Goodbye to 2020: Paul Theroux’s pandemic reading list to combat ‘out-sickness’

Feb 9, 2021 | 3 comments

By Paul Theroux

Confined and isolated in lockdown it is easy to regard yourself as superfluous and beneath notice, a target of infection, stranded at home. A line by the 11th Century Persian poet Firdausi about feeling small and beleaguered comes to mind, “I am but as dust in the lion’s paw.”

Yet I don’t feel this way at all. I used to agree with Hans Christian Andersen who wrote in a letter in 1856, “Homesickness is a feeling that many know and suffer from; I on the other hand feel a pain less known, and its name is ‘Out-sickness.’ When the snow melts, the stork arrives, and the first steamships race off, then I feel the painful travel unrest.”

Paul Theroux

I may have cured myself of “Out-sickness.” This is the first year in decades – for forty years or more – that I have not left home or used my passport. But my guilty secret, in making my living as a traveler in the wider world, and after a dozen travel books, is that I love being home. At my age – which is way past retirement – if you haven’t found a person and a place you love, a house that suits you, an ideal bed, a perfect armchair, the books you value, a bit of garden, and something like comfort  – you have my sympathy. And if you’re in the countryside, with elbow room, even better. I have written books in tents, on shipboard, in jungle huts and on my lap in trains, but I greatly prefer writing at my own desk, and I am happiest writing fiction, and I do it best at home.

The marvelous desk I designed myself, and it was sawed from teak planks and planed and hammered together for me in 1969 by a Chinese carpenter in his shop on a back lane in Singapore. It was a thoroughfare Singaporeans avoided, the one where coffins were made. I was an expatriate teacher then, on a three-year contract. My only request to Mr Tan was that he make this desk more portable by giving it removable legs, because I knew that for the foreseeable future I would be on the move, and more or less homeless.

In this year of bad news, of failure and broken promises and no plans, of improvisation and extemporizing, I think of how I spent the first ten years of my working life in Itsly, Africa and Southeast Asia, and the next seventeen in South London. If someone had asked what I yearned for I would have said, “To go home.” Because for those twenty-seven years I was living as an alien, and in my first years in Britain I carried an Alien Identity Card with my gloomy face in a thumbnail photo stapled to it. I worked at my Singapore desk in Dorset and Catford and Wandsworth. I began living full-time in the United States in 1990, I installed the desk in a house I owned, fixing its fat legs to it for the last time. I am writing this at it now – and have been doing so, happily, since early this year when the pandemic was confirmed.

I had planned to travel – to Africa, to India; but along with everyone else I was confined to home. I had plenty to do – first to edit my new novel, set in Hawaii and titled Under the Wave at Waimea, to be published next spring. I began a short story in April, it is now novel-length, and it will be months before I finish. At the end of every decade, starting with the year 1980, I have kept a proper diary – large pages, octavo (6” by 9”). What began this past January as a record of outings and plans, has become A Journal of the Plague Year, an account of restrictions, of anecdotes of the virus, of muddle and evidence of what we used to say in Uganda in times of crisis: “Don’t believe anything the government says until it is officially denied.”

No restaurant meals are recorded in this diary, but there are plenty of recipes of meals I’ve cooked, TV documentaries I’ve seen (notably BBC efforts and podcasts and articles by my children – Marcel and Louis). I have read more books than usual, choosing them at random, and lately I’ve noticed a theme in my reading: it is Otherness. Since March, without realizing it, I have been reading books about distant parts or foreign people. I have been traveling in books. I read Michael Sherborne’s biography of H G Wells and this led me to Wells’ wonderful early novel KippsThe History of Mr Polly, and Tono Bungay. The account in the biography of Wells’ love affair with Rebecca West tempted me to read her  New Meaning of Treason and A Train of Powder – Lord Haw-Haw, Nuremburg, South Carolina and much else. I reread Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills and Life’s Handicap – many of them stories about isolation and alienation.

Camus’s The Plague was a salutary reread, under the circumstances; The Fall bored me. I had never read Graham’s Greene’s  The Confidential Agent – not one of his best but the main character is an alien being pursued in England. Next on my list I see Chekhov’s ”The Steppe” and “In the Ravine” – stories of obscure and overlooked landscapes. I plodded through Beckett’s Molloy – more obscurity and some good jokes; and just a few days ago my son Marcel urged me to read Cursed Days, Ivan Bunin’s  outraged diary of the Russian revolution, and that will hold me for a week or so. You are wondering “What about the new books?” But when I am working on a  book I need to feed my mind with brilliance. Books by my contemporaries are worse than mere distractions from my own writing, they disenchant me and break the spell which I need to work without interruption. I reviewed a new novel, about a month ago and it took me a week to empty my head of the book.

I was jubilant in rereading  His Monkey Wife, Or Married to a Chimp, by John Collier. Reading a ninety-year-old novel about a man who marries a chimpanzee may not be everyone’s idea of getting through a pandemic lockdown, but this novel made me laugh. I should say that I wrote an introduction to the 1983 OUP edition, but I had not read the book since then. The plot of this wicked satire is a sustained mockery of 1920’s London socialites, and the unexpected hero is not Alfred Fatigay, but his pet chimpanzee Emily (monkey and ape are used interchangeably in the book). The chimp adores him and displaces his Intended, and rewards him with connubial bliss in the novel’s gorgeous final sentence, “The candle, guttering beside the bed, was strangled in the grasp of a prehensile foot, and darkness received, like a ripple in velvet, the final happy sigh.”

I was rereading the book for amusement, but I was reminded that, although Emily is making a successful living as a Spanish dancer, this chimpanzee is bookish, too, and  spends a lot of time in the British Museum. Each chapter is headed by an epigraph that reflects Emily’s reading: Donne, Blake, Poe and others, and many from Tennyson – “Ulysses” and “Locksley Hall.”  These quotations reflected much of what I have felt in the lockdown – the isolation, the dreaming of far-off places, the ways in which reading can save your sanity. One quotation stands out – the lines from Lovelace’s “To Althea from Prison” which Emily lives by, “Stone walls do not a prison make,/Nor iron bars a cage.”

In the past few months, I’ve taken some  road trips – they’re allowable under the US government’s mismanagement of the pandemic. I’ve driven up to Maine and rolled around New England, and it’s possible to bump against the borders of Canada and Mexico. But these are cheerful jaunts with my wife. The rest is writing and reading, and the reminder that the natural condition for most writers is uninterrupted seclusion and monotony; in all senses, the bum on the seat. I am sure that I will contract another bout of “Out-sickness,” and will travel again. But it will be in the old laborious way, slowly, alone, out of curiosity, to see what the pandemic has done to the world, with this in mind:

“I should indeed applaud the remedy by which we had overcome a great malady,” Andre Gide writes in his Journal in1942 [Vol 4, p 116]. “But how much time and vigilance and effort should we need in order, as Sainte-Beuve said, to ‘cure us of the remedy.’”

Paul Theroux is a novelist and travel writer. The excerpt is from his story The Times, written on December 29, 2020.


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