THIS BOOK CONSISTS of a novella and five short stories (two long, three short). It is the novella that has given its title to the collection, and from the prominence accorded to it on the jacket one might assume, from a casual glance, that it was all that was on offer. It is, however, the weakest of the items.
At its start, a sexagenarian, world-famous American painter looks back on a brief stay in Taormina in the Sixties while travelling in Italy on a shoestring. Having ventured into the grandest hotel in the place, the Palazzo $01-0fo, r a drink, he there sees, and is seen by, a couple seated below him on the terrace. At once he is, as he puts it, ‘intrigued’ by them, and soon engineers a conversation. The woman, who appears to be in her mid-thirties, turns out to be a German Grii,fin of impressive lineage and huge wealth. Her companion, all too obviously gay, is both her doctor and her confidant. In no time at all, the doctor has made a proposal to the young man. He will be provided with a fiee room in the extremely costly hotel and have all hs expenses covered if he consents to become the countess’s ‘companion’. With scant hesitation the young man accepts. So starts an affair in which each snatches at any opportunity to humiliate and dominate the other.
It would be hard to imagine a less appealing trio. The young man is mercenary, socially ambitious and, for all his show of sophistication, essentially brattish. Although he has been lecturing on art in Urbino, his credentials are so shaky that he is not sure whether Tiziano and Titian are one and the same person. The woman, who invariably wears lace gloves even when eating, is imperious, narcissistic and self-centred. The doctor, camp and devious, is given to flirting outrageously with any male Sicilian who happens to come his way.
Theroux describes the sexual activities of the ageing woman and her youthful partner in painstaking (and sado-masochistically pain-giving) detail. He brings to this task, it must be admitted, all the virtuosity of the accomplished writer that he is. But, as with that Victorian classic of pornography, My Secret Life, the final effect is totally anaphrodisiac. The woman takes to howling like a dog while being pleasured from behind on all fours. The youth becomes excited when she announces ‘Ich muss pinkeln’ and subsequently watches while she does so. (In one of the short stories, a woman l is again taken from behind on all fours; and in another, the boy protagonist gets similarly excited while watching an adolescent girl urinate.)
In the construction of his tale Theroux exhibits a craftsmanship worthy of Somerset Maugham. He also trumps that master storyteller with an ending that provides not one twist but four. These reveal the woman to be far off the age that the youth had assumed; the doctor to be, in fact, a plastic surgeon constantly on hand to rejuvenate her; her even more aged husband to have been a clandestine witness in the hotel to the whole raging affair; and the diir itself to be both a repetition and a forerunner of others similar to it. Maugham would no doubt have shown the same cynicism in his handling of these characters; but he would, one surmises, also have communicated some tenderness and compassion for lives made tolerable only by such pitiful deceptions. Theroux totally fails to do this. Here is a wonderfully skilful carpenter of fiction at work; but the sawdust from his labours all but chokes one.
Fortunately, the collection also contains two stories of merit. At the beginning of the best of these, ‘An African Story’, one senses that the author is up to his old trick of teasing the reader with the riddle, Is this fiction or fact? As he tells it, he was the guest of the South African novelist Etienne Leroux on hls farm in the Orange Free State, where he met another South African farmer novelist, Lourens Prinsloo. Leroux is, of course, a well-known writer, many of whose novels have been translated into Enghsh. But Prinsloo? The only Lourens Prinsloo of whom I have ever heard is a prize-winning manufacturer of art knives in the United States. At all events, Prinsloo tells Theroux the story of his frenzied and eventually disastrous marriage to a one-armed kaffir schoolteacher after a painful and costly divorce from his white wife of many decades. After Prinsloo’s death, Theroux feels at liberty to appropriate this story and write it himself. The result is a remarkable study both of sexual obsession and of white-black conflict. As in the novella, a sado-masochistic folie i deux is suddenly turned on its head. It is the white farmer who at first torments the black woman both physically and mentally. Then, having produced a son, she ruthlessly asserts her dominance over him, eventually ruining him both as landowner and writer.
Hardly less impressive is ‘Scouting for Boys’. In escaping fiom the dreary, mild pieties of their homes and a Roman Catholic scout troop, three adolescent boys find a wild liberation in the nearby woods. There they spy on courting couples, commit acts of minor vandalism, and shoot up a toad with illicit guns. When one of them receives an unwelcome approach from a pederast, they decide to lull the man. In the event they merely wreck the borrowed car which he uses as the base for his seductions. Theroux brilliantly catches both the ignorant savagery of people on the threshold of adulthood, and the gulhbllity and heedlessness of the adults responsible for them.
When I read Theroux’s early novels way back in the Seventies, I felt that here was a writer on the road to greatness. Since then the journey has been rewarding for him and intermittently rewarding for the reader, without his ever convincing me that he had arrived at that destination. This collection shows him both at his meretricious worst and at his formidable best.