Literary daybook, Sept. 19

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published September 19, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On Sept. 19, 1966, John and Dick arrive in England.
-- "October the First is Too Late" (1966)
by Fred Hoyle

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1973, Paul Theroux departed on the 15:30 from London's Victoria Station for Paris, the Orient Express, and the 29 other trains that would take him on the 14-week journey documented in "The Great Railway Bazaar." This was the first of Theroux's travel books, and 27 years later it is still on many top 10 lists for the genre. Theroux himself keeps moving, and writing: In an interview for his recent anthology of travel articles, "Fresh Air Fiend" (2000), he said he continues to take at least a half-dozen trips a year, as he has done for 35 years. His fiction, too, has come to bend or borrow from the real travels and traveler. At one point in the "imaginary memoir" "My Other Life" (1996), "Paul Theroux" meets an Iranian woman he only glimpsed in passing during his real Bazaar journey in '73; the fictional woman chews out the fictional author for a comment made by the real author about the real woman -- that she would be found sexually attractive only to one "alone in the Iranian mountains for four months."

Such reflections are deemed "post-touristic" by academics, who write books like "Gender, Genre and Identity in Woman's Travel Writing," containing essays titled "New? Aesthetics of the Road: The Daughters of Thelma and Louise" and "Passing Penelope Pitstop: Contemporary Women Writers and the Internal Combustion Engine." The idea is that the traditional travel writer sticks to glossy cheer, while post-tourists like Theroux tell, and comment, on all. Thus, "The Great Railway Bazaar" can be a trip through the "Turd World" -- Theroux said he took this from V.S. Naipaul's brother, Shiva -- and proof of the "travel is so narrowing" adage. Having escaped on the Khyber Pass Local from the horrors of Afghanistan, Theroux tells several Pakistanis that "they would find an enthusiastic well-wisher in me if they ever cared to invade that barbarous country," and that he'd be happy to ask America to join in on the attack.

The first travel book apparently had the opposite defect. Scholars say that a report by Herodotus on his 5th century B.C. trip to Egypt so uncritically relied on the local spin that it cannot be trusted. Students at Oxford were so delighted by Herodotus' use of such phrases as "Thus the priests of the Egyptians told me ... " that they scoffed in rhyme:

"The priests of Egypt humbugged you,
A thing not very hard to do.
But we won't let you humbug us,
Herodotus! Herodotus!"

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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