiles — the artist, Benton, and the explorer, Stanley — that are rendered with a fine journalistic detail.
With these particular subjects, Theroux is practically the “street neurologist” himself. He analyzes their commonly-known traits and behaviors by going beyond the obvious, public layers to deduce motivations that do not necessarily make them relatable — that is not his aim anyway — but make us consider them with more sympathy. Theroux aims to give us exactly what he describes Oliver Sacks as doing:
To Oliver, human behavior was prismatic, multilayered, and his life and his work proved that revelations came over time. In this natural neurology, treatments in the fourth dimension, personality was not painted in primary colors but shown in a million subtler hues, delicately shaded, and even, as Oliver had written in another context, “a polyphony of brightnesses.”
Finally, there are the memoir essays about Theroux’s father, his own growth as a reader and writer, his thoughts on the older woman as a Mrs Robinson-like lover, raising geese in Hawaii, etc. The essay on his father is the most touching — it is both a eulogy for the man and a kind of history of Theroux’s family life that led to his seeking refuge in literature. In some places, Theroux writes about his own recklessness with relationships and people. But mostly, this group of essays is so carefully-honed that it’s evident he has left out as much, if not more, as he has put in.
His last essay is about his ambivalence toward autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs. This is an interesting one because it fails the most in convincing us of his arguments against such personal life-writing. His earlier essays in this collection are filled with so many personal details of writers’ lives that it’s clear he has enjoyed gathering and examining them from such works. Decades ago, he also wrote a memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, that generated significant literary controversy. Although he does admit here:
And the setting down of personal detail can be a devastating emotional experience. In the one memoir-on-a-theme that I risked, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, I wrote some pages with tears streaming down my face.
At his finest, Theroux presents keen observations with language so alive that we are not merely transported but also transformed through the reading. At his worst, his misanthropic bite leaves sharply-aimed marks on the people, places, and experiences he resents, making us as readers also recoil. Theroux has faced some arguably justified criticism throughout his career. He has often been accused of pompous rambling in his narratives and high-handed dismissals of complex socio-political issues. His public spats with other famous writers and even a family member or two have made certain works far too biased. However, through it all, his vast literary erudition and old-school raconteuring style always keep us in thrall. He knows the problems of essaying one’s travels only too well when he reminds us:
True travel and the inquiry of the essayist requires the simpler stratagems of being humble, patient, solitary, anonymous, and alert … difficult journeys, such as overland trips through Africa, tell us many things about ourselves: the limits of our strength, our wits, our spirit, our resourcefulness, even the limits of our love.
While no one who has read enough of Theroux’s works would use the word “humble” to describe him, the rest is true enough. Travel of the kind he has spent a lifetime doing would compel anyone to develop patience, a love of solitude and anonymity, a constant alertness, and a resourceful toughness. These are all, of course, among the many benefits of travel.
As a genre, travel writing is not as popular now as it was just a decade ago. Also, travel these days is often not for the reasons Theroux gives for his own journeys:
I travel to find obstacles, to discover my limits, to ease the passage of time, to reassure myself that innocence and antiquity exist, to search for links to the past, to flee from the nastiness of urban life and the paranoia, if not outright dementia, of the technological world.
There are three possible reasons for this. First, budget travel has made it possible to undertake trips far more casually today. We can stay connected 24/7 with folks back home so that it doesn’t really feel as if we are away from everything familiar. Innovative corporations provide us with products, services, and home comforts in even far-flung places so that they feel more like home than away-from-home.
Second, accounts emphasizing inner journeys — e.g. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (Riverhead, 2006) — have trumped those focused on traditional physical journeys. Of course, there’s a place for the former with certain kinds of travelers and readers. There’s value in that deeper journey within, which is less about travel for entertainment or adventure and more about travel for personal fulfillment and change.
Third, as with all book-reading, there are far too many other distractions claiming our leisure time. Whatever is cleverly made virally popular by mainstream media gets read more.
The best kind of travel ought to do two things. First, it should achieve what Theroux points out:
The traveler’s boast, sometimes couched as a complaint, is that of having been an eyewitness, and invariably this experience — shocking though it may seem at the time — is an enrichment, even a blessing, one of the trophies of travel, the life-altering journey … while weighing the risks and being judicious, travel in an uncertain world, in a time of change, has never seemed to me more essential, of greater importance, or more enlightening.
Second, it should alter us somehow when we return so that we look at home again with new eyes. Often, this alteration is because we bring back parts of the places we’ve been to. Sometimes, the alteration is because we leave parts of ourselves, metaphorically speaking, in the places we’ve visited or gain new facets from those places. There is some definite change in the equation between ourselves and the universe after such a journey.
To enable the above, good travel-writing is more important than ever, especially in an era when the travel experience has become more about taking quick selfies against landmarks to be shared across social media pages. In addition to documenting the history, culture, people, mood, sounds, and feel of a place, the best travel-writing can help us approach our journeys as the life-changing experiences they should be. It can show us how to embody the truism that our travel destination is never a particular place but a particularly new way of seeing the world.
Theroux’s highly versatile travel-writing — whether he’s journeying through places, or prose, or with people — does all of the above. Though he counters Maugham’s assertion about stylistic travel-writing with “A travel book ought to be the opposite of an exercise in style, but rather a personal way of seeing the world as it is.” Theroux gives us both literary style and new ways of seeing the world — not necessarily as it is, but as he sees it, of course.