"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 3, 2012

"My Secret History" & "My Other Life" by Paul Theroux (Book Review)

Both My Secret History (1989) and My Other Life (1996) by Paul Theroux are fictionalized memoirs, hovering on the borders of autobiography, fiction and even - partly - travelogue. Every writer writes basically about himself, some more hidden, others more openly, but Theroux does so with a vengeance - also his travel books are more about Theroux than about the countries he visits. There is nothing wrong with that, for after all it is best to write about what you know best - and what is closer than your own personal history? It can become even better if you are not hampered by the facts but can freely embellish your story with fictional elements. That is certainly the case with these two books by Theroux, for they are real page-turners.

From the above it is clear we should not rank these two books under "autobiography:" Theroux has rightly labeled both as novels. It is only by comparing them with non-fiction works as the travel books and Sir Vidia's Shadow that you can get an idea of what is fact and what may be fiction.

My Secret History consists of six vignettes, only very loosely connected. Although there is some justification in the idea that the "secret" in the title means "sexual" - so full is the book of Theroux' libido - in fact the "secret history" points to Theroux' interest in literature, to his writing, which forms a sort of "hidden life" that puts him apart from others.

The narrator is called Andre Parent. In the first story ("Altar Boy") he is a teenage altar boy growing up in Boston and we hear about his friendship with an eccentric priest and his first love for a girl from the neighborhood. In the second story ("Whale Steaks") Andre is 19 and works in the summer, between his studies, as a lifeguard; he oscillates between two women, an amorous elder woman, who is very rich, and a beautiful young student. The next story ("African Girls") is set in Malawi where he teaches on behalf of the Peace Corps; the local women are easy and free and Andre sleeps with an endless series of African girls.

The fourth story ("Bush Baby"), set in Uganda, follows this pattern, until he meets the English woman who would become his wife. When their car is overturned by an angry African mob, while she is pregnant, he decides to leave Africa and they move to London. This story also includes Andre's friendship with a famous British writer of Indian background (V.S. Naipaul). The fifth story ("Leaving Siberia") relates the end of the trip Andre who is now a succesful writer makes around the world (in real life this became The Great Railway Bazaar) - when he arrives home in London his wife gives him a rather cold reception and he learns she has had an affair in his absence. Andre takes revenge on his rival by shaming him in a rather childish way. In the last story ("Two of Everything"), Andre himself leads a double life with houses in London and in the U.S., with a devoted woman in each (one his wife, the other his mistress). He takes each woman on a trip to India, following the same itinerary, with a predictable confusion as outcome.

Except the first one, which could stand on its own as a novella, the stories in this book are quite rambling as befits a fictional memoir.

The same is true for My Other Life, “the story of a life I could have lived had things been different - an imaginary memoir,” as Theroux himself called it. In order to further pleasantly confuse readers, the fictional memoir here is different from the one in My Secret History! The 19 stories in this book vary in length and are more funny than those in My Secret History, but they also have less depth. We start with young bachelorhood in Africa, then move to Singapore, and next to London and then Cape Cod. In many stories in this volume the narrator is about to be seduced by aggressive women from whom he manages to retreat at the last moment. We even meet a seductive murderess in a remote Yorkshire cottage.

The best stories are some of the longer ones. I enjoyed the first one, an extremely weird tale of love for a young leper girl, set in an African leper colony run by Catholic priests ("The Lepers of Moyo"). Even better is the third one ("Lady Max"), where the narrator almost falls in the clutches of a reptilian London socialite, who sponsors his career as a writer. The "Poetry Lessons" involve a well-heeled CEO, who in exchange for chats about poetry allows Theroux and his family to live in a cottage on his Singapore estate, but the CEO's bored and vulgar wife spoils things. And in "The Queen's Touch," one of the final stories, Theroux who is despondent after the break-up of his marriage is consoled by a very convincing Queen Elizabeth, detached but wise.

Theroux writes a fluid style with clever dialogues. Another trademark is the ironic detachment, which is only broken when sorrow shines through over the unattainability of an everyday domestic existence - a serene state that "secret histories" and "other lives" do not permit.

Generally seen as Theroux's best work, together with Sir Vidia's Shadow and The Great Railway Bazaar.