The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro and Other Stories [NOOK Book]

Overview

"This is my only story. Now that I am sixty I can tell it." He, the narrator, was a twenty-one-year-old art student traveling the world. She was a countess -- apparently cold, haughty, and inaccessible -- traveling with Haroun, her ambiguous companion. When the young man makes their acquaintance at a hotel in Sicily, he finds himself filled with unexpected lust and playing a part in something he doesn't quite understand. Filled with Theroux's typically effortless but devastating descriptions of people and places, The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro ...
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The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro and Other Stories

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Overview

"This is my only story. Now that I am sixty I can tell it." He, the narrator, was a twenty-one-year-old art student traveling the world. She was a countess -- apparently cold, haughty, and inaccessible -- traveling with Haroun, her ambiguous companion. When the young man makes their acquaintance at a hotel in Sicily, he finds himself filled with unexpected lust and playing a part in something he doesn't quite understand. Filled with Theroux's typically effortless but devastating descriptions of people and places, The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro is a brilliant portrayal of aging and decay, a shocking tale of sensuality in a golden age.
The thrill and risk of pursuit and desire mark the accompanying stories of the sexual awakening and rites of passage of a Boston boyhood, the ruin of a writer in Africa, and the bewitchment of a retiree in Hawaii. This is Paul Theroux at his most allusive and wise, writing with a deep understanding of the frailties of men and boys.
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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
The corruption of the flesh—by age and by lust—is the prevailing obsession of Theroux’s story collection. In the title novella, a young American student meets an idle German countess at a Sicilian hotel; envying her aloofness, he lets himself be recruited as her lover and discovers in himself the seeds of brutality. Elsewhere, an Afrikaner novelist forfeits his career for a one-armed black schoolteacher who invites him to treat her as a sexual slave. The life-changing affair with a woman of a different age and class is a creaky plot, but Theroux’s psychological ruthlessness strips it of cliché. These are less stories than parables, weighted by an old-fashioned certainty that we must pay for our sins. Only in the final tale, about a lonely multimillionaire’s desire for his sturdy cleaning ladies, does a note of pity creep in.
The Washington Post
… such writing points toward Theroux's great strength as a writer: his ability to evoke the physical, the sensual. Most notable, in a collection that can be redeemingly considered as a series of descriptive moments rather than of convincing narratives, is "A Judas Memoir," four impressionistic snapshots of a child's life in Medford, Mass. (the author's hometown), in which Theroux relishes the opportunity to focus on recalled sights, smells and sensations. The narrative becomes happily immersed in circumstantial detail: a church "that smelled of hot wax and candle smoke and damp wool and a residue of incense, all the stinks of veneration"; the frightening face of a nun with "pale skin and a half-plucked mustache and a black hood like a villain, no lips and crooked teeth and a bristly chin." Or -- further proof that Theroux, the evocative prose stylist, remains ever worth reading -- two boys running in the woods, in fear: "He was right behind me, running hard, feeling the same panic that frightened me, the going-nowhere running of a bad dream, skidding on the soil that was cool and moist from the end of day, like running on fudge." — Stephen Abell
Publishers Weekly
Theroux's characteristic haze of exoticism hangs over this uneven collection of two novellas and two stories, ushered in by the gothic title novella, which tells a tale of sexual perversity in Taormina, Sicily, in 1962. Gilford Mariner, a young American artist, is traveling around Italy imagining himself as a hero in an Antonioni movie. But when he encounters a rich German countess ("the Gr fin") and her consort, Haroun, a Chaldean doctor, the movie turns into a Visconti: baroque, kinky and slightly kitschy. Haroun pays for Mariner to become the Gr fin's lover, an alternately arousing and demeaning chore from which Mariner is only released when Haroun reveals the countess's "secret." In the four parts of "A Judas Memoir," Andy, the narrator, is a preteen Catholic in Medford, Mass., in an era when sexual repression meant something: the 