When it comes to travel writing, Paul Theroux is a living legend. Anyone familiar with the genre has likely read one of the books for which the American writer is justifiably famous like The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express or The Happy Isles of Oceania so his many fans are always excited when he publishes something new.
That something new is a Figures in a Landscape, an anthology of non-fiction writing that was released earlier this year. Anyone expecting one of his introspective travelogues will be disappointed, but this collection serves up enough outstanding writing that they will come away knowing a little more about the world and a little bit more about Paul Theroux.
The stories in this book mostly collect magazine articles of Theroux’s that he has written over many decades and while they are not exclusively travel stories, many of them are and they are a treat.
The essays in Figures in a Landscape include celebrity profiles, literary discussions, personal philosophy and travel sketches that collectively reveal a a bit more about Theroux, a man who has said he doesn’t want to publish an autobiography because he thinks it’s a sign that an author is spent and has nothing left to write about. Despite that claim, there is enough autobiography here and in some of his other books that Theroux doesn’t seem to be someone with many secrets.
His celebrity profiles are something of a revelation and the best of the lot is a revealing portrait of Elizabeth Taylor during a visit to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. His encounters with names like Robin Williams, Oliver Sacks and an anonymous sex worker who deals with odd bondage kinks are also enjoyable reads. His ability to capture these people on the page is an extension of his outstanding skill at observing details that elevates his travel writing above the rest.
Many of Theroux’s essays in this book also provide loving overviews of some of his favourite writers like Graham Green, W. Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Hunter S. Thompson. Theroux admits that many of his works are filled with references to books he’s loved so these essays will provide insight into those influences.
The section of the book that will entertain his fans the most are his travel stories. In many of them, he waxes philosophical about travel and travel writing:
“Travel can seem one of the most annoying, self-indulgent, even futile ways of passing the time. But travel should be about looking deeper into the world at large, into oneself,” he writes.
He says that readers should beware of what they read in travel books because they are merely the observations of one person on a given period of time and are not necessarily an accurate portrayal of a place.
“All you do as a note-taking traveler is nail down your own vagrant mood on a particular trip. The traveling writer can do no more than approximate a country.” he explained.
Where Theroux is at his best is when he shares his travel philosophy with his readers. Sure, you can go on a comfortable beach vacation to enjoy yourself, but the author thinks that we should get outside of our comfort zones if we want to use travel as a way to better ourselves:
“As for the recognition of hard travel as rewarding, the feeling is mainly in retrospective, since it is only in looking back that we see how we have been enriched,” he says.
Get off the beaten path and visit countries that are maligned and you will find those trips to be the most fulfilling, he says.
“‘Don’t go there,’ the know-it-all, stay-at-home finger-wagger says of many a distant place — I have heard that my whole traveling life, and in almost every case it was bad advice.”
Anyone’s who’s read and enjoyed Theroux’s work will be glad he ignored the advice he was given in order to have the adventures that inspired his writing. We are also fortunate enough that he was able to live in a time when magazines, newspapers and books were able to provide travel writers with a means to earn a living because today’s writers of social media aphorisms don’t compare.
- Figures in a Landscape: People and Places by by Paul Theroux is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt