Thursday, March 31, 2011

Literary Bite: My Other Life by Paul Theroux

My Other Life by Paul Theroux starts with a Peace Corps love affair in a Malawian leper colony, and follows the author from Singapore where he starts his family, to London, where he offers cunning insights on British culture, and finally ends in America.

This book reads like an autobiography, and the character “Paul Theroux” definitely has a very similar life to that of the author, Paul Theroux. But this book isn't fact, it’s a fictionalized memoir. This stylistic choice gives Theroux the freedom to embellish or change events if he feels like it, essentially freeing him from the constraints of an actual autobiography.

The “Author’s Note” states, 
This is the story of a life I could have lived had things been different – an imaginary memoir. The fact that there are limits to serious travesty and that memory matters means that even an imagined life resembles the one that was lived; yet in this I was entirely driven by my alter ego’s murmur of ‘what if?’…The man is fiction, but the mask is real.
In many ways it feels like My Other Life is a vehicle for Theroux to write about things he hasn’t developed into full stories or books (kind of how 2b1b does “Thought I couldn’t flesh out into full entries.”) Each chapter could stand alone, and Theroux ponders a huge range of subjects from “Sisterhood,” to “A Part in a Movie,” to “The Writer and His Reader,” etc. (his chapter titles are quite literal).

Recurring themes are: Theroux is constantly about to be seduced by determined but unsuitable women from whom he retreats at the last moment; the fragile but oddly intimate relationship between writer and reader; and he bears an agonizing sense of exile from an everyday, quietly satisfying domestic existence he seems to cherish but can never attain (hence his compulsive travels).

Since I’m a fan of his writing style (I loved Dark Star Safari and The Elephanta Suite), I’m happy to read anything Theroux feels like writing. I especially like reading his thoughts on writing and the writing process, since he is a very serious and accomplished author:
There was nothing that anyone could ask me about my work that I could not answer, no question about my life that I had not already mulled over. My books were the visible part of my mind. And I could not separate my writing from who I was. It was not work I preformed, it was a process of my life. (237)
This quote is long, but it particularly has lodged itself in my mind:
I needed interruptions in London because I worked alone, haunting the house all day, growing ghostlier as I wrote, and a phone call was the proof I needed that I existed. I was especially glad when the phone rang that October afternoon; I had just finished another page of my China book and I felt it was going a bit too well. A book stuck badly was a misery, but if writing came easy I suspected it of being oversimplified and second rate. (This opening, for example -- the previous three sentences -- has taken me two days to work out, about ten false starts.) (268)
Two days? For three sentences??? Maybe someday I'll be that meticulous...but right now it takes me less than 30 minutes to write a blog post! 


And a random sidenote surprise! On page 201, Theroux references my favorite Swahili saying, “Haraka haraka, haina baraka.”

My Other Life is a bit long, but totally enjoyable. Have you read it? Let me know what you thought! And if you haven't I recommend it - definitely worth the read!

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