1940s. Evelyn Frisch is a bold nymph who shows Andy the wonders of female urination in his back yard before his parents put a stop to it. We then jump to the affair between a horny schoolmate's mother and a milkman, and the perplexing discovery, on the part of Andy and his buddies, that the local priest, Father Staley, is a pedophile. In "An African Story," a Afrikaner farmer/writer is disastrously fixated on a one-armed black woman. Finally, in "Disheveled Nymphs," a retired lawyer becomes so infatuated with the mother and daughter team who clean his house in Hawaii that he stalks them on their vacation to Vegas. Theroux's title story is bigger on portentousness ("This is my only story," it begins) than revelation. By contrast, the quieter moments in other stories (Evelyn Frisch's giggling micturations, the Hawaiian maids' casual putdowns) are real gems of observation. (Jan. 12) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Theroux is justifiably renowned as one of our foremost chroniclers of the expatriate experience. In this collection of stories, he once again proves his adeptness at exploring otherness-whether the setting is a hotel in Taormina, the streets of Boston, a cottage in South Africa, or a luxurious home in Hawaii. The connecting thread is the power of desire-its thrills, its dangers, and its rewards. The title story focuses on a 60-year-old man who returns to the hotel where, 40 years prior, he was seduced by a mysterious German grafin (countess). With this return to the past, he learns that " at sixty you have no secrets, nor does anyone else." In Boston, a young Catholic boy becomes acquainted with the first stirrings of desire and the dangerous path it can take. And so it goes with an Afrikaaner writer who falls in love/lust with a black schoolteacher and a wealthy retired lawyer who finds himself enamored of his Hawaiian housekeepers. What becomes clear here is that human desire is the true universal that ultimately transcends our separateness. Readers should be warned of some graphic sexual depictions. Otherwise, this is highly recommend for public and larger academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/03.]-David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From Theroux the wanderer, the story of a wandering American who becomes a German aristocrat's concubine, and other, lesser, tales. When not spitting out his venom at the real world that he loves to traverse, Theroux (Hotel Honolulu, 2001) likes to dash off fiction, which, although well-informed by his travels, rarely lives up to the nonfiction. During his last travelogue (Dark Star Safari, 2003), he occasionally mentioned that he was penning an erotic story, which one assumes to be the centerpiece of this newest collection. It's a roughly hundred-page novella that skips by like a thirty-pager and concerns a young American idling about a Sicilian town in 1962. He becomes entranced by a wealthy couple staying at the luxurious Palazzo D'Oro and makes the acquaintance of the man, Haroun, a Chaldean from Baghdad, who is not the golden-haired woman's spouse, but doctor. Soon Haroun has the American ensconced in a room at the Palazzo and is trying to entice him into becoming the lover of the woman-an older German baroness of steely, arrogant beauty. The relationship, once begun, is more like a battle than an affair, with the American serving to satisfy the baroness's insatiable masochism in the bedroom even as she ridicules him outside it: "She intended to enrage me so that later, in her room, I would dominate her and treat [her] as my slave." The story has a sun-baked, self-consciously decadent, Barry Unsworth feel that makes it enjoyable in a sleazy way. Of much less effect are the four Boston-set tales that follow, well-crafted glimpses of angst-fraught adolescence, but nothing especially memorable. Meanwhile, Theroux can't stay away from travel or sex for long, and in "An African Story," anolder, white South African farmer gets involved with a black woman and, sure enough, discovers her to need punishment: "sex is about power." Material that still leaves you wishing Theroux would chuck the imagineering and get his cantankerous self back on the road.
From the Publisher
Supremely moving. A master class in detail and sensuous evocation.
The Financial Times of London

Yet another stimulating volume in [Theroux's] impressive canon.
The San Francisco Chronicle

Erotic intrigue is at the heart of these stories, each of which renders familiar territory wonderfully strange.
Vogue

For armchair adventuring, STRANGER AT THE PALAZZO D'ORO is golden.
Boston Herald

an accomplished book by an accomplished writer (B+) Denver Rocky Mountain News

Therou'x prose is shot through with gentle melancholy, evoking the complexities of matters of the heart with subtlety and grace. (3.5 out of 4 stars) People Magazine

