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Travels with Paul Theroux: the finest travel writer of his generation, Paul Theroux has spent as much of his life in the world of books as he has on the road.

Paul Theroux saunters onto the stage in dark-grey chalk-stripe suit and a white straight-from-the box Nehrucollar shirt. His circular tortoiseshell glasses complete the image of the metropolitan intellectual.

Urbane and media-groomed he pauses, pours himself a glass of water [f be has notes, he doesn't use them preferring to tell a string of apparently unconnected anecdotes about his favourite travel books. For an hour. he weaves the threads of his immense knowledge into a richly textured fabric The packed house in the Ondaatje Theatre at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG, is enthralled.

The following afternoon, Theroux and I meet for a drink in the courtyard of his swanky hotel in Buckingham Gate to discuss his new book The Tao of Travel. Looking relaxed be admits that he 'winged it last night I don't do a lot of public speaking and it can be very stressful.

It's difficult to imagine how the author of such classics as The Great Railway Bazdar The Old Patagonian Express and Riding the Iron Rooster could find sharing his passion for travel literature with 750 well-read geographers as anything other than an easy stroll. But then again, he's never happier than when on the road. Or to be more precise, travelling by train.



It comes as no surprise that Theroux loves good travel writing, although he admits that 'felicitously written, well-observed books are rather rare'. As an example of one of the best of its genre, he cites Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World. 'I mention that not just because it's stylish, but because the voice is so consistent, so right, so measured,' he says. I mention that this might in some way be related to Cherry-Garrard being George Bernard Shaw's close friend and neighbour. 'Yeah. He looked closely at Cherry-Garrard's book.'

In his wrapping-up statement at the end of Theroux's lecture, the Society's president, Michael Palin, took a positive view of the state of the art, saying that 'rumours of the death of travel writing have tonight been proved to be greatly exaggerated'. Theroux agrees. It's not all bad, he says, 'it's just that publishers fear a certain type of book won't sell. But that's not a reason not to write it. And it doesn't mean that people won't do proper travel or write proper travel books. It just means that it's going to get harder for them to get published.'

He goes on to argue that in this respect, 'the future of travel writing greatly resembles the past'. But what about the future of books? 'That's the $64,000 question. No-one knows what's going to happen to books,' he says. 'We never foresaw the effect of the internet, or e-books or Kindle. We're in the middle of some kind of revolution, but I would like to think that the book with a binding and a jacket, that's full of good writing, will endure. And I think it will, only maybe there will be fewer of them.'

The problem with making predictions, says Theroux, is that everything looks superficially identical to how it used to. 'Sitting here in London today it still looks pretty much the same as when I first came here in 1965,' be says. 'When people write science fiction, the first thing they do is change the look of a place, but actually, places look the same. It's on the inside that real differences happen.'

This can be especially true of returning to a place after a long absence, and I ask Theroux what happens on a writer's return. Is it the writer or the place that has changed over rime? 'The truth is, I've changed, and I'm a different person when I go back,' he says. 'It's a wonderful and educational experience to go back to a place, because you see what the future will look like elsewhere. In general, the quality of life is vastly different and yet not as good.'


Ideal travel books have the gifts of description and a human element, Theroux says. For sense of place, Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli, 'is wonderfully written, dramatic'. But that's not a travel book, I counter. 'He's not travelling, but he's in a foreign place. It's an experience of solitude and confinement. Not a lot of people think of that as a travel book, you're right. But I think it's terrific.'

This is important for Theroux, and he finds the demarcation lines between genres endlessly fascinating. As with two other great travel writers of his generation--Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban--he's also a novelist, and these two existences, for Theroux at least, aren't entirely separate or separable. Writing novels, he says, is--just like Levi's book--all about confinement, stuck in a house, stuck behind a desk. At the end of typically 18 months, 'you really want to get out and do something'. While travelling to South America for The Old Patagonian Express, Theroux passed through Costa Rica and came back with the idea for his novel The Mosquito Coast. More recently, while in India for Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he developed the idea for The Elephanta Suite.

It's this combined affection for travel and literature that led him to crystallise his vast reading in The Tao of Travel. There are plenty of literary anthologies in print, many with generous travel sections, but Tao is much more than simply a commonplace book of interesting snippets. In it, Theroux also sets about deconstructing his reaction to people 'who don't travel alone. A lot of people who write believe that they have to come up with a certain type of book. They conceal the fact that they didn't spend as long a time in a place as they should have. They conceal the fact that they were doing other things or were with another person.'

According to Theroux, there's a virtue in travelling alone, but it's difficult; there's a virtue in travelling for a long period of time, but that's difficult, too. 'It's much easier,' be says, 'to' travel for a month than a year. And people conceal this. They conceal the fact that they have to pay bills, they've got a family and there's someone on the other end of the phone saying, "Come home." I don't know where it will end.'

It's this artifice of concealment that rankles with Theroux, who confesses not to understand why authors write books that 'appear to be one thing when they're really another. In Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss makes out that he's travelling alone, but he's not. He's travelling with a whole expedition. And his wife,' be says.

Theroux is equally critical of his former foe, VS Naipaul, whose A Turn in the South is an exercise in this type of concealment. 'His mistress is driving the car, and yet she's never mentioned in the book,' he says. 'He paid her US$40,000 to drive, find restaurants and fix tickets while his wife is back in London. As a reader, you don't know that. And that's kinda interesting, bur it's not what the book is about.'


Despite a literary career in which be has often blended fiction with reality--sometimes with legal and emotional consequences--when it comes to travel writing, 'the truth is always more interesting than what's made up. This is my objection to some travel writing and this is what informs my selections in Tao.'

Theroux says he wanted to expose other writers' concealments, so one of the tasks he set himself was to compile a league table of how long famous travellers claim to have spent on the road and then to hold their claims up against reality. One of Theroux's ambitions was to dissect and atomise travel books in 'my own eccentric way of evaluating the truth'.

As the conversation threatens to become a metaphysical disquisition of the nature of truth, Theroux suggests that too many travel writers get hijacked by an unknown reader who increasingly requires the writer to have travelled alone, suffered, had moments of great incident and enlightenment.

He goes on to say that publishers get bothered, too, when these boxes don't get ticked. As a consequence, the writer is often tempted to take the path of least resistance and fabricate an experience that conforms to these expectations.

I ask him if there's an absolute relationship between the travel writer and the literal truth. Theroux adjusts his Ray-Bans, considers the question, before restating the challenge that has tripped up virtually every travel writer since the dawn of the genre. 'You have a great duty to tell the truth, without being boring.'


The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, published by Hamish Hamilton (RRP 16.99[pounds sterling]), is available to readers at the special price of 13.99[pounds sterling] (including free p&p). Please call the Penguin bookshop on 0843 060 0021 and quote referente 9780241144640. Please allow 14 days for delivery. Offer ends 31 August 2011, subject to availability. Offer open to UK residents only. For further details, visit
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Title Annotation:geopeople: PAUL THEROUX; The Tao of Travel
Comment:Travels with Paul Theroux: the finest travel writer of his generation, Paul Theroux has spent as much of his life in the world of books as he has on the road.(geopeople: PAUL THEROUX)(The Tao of Travel)
Author:Smith, Nick
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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