Newsnight Review discussed Paul Theroux's new novel, The Stranger At The Palazzo D'Oro.
(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)
Paul Theroux has said that while he was
writing his African travel book to avoid the
risk of going to prostitutes at night he sat in
his hotel room and wrote this book. Did it
make you glad that he stayed out of the
Not really. One of the problems with Paul
Theroux is that he is his own hero. He is
enormously interested in himself. He
writes the kind of novelised memoir, novel
that is in fact a glamorised memoir, that I
find, really, in a sense immoral. You have
the sort of matrix of events. Then you are
allowed to delude yourself. What we have
here is The Stranger At The Palazzo D'Oro.
The hero is clearly Theroux himself.
Well, he is teasing us to think it is him.
There is a game going on?
But the game is always the same game.
The game is of projecting Theroux himself.
Likewise, the three little stories from
Boyhood, secrets are all fragments of
memoir but they are totally novelised.
They are symmetrically constructed,
beautiful repetitions, so artful and so cold.
So they effect to be memoir, but they are
No, worse than that. They are novelised
memoir that glamorises the protagonist
who happens to want you to identify that
person as himself. The interesting thing
about The Stranger At The Palazzo D'Oro
is that it's meant to be erotic. It's meant to
be sensual, exotic. It doesn't succeed in
being any of those, because he is not really
there. Reading this I realise that is what I
don't like about his travel writing too. His
travel writing is about himself, how he is
better than the people that he meets.
It's not Paul at his best. The story that I
liked the most is the little one where the
young Paul Theroux figure is growing up
in Massachusetts and a mother, the mother
is a rare figure in Paul Theroux. I am
interested in that. I have come to the
conclusion that there are breast-feeding
issues in Paul Theroux's career. If you go
through this, the tit is an important, it's the
unifying reference. You eat it, slap it, beat
it, chew it. But really, you want to swallow
it, chew it up and get rid of it. What was
distressing for the book was that every
story was a cliché. That is fine. That is for
a good reason. The older woman sex
fantasy. The paedophile priest sex fantasy.
But they never rose above the cliché.
Finally it's a book of clichés.
So Germaine objects to the memories, Bill to the mammaries, Mark?
I think that the three stories, the boy stories
are the best. The best stuff is when he is
not writing about sex. Writing about
something else standing in for sex. I find
the first story embarrassing. They make me
feel a little icky. But we have the pup tent,
the little boy hiding in the tent, the smells
of the tent. The think that happens with the
friend that is not sexual but is the dawning
of sex. There is also a story which may
turn into a murder story, but then not quite
which reminded me of Stephen King's
"The Body". He is better about writing
about thinks that are not sex. As soon as he
starts writing about sex it is not great.
The problem he has is that he is trying to
find a literary language about sex. In the
end it's just big purple things. It's
indistinguishable from pornography isn't
It's bad writing. The most telling moment
for me was when I was distracted from
reading something, then I reread the same
pages they were so indistinguishable.