Paul Theroux wore a white linen suit with black pin stripes. If someone had asked me what Paul Theroux would wear to speak at the Nelson Hays Library in Bangkok on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in October, I would have guessed a linen suit. The suit would be slightly wrinkled as linen suits always seem to become rather quickly. But the suit would be elegant.
Slightly rumpled and elegant is also how I would describe Paul Theroux.
The first time I encountered his writing was in the novel The Mosquito Coast. It would be not until years later that I would discover his travel writing.
Theroux began his talk in praise of the Nelson Hays Library, which does indeed feel like a church, and libraries in general. He claimed that most writers are not big fans of libraries although I feel sure that many writers fell in love with the written word in libraries and/or at home, with library books in their hands.
The writer argued that one has to be peaceful and calm and forgiving to travel. He claimed that travel is a solitary activity. He said that, from his perspective, travel writing was easier to write than fiction as he already knew how the story would turn out; he had actually lived the beginning, the middle and the ending before he began to write the book. Theroux spoke (twice) about the arrogance of the internet; I noticed the nodding heads of several of the other English Literature teachers from my school.
Things became exponentially more interesting in the Nelson Hays Library when Theroux began taking questions from the audience. He was energetic, brutally honest and entertaining. One audience member asked if Theroux would talk about his public falling out with writer V.S. Naipaul. Without pausing to consider his response, Theroux launched into the story of how he met Naipaul in Africa in 1966, when Theroux was just 23 years old. Theroux was at the beginning his writing career and Naipaul, already a successful and critically acclaimed novelist, believed in his work. They became friends and, in the process, Theroux discovered that Naipaul did not treat his wife, Pat, with respect… among other non-flattering revelations that people are likely to have about one another over years of friendship. Theroux argued that a friendship is more intense than romantic love as it does not involve the same power struggle. (I remain unconvinced). Shortly after Naipaul’s first wife died, he re-married and wife number two did not entirely approve of Theroux. (Nor he of her, I suspect). The men had one final falling out. As the relationship was over, Theroux felt that it was fine to write about this friendship (We could actually hear people shifting in their seats with discomfort) in a novel called Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents. He recalled that Naipaul didn’t like this book very much. (I found this particularly funny). Naipaul later authorized a biography entitled The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul. The biographer, Patrick French, found the journals of Naipaul’s much maligned first wife among the papers the novelist had sold without, according to Theroux, taking the time to read his late wife’s journals. Theroux claimed that this biography of Naipaul is so scathing that it makes Theroux’s book seem “like a love letter.”
Some of our colleagues lined up to have Theroux sign their books. I, myself, am inevitably disappointed by these book signing encounters as they cannot possibly lead to a discussion or coffee or any other kind of genuine interaction. While some lined up for cake and coffee on the lawn of this lovely library, DP and I sat on the steps of the nearby cafe and talked about Paul Theroux and his white linen suit.