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Monday, 16 June, 2003, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
The Stranger At The Palazzo D'Oro
The Stranger At The Palazzo D'Oro
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.)

MARK LAWSON:
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 brothels?

GERMAINE GREER:
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.

MARK LAWSON:
Well, he is teasing us to think it is him. There is a game going on?

GERMAINE GREER:
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.

MARK LAWSON:
So they effect to be memoir, but they are too artificial?

GERMAINE GREER:
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.

BILL BUFORD:
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.

MARK LAWSON:
So Germaine objects to the memories, Bill to the mammaries, Mark?

MARK KERMODE:
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.

MARK LAWSON:
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?

BILL BUFORD:
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.


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