Paul Theroux’s voice in black and white, on the page, captivated me from the start: natural, authoritative, transferring all kinds of observation from the most minute cultural idiosyncrasy to the cruelest cut at character—fictional or real. I started reading him 20 years ago with My Secret History. Until today, I’d known Theroux only through text and tale.
Now an interview with The New Yorker Radio Hour has banished 20 years of presumption about what I thought Paul Theroux might sound like.
His spoken voice is less certain, more affected, a cross of British-sounding intonations and patrician New England syllables. ‘Writer’ is ‘Writa’; ‘Awarded” is ‘Awaurded’; ‘Father’ is ‘Fawtha’; ‘Mocking’ is ‘Mawking’. I hear Bernie Sanders in it; Theroux can be piping, short of reedy, other times gravelly, but never sonorous.
Credit him for giving the world the best of his voice in books and writing. In person he maintains the same honesty, which borders on cruelty, that can be found in his writing. I detect no apology, for example, no sorrow, no bitterness, only hard truth in what he says of being cast into the world by a family situation that made him unhappy. Asked ‘Was it his mother that made him a writer?’ Theroux responds:
My mother drove me away from home. I wasn’t happy in this big family. And I fantasized about going away. So I think going away made me a writer. My mother really wanted me to go away. When I told my parents that I was going to Africa their faces were wreathed in smiles.
Theroux escaped a family of seven siblings to join the Peace Corps and teach English in Nyasaland (now Malawi). And there’s plenty of self-deprecation and laughter in the banter that follows the revelation above. But its a telling honesty about how Theroux perceives family, and maybe explains his tendency to go it alone. In the broader world, Theroux found his voice and, better still, made it heard.
Writers should appreciate the gem at minute 8:23. In her supremely radio-friendly voice The New Yorker’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman reads from Theroux’s latest book, Motherland, encapsulating the man and his work in a few short lines.
It must have seemed that I was writing stories, book reviews, novels, travel books, magazine articles, essays, newspaper columns, more novels, more stories, another travel book. But it was not an unsorted stack of vagrant scribbles; it was in words a sort of edifice. What I was doing was giving form to a continuous account of my existence, my disappointments and obsessions, my reading, my secrets, writing every day. All these books and pieces could be laid end to end as a long linking account of who I was, bringing order to my living and publishing it, in thousands of pages of print, bound on three shelves of a bookcase, which represented my attempt to make sense of my life.
Read with the right voice, this paragraph represents a monument to aspiration.