Paul Theroux Explained

Paul Theroux
Born:10 April 1941
Birthplace:Medford, Massachusetts
Occupation:Novelist, Travel writer, short story writer, literary critic
Influences:Henry James, V S Naipaul, Graham Greene, Anthony Trollope, Joseph Conrad

Paul Edward Theroux (born April 10, 1941) is an American travel writer and novelist, whose best known work is, perhaps, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), a travelogue about a trip he made by train from Great Britain through Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, through South Asia, then South-East Asia, up through East Asia, as far east as Japan, and then back across Russia to his point of origin. Although perhaps best known as a travel writer, Theroux has also published numerous works of fiction, some of which were made into feature films. He was awarded the 1981 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel The Mosquito Coast.


Theroux was born in Medford, Massachusetts, the son of Catholic parents, a French-Canadian father and an Italian mother. After he finished his university education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he joined the Peace Corps and taught in Malawi from 1963 to 1965. While there, he helped a political opponent of Hastings Banda escape to Uganda, for which he was expelled from Malawi and thrown out of the Peace Corps. He then moved to Uganda to teach at Makerere University, where he wrote for the magazine Transition (including the article "Nkrumah the Leninist Czar".

While at Makerere, Theroux began his three-decade friendship with novelist V. S. Naipaul, then a visiting scholar at the university. During his time in Uganda, an angry mob at a demonstration threatened to overturn the car in which his pregnant wife was riding. This incident may have contributed to his decision to leave Africa. He moved again to Singapore. After two years of teaching at the University of Singapore, he settled in England, first in Dorset, and then in south London with his wife and two young children.

Theroux currently resides in Hawaii and Cape Cod, Ma., U.S.A. [1] . He is currently married to Sheila Donnelly (since November 18, 1995). Previously, he was married to Anne Castle from 1967 to 1993. He has two sons with his first wife – Marcel Theroux and Louis Theroux – both of whom are writers and television presenters. In his books, Theroux alludes to his ability to speak Italian, French, Spanish, Chinese, Chichewa, and Swahili.

Literary work

His first novel, Waldo, was published during his time in Uganda and was moderately successful. He published several more novels over the next few years, including Fong and the Indians and Jungle Lovers. On his return to Malawi many years later, he found that this latter novel, which was set in that country, was still banned, a story told in his book Dark Star Safari.

He moved to London in 1972, before setting off on an epic journey by train from Great Britain to Japan and back again. His account of this journey was published as The Great Railway Bazaar, his first major success as a travel writer, and which has since become a classic in the genre.[2] [3] He has since written a number of other travel books, including descriptions of traveling by train from Boston to Argentina (The Old Patagonian Express), walking around the United Kingdom (the poorly-received The Kingdom By The Sea), kayaking in the South Pacific ("The Happy Isles Of Oceania"), visiting China (Riding the Iron Rooster), and traveling from Cairo to Cape Town (Dark Star Safari). As a traveler he is noted for his rich descriptions of people and places, laced with a heavy streak of irony, or even misanthropy. Other non-fiction by Theroux includes Sir Vidia's Shadow, an account of his personal and professional friendship with Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul that ended abruptly after thirty years.


By including versions of himself, his family, and acquaintances in some of his fiction, Theroux has occasionally disconcerted his readers. "A. Burgess, Slightly Foxed: Fact and Fiction", a story originally published in The New Yorker magazine (August 7, 1995), describes a dinner at the narrator's home with author Anthony Burgess and a book-hoarding philistine lawyer who nags the narrator for an introduction to the great writer. “Burgess” arrives drunk and cruelly mocks the lawyer, who introduces himself as “a fan”. The narrator’s wife, like Theroux’s then-wife, is named Anne and she shrewishly refuses to help with the dinner. The magazine later published a letter from Anne Theroux denying that Burgess was ever a guest in her home and expressing admiration for him, having once interviewed the real Burgess for the BBC: “I was dismayed to read in your August 7th edition a story … by Paul Theroux, in which a very unpleasant character with my name said and did things that I have never said or done.”[4] When the story was incorporated into Theroux’s novel, My Other Life (1996), the wife character is renamed Alison and reference to her work at the BBC is excised.

Theroux's sometimes caustic portrait of Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul in his memoir Sir Vidia's Shadow (1998) is at considerable odds with his earlier, gushing portrait of the same author in V.S. Naipaul, an Introduction to His Work (1972).

On December 15, 2005 the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Theroux called "The Rock Star's Burden" criticizing Bono, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie as "mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth." Theroux, who lived in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer and a university teacher, adds that "the impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help - not to mention celebrities and charity concerts - is a destructive and misleading conceit.".[5]

However, in 2002, on publication of his Africa travelogue Dark Star Safari, reviewer John Ryle in the London Guardian contradicted Theroux's views on international aid, accusing him of ignorance. "I'm not an aid worker, but I was working in Kenya myself at about the time Theroux passed through ... It's not that Theroux is wrong to criticise the empire of aid. In some ways the situation is even worse than he says ... The problem is that Theroux knows next to nothing about it. Aid is a failure, he says, because 'the only people dishing up the food and doling out the money are foreigners. No Africans are involved'. But the majority of employees of international aid agencies in Africa, at almost all levels, are Africans. In some African countries it is international aid agencies that provide the most consistent source of employment ... The problem is not, as Theroux says, that Africans are not involved; it is, if anything, the opposite. How come he didn't notice this? Because, despite his hissy fits about white people in white cars who won't give him lifts, he never actually visits an aid project or the office of an aid organisation."[6]

Select awards and honours


Film adaptations

Saint Jack, Theroux's 1973 novel about an affable American panderer operating in Singapore during the Vietnam War, was filmed by director Peter Bogdanovich (1979). His novel Doctor Slaughter was made into a film, Half Moon Street (1986). His novel The Mosquito Coast was also made into a film of the same name (1986). Chinese Box (1997), a film about the British handover of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China, credits Theroux as a source for the story, based on themes he explores in his 1997 novel Kowloon Tong.

Novels and short story collections


Other Writings Including Magazine Articles

Upcoming projects

In 2008 Theroux published which revisits many of the settings of his earler work. Also forthcoming is a crime novel set in Calcutta.[9]

Notes and References

External links

Notes and References

  1. Cape Cod Today
  4. The New Yorker, September 18, 1995, p.14
  5. News: PAUL THEROUX. The Rock Star's Burden. December 15, 2005. New York Times. 2008-08-05.
  7. Lyceum Agency -- Paul Theroux
  8. Maria Thomas Fiction Award for Peace Corps Writers