Theroux, Alexander (Louis)
THEROUX, Alexander (Louis)
Nationality: American. Born: Medford, Massachusetts, 17 August 1939; brother of Paul Theroux, q.v. Education: St. Joseph's Seminary, 1960-62; St. Francis College, Biddeford, Maine, B.A. 1964; University of Virginia, Charlottesville (Woodrow Wilson fellow), M.A. 1965, Ph.D. 1968; Brasenose College, Oxford. Career: Instructor, University of Virginia, 1968; Fulbright lecturer, University of London, 1968-69; instructor, Longwood College, Farmville, Virginia, 1969-73, and Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973-78; writer-in-residence, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, 1978-83; visiting artist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, from 1983. Currently member of the Department of English, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966; Academy of American Poets award, 1966; Encyclopaedia Britannica award, 1973; Guggenheim fellowship, 1974. Address: Department of English, Yale University, P.O. Box 3545, New Haven, Connecticut 06520, U.S.A.
Darconville's Cat. New York, Doubleday, 1981; London, HamishHamilton, 1983.
An Adultery. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987; London, HamishHamilton, 1988.
Three Wogs. Boston, Gambit, 1972; London, Chatto and Windus-Wildwood House, 1973.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Fark Pooks," in Esquire (New York), August 1973.
"Scugnizzo's Pasta Co.," in Encounter (London), September 1974.
"Lynda Van Cats," in The Pushcart Prize 1, edited by Bill Henderson. Yonkers, New York, Pushcart Press, 1976.
"Finocchio; or, The Tale of a Man with a Long Nose," in Massachusetts Review (Amherst), Summer 1976.
Christmas Eve at the Gordon Crumms, in Rapier, Spring 1968.
The Sweethearts and Chagrin of Roland McGuffey, in Rapier, Winter1968.
The Master's Oral (produced Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974).
The Confessions of Mrs. Motherwell, in Rapier, Autumn 1976.
The Lollipop Trollops and Other Poems. Normal, Illinois, DalkeyArchive Press, 1992.
Other (for children)
The Great Wheadle Tragedy. Boston, Godine, 1975.
The Schinocephalic Waif. Boston, Godine, 1975.
Master Snickup's Cloak. New York, Harper, and Limpsfield, Surrey, Dragon's World, 1979.
Theroux Metaphrastes: An Essay on Literature. Boston, Godine, 1975.
The Primary Colors: Three Essays. New York, Holt. 1994.
The Secondary Colors: Three Essays. New York, Henry Holt, 1996.*
"Alexander Theroux/Paul West Issue" of Review of Contemporary Fiction (Elmwood Park, Illinois), Spring 1991.* * *
Unlike his prolific brother Paul, whose travel books and novels supply readers the here and now with journalistic directness, Alexander Theroux is the soul of anachronism, a backwards literary history: unconcerned with modern markets, romantic in sensibility, neoclassical in aesthetic judgments, renaissance in learning and style, medieval in spirit. His line of descent recedes from game-playing Nabokov to the late-Victorian romance writer Baron Corvo, satirists Swift and Sterne, and encyclopedist Thomas Browne. For Theroux, observation of the present, whether the London of Three Wogs or the American eastern seaboard of Darconville's Cat, is the occasion for, not the purpose of, writing, an activity generated by a long memory of other writing. And yet, despite or, perhaps, because of his hyperliteracy—his esoteric allusions, archaic lexicon, elegant inversions, and orotund voice—the here and now are somehow defamiliarized, his artificial characters made curiously human, by his hermetic eccentricities.
Theroux's first book, Three Wogs, collects three long stories, each featuring an immigrant from the Empire clashing with a representative 1960s Londoner. In "Mrs. Proby Gets Hers" a widowed middle-class matron develops a paranoid and ultimately killing fear of an old shopkeeper from Hong Kong. "Childe Roland" exercises a stupid laborer's hatred for an educated Indian student. In "The Wife of God" an epicene Anglican priest selfishly attempts to stop his African choirmaster's marriage. The Britishers' pride and racism mask feelings of inferiority to and envy of the more energetic and even better-mannered "wogs." While Theroux has innocent fun with his foreigners' malapropisms and misinformation, the English are savaged by their own smugly expressed pretensions and by the ironic punishments Theroux gives them at stories' ends. Wholly appropriate for the dilettante Reverend Which Therefore (sic) of "The Wife of God," Theroux's stylistic contrivances sometimes overwhelm their satiric targets in the first two stories, manufacturing sentence to sentence wit but risking a reversal of sympathies for his characters from the present "Age of Shoddy."
Three Wogs was a startling debut, sufficiently noticed to be read by a character in Darconville's Cat; but it's this later book that earns Theroux prominent shelfspace in the Library of Literary Extravagance, the "A" range of alphabetical amusements, anomalies, anatomies, and artificial autobiographies. Theroux's predilections struggled within the constraints of the short story; here they are freed to create a 704-page, densely printed story of courtly love gone sour. A crazed character named Crucifer slightly scrambles the novel's strategy and achievement: "Nothing exceeds like excess."
According to an essay on the Theroux family by James Atlas (New York Times Magazine, 30 April 1978), Alexander was once engaged to and then jilted by one of his students at Longwood College. He vowed literary revenge, and she said "Do your worst." Darconville's Cat is his best and worst, a very funny send-up of young love and a compendium of misogyny in which, says Atlas, Theroux doesn't change the name of the girl who disappointed him. The novel's writer-protagonist, Alaric Darconville, was, like Theroux, in and out of monasteries as a youth and taught at Harvard and a Virginia college for women. But as the very simple plot inches from first meeting through courtship to betrayal and bitterness, the parallels between life and art increasingly feel like literary hoaxing, a way to draw life-minded readers into worlds made of words. Once again, Crucifer seems to speak for Theroux, "Love was the invention of the Provençal knight-poets to justify their verse."
What's best about Darconville's Cat is the advantage Theroux takes of the tradition of The Book, the large storehouse of knowledge such as The Bible, Gargantua, or Moby-Dick. Elaboration is all. The reader who doesn't care for a chapter on college girls' late-night rap sessions or the dialogue in verse between Alaric and his beloved Isabel or a classical oration by Crucifer can skip ahead or back without losing essential continuity. There are learned disquisitions on love, hate, and the human ear; wonderful odd-lot lists; Shandyian japes such as a one-word chapter and a page of asterisks; and Swiftian renderings of small-town southern life, ranting religionists, academic foolery, and much more. The parts are all related but don't disappear into a whole, into an illusion of reality.
Darconville's Cat is boring and brilliant, both puerile and profound, self-indulgent and often cruel. Theroux lacks Thomas Pynchon's interest in this century and the popular humor of Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, the novel Theroux's most closely resembles. "Madness," Darconville says of a book very like the one in which he is a character. But like that excessive anomaly of the 1950s, William Gaddis's The Recognitions, Darconville's Cat should find a dedicated following, readers with an appetite for ambition and literary aberration, for a prodigal art that, in Darconville's world, "declassifies."
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