Theroux has rarely been in better form.
The Los Angeles Times

futher proof that Theroux, the evocative prose stylist, remains ever worth reading.
The Washington Post

Compelling reading.
Charlotte Observer

Theroux has the ability to capture people and places that are achingly beautiful Pittsburg Post Gazette

Theroux uses his precise, realistic style like a scalpel...a marvelous yarn.
Providence Journal

a satisfying mix of tales...[Theroux's] stories are engrossing and evoke an air of sensuality.
The Oregonian

Oddly beguiling...dramatically rich.
Contra Costa Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547345611
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 6/22/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 464,526
  • File size: 254 KB

Meet the Author

Paul Theroux

PAUL THEROUX is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include The Lower River and The Mosquito Coast, and his renowned travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. He lives in Hawaii and on Cape Cod.

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Read an Excerpt


1 This is my only story. Now that I am sixty I can tell it. Years ago, when Taormina was a village most travelers avoided in the summer, because of the heat, I sought it out, to feel the heat. Heat was everything in the poem “Snake,” that D. H. Lawrence wrote in Taormina. Great names and associations also mattered to me, which was another reason, lingering in the steep town of old stone and fresh flowers, I stopped by the Palazzo d’Oro, loving that name too. Beyond the gilded cast-iron faces on the spiked gateway to the terrace, I saw a handsome couple, a golden-haired woman and a beaky-faced man, dressed in loose white clothes enjoying a big Italian lunch. I imagined being seated at that table. I thought, I want your life — the sort of envious wish I was too young to know was like asking for my undoing.
I always excused my waywardness by saying that I was poor and so was forced into this or that course of action. The truth was that I enjoyed taking risks. I should have been ashamed. It was not that I behaved badly, rather that I was secretive and seldom straight. I was creative in my lies. Saying I was poor was one of them.
The world knows me as a hero. My paintings are like good deeds, the pictorial record of my lifetime of travel, the nearest thing to the pharaonic “profession of sinlessness” — the negative confession: all my arduous journeys, the discoveries I made my own, the arrivals I turned into triumphs. At a time when celebrated painters stayed home and splashed paint or used slide rules, or glued feathers and broken pots to canvases, painted stripes and circles and whole large monochromes, I was in distant lands painting portraits of people in their landscapes — ornery people, kind people, all of them native, none of them posing. I have had my detractors, professional critics mostly, who carped about the explicitness of my line, my clear figures, their sideways glances, but I believe that what rankles are my other figures, the profits I have made. Yet my patrons and collectors have defied the belittlers and chosen to travel with me through my pictures, my exotic views, the many series available in signed lithographs, Pictures of India, Pictures of China, Pictures of Africa — not single pictures but narratives.
When I am disparaged for painting “accessible” pictures I say that my strength is storytelling. What I have never said is that the most resourceful storytellers are the ones who avoid a particular story, the only story the teller has; the very avoidance of it is the reason for the other, wilder tales. The source of fantastic narratives is often this secret, the fantasist using a concealment to hint at the truth, but always skirting the fundamental story. Or the stories may not be bizarre, but numerous and various, for the same reason. This is one ritual of creation. As I say, this is my only story.
Such a traveler as I was could easily have found a way to return to Taormina, but I steered clear of the place, even when I was traveling in Sicily. I resisted, yet I knew that the time would come, when I was myself turning sixty. Not old — though everyone else seemed to think so.
