Time has folded up on me again with Paul Theroux celebrating his 80th birthday last weekend – surely, he can’t possibly be 80. The writer marked the occasion with an engaging essay in The New Yorker reflecting on his professional life, drawing on the personal and adding in a few points of literary criticism. (Facing Ka‘ena Point: On Turning Eighty | The New Yorker). Theroux has long been a writer I can relate to as if we came from the same place and time – which his birthday and this current essay remind me we haven’t. Theroux grew up in a small town in Massachusetts in the 40s and 50s, a far cry from Chicago in the 60s and 70s. I probably share more experiences with Theroux’s sons, the documentary filmmakers Louis and Marcel in both life’s timelines and being more British than American.
We also couldn’t be more different when it comes to how we work as writers. In this New Yorker essay, he notes: ‘My method has not changed: still the first draft in longhand, to slow me down and make me concentrate, and then I copy it by hand, and finally I type it.’ Being a keyboard and screen aficionado, I can’t read this without feel bewildered and anxious.
I confess, I’ve only read one of Paul Theroux’s novels, The Mosquito Coast, and a few of his short stories. My secret friendship with Theroux comes from reading his essays about his travels and his family, revealing how he has developed psychologically over the years. In Granta 48, he wrote wryly about his time in Malawi working for the Peace Corps and living in a leper colony. I read it in the early 90s and still remember details from it today. Although my experiences as a traveller and someone who has lived in different countries isn’t as dramatic as that, thankfully, there is camaraderie in being the outsider, bringing humour to the most stressful of situations and reinventing yourself along the way.
Years later, Theroux again writing in Granta described large families: ‘The words “big family” have the same ring for me as “savage tribe”, and I now know that every big family is savage in its own way.’ This rings true with my own experience, and I still have a few scars. We both are one of seven children, Theroux in the middle and I the runt of the litter. In the current New Yorker piece, looking over his 80 years, he brings this up again, but from a different angle. Theroux and I escaped our large families by leaving home early, fending for ourselves, ‘living by my [or our] wits.’ I know exactly what he means when he writes about moving far away from family and saying, ‘I didn’t know the word “individuation,” the process of separation by which one gains a sense of self.’ If my life had a title or heading (I still don’t know what it would be), the sub-header would include this idea of individuation.
Many happy returns, PT, from another PT.