Saturday, September 22, 2007

Theroux the keyhole

Over the years ... he's turned out many similar books, some of them marred by his slightly sour personality.
Mmm, this is what I have enjoyed in particular about Paul Theroux's books! It's the bitterness of VS Naipaul's shadow that makes the book fascinating, despite its longueurs. Actually, it wasn't until Claire Messud's recommendation of Bernhard's The Loser that I realised how taboo it seems to be that "dislikeable characters" dominate a narrative. Even Michael Dirda succumbs to this easy route of criticism. Twenty years ago, Jonathan Raban - in his review of Theroux's best novel My Secret History - observed what really mars the work: he "has sometimes slipped into a routine professional ironising and knowingness, a magisterial garrulity, that has made him seem on his off days like a revenant Somerset Maugham."

Dirda makes the same comparison: "he's the Somerset Maugham of our time." But means it as a compliment.
Maugham was comparably disdained by critics as just an entertainer, a marketer of commercial fiction and travel journalism. Yet he wrote clearly and powerfully, and once he started telling a story, it was nearly impossible to stop turning the pages.
For such a stage, shouldn't we expect better arguments than this? One turns the pages of flip books far more quickly than any Maugham or Theroux novel, so does that mean they're unfairly disdained by literary critics? An example of such disdain would have been enough. The lack of one here suggests the disdain for commerce and entertainment is Dirda's, as it is for all those who feel the need to sublimate their inferiority complexes by writing about unnamed others' snobbery.

Again, Raban recognised the distinction between a novel as a mere time-killer and a work of literature:
[My Secret History] is a book whose sentences lead their own secret lives, where meaning is doubled and redoubled as in a hall of mirrors. Read it warily; read it twice, and more: it is darker and deeper than it looks.
PS: There are two coincidences between the two reviews. I've already mentioned Somerset Maugham. Then there's Raban report that My Secret History "is Paul Theroux's 27th book" while Dirda says that "The Elephanta Suite is his 27th work of fiction." Wow.

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