Confined and isolated as we are in lockdown, it is easy to regard ourselves 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.”
I may have cured myself of “out-sickness”. This is the first year in four decades that I have not left home or used my passport. But my guilty secret, in making my living as a traveller in the wider world, and after a dozen travel books, is that I love being home.
This year was the first in four decades that Theroux has not left home or used his passport
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, as I am while I write this, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, bathed in marine sunlight, 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 marvellous desk I designed myself, and it was sawn from teak planks and planed and hammered together for me in 1969 by a Chinese carpenter in his shop in a back lane in Singapore. 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 extemporising, I think of how I spent the first 10 years of my working life in Italy, Africa and southeast Asia, and the next 17 in south London. If someone had asked what I yearned for, I would have said: “To go home.” Because for those 27 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 America 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, which is set in Hawaii. 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 (6in by 9in). 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 until it is officially denied.”
Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where Theroux believes he does his best writing
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: Otherness. Since March, without realising it, I have been reading books about distant parts or foreign people. I have been travelling in books. I read Michael Sherborne’s biography of HG Wells, and that led me to Wells’s wonderful novels Kipps, The History of Mr Polly and Tono-Bungay. The account in the biography of Wells’s love affair with Rebecca West tempted me to read her The New Meaning of Treason and A Train of Powder. I also reread Rudyard Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills and Life’s Handicap — many of them about isolation and alienation.
Albert 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 a foreigner being pursued in England. Next on my list I see Anton Chekhov’s The Steppe and In the Ravine — stories of obscure landscapes.
In the past months I have taken some trips — allowable under the American 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.
Theroux at Clapham Junction in 1978
December update: I confess, I did eventually contract another bout of “out-sickness”, which was quickly cured by driving 3,000 miles across the States and then flying to my winter home, on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii. And I will travel to foreign lands again, and so will we all, eagerly — vaccinated and carrying the approved World Health Organisation card (“International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis”) with our passport, as we did years ago when we travelled to Africa and elsewhere, immunised against yellow fever and cholera.
My trips will be taken in the old, laborious way, slowly, alone, out of curiosity, to see what the pandemic has done to the world. I will have this quote from André Gide in mind: “I should indeed applaud the remedy by which we had overcome a great malady,” he writes in his journal in 1942. “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’s next novel, Under the Wave at Waimea, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in April