At fifty, I had painted a birthday self-portrait of my watchful face, and the subtle suggestion of the haunted eyes only made people praise it for seeming beatific. Ten years passed. But sixty was not an occasion for that sort of self-portrait. I needed to travel, and in the same spirit as before, for in travel I became someone else — in this case, in my birthday month, the person I had once been, a boy of twenty-one, in the hot summer of 1962, when I found myself in Sicily, being rebuffed by a girl I liked, Fabiola, a principessa. “It means nothing here!” The title meant something to me, though. I had followed her to Palermo from Falconara and Urbino — more lovely names — but she was home in Sicily and it was forbidden in those days for her to be seen with me unless we were engaged, or nearly so. She had to be my fidanzata, I had to tell her I loved her, otherwise she was a slut, she said. Maybe she suspected I was not very serious, just a brash, too young American (Fabiola was twenty- three) searching for the Italy of Fellini and Antonioni, hungry for experience. I told her I was an existentialist — it was a popular word in the Italy of 1962 — because it was a convenient way of avoiding responsibility. I was intense, impatient, game, and wary of being trapped. These qualities made me a loner. Fabiola wanted romance, she wanted me to adore her. Love me, was the appeal in her eyes, love me and I will give you what you want, but to me love was surrender, love was death. In those days I swore I would not utter the word.
And then I had my life, forty years more,, the ones that matter most: the years of family and struggle, love and acclaim, but with enough disillusionment and loss to show ttttthere would be worse to come in the tapering off nearer my death.
In Sicily again, a man of sixty, I retraced my steps, avoided the good hotels, looked for traces of my earlier self. Palermo was a more Americanized place these days, and freer — women using cell phones, men in blue jeans, even the nuns looked somewhat secular in their dowdy dresses. I called Fabiola, but she was unknown at the only address I had for her and she was not in the phone book. I prowled and looked for the past and found very little that related to the frugal boy I had been, moving lightly through Sicily.
I took the train to Messina, changed for the express to Catania, got off at Taormina-Giardini, climbed the hill, as I had done many years before, glad for this chance to test my memory, sketching in my head, mumbling as I do when I want to remember.
Hotels stand up better than restaurants. The Palazzo d’Oro on the Via Roma was surrounded by newer and fixed-up places yet it had aged well. I was relieved to see that I could happily stay there again, to recall the old days, and do some serious sketching, and write my story — making this visit a significant occasion, or, more than that, a kind of ceremony, a ritual to mark the passing of all those years.
Walking by the pool, a new pool, I saw a girl of no more than seventeen, with short untidy sun-struck hair, sprawled on a striped chaise longue. She was topless, small breasts with no weight in them. Her legs were open, her hands behind her head, a Balthus fantasy but only for seconds, for she crossed her legs, yanked on her knees, rolled over, plucked at her gold bikini bottom like a sprite, half innocent half wicked, or else just a bored teenager. I was tormented. Because she did not see me I stared, and could not take my eyes off her — breasts so small and firm, nipples so pale they made her seem chaste.
I was led past her by a room boy in a robe and a white skullcap — Arab, a Moro in the Palazzo d’Oro.
The young sunbathing girl reached for a glass of pink liquid and drank. I watched her drinking, loving the motion of her neck muscles working in a pulsating way, her throat filling as she swallowed. I imagined that she was looking at me over the rim of her glass.

In 1962, on my way from the Via Fontana Vecchia, where Lawrence had lived and — I guessed — written his lovely poem of sorrow and self-accusation, I had lingered by the wall of this palazzo. I was struck by the name, the images of the gilded faces, and, still looking around, the sight of the man and woman at lunch. I had wanted to stay but had no money for anything except one of those very dirty places on the road below the town, between the public beach and the railroad track. I was hot and tired, having traveled third class on the train, a slow train, and at just this time of year, in the heat.
In those days I traveled with one change of clothes. I wore a seersucker jacket over a T-shirt, and a pair of jeans. My bag was so small I didn’t look like a traveler but rather like a student on his way from school with books and papers. With so little to carry it was easy for me to explore and make sudden decisions: to stay, to move on, to kill time at the beach, to hitchhike, or to sleep third class on the night train to save money. It was not until nightfall that I would decide where to stay, and now it was hardly midmorning in Taormina. I imagined writing someone — perhaps the Principessa, Fabiola — a letter on the headed notepaper of the Palazzo d’Oro. I saw a sheet of it on a menu posted near the terrace — the two gilded Moorish faces, and palm trees, a glimpse of Africa in Sicily.
From my room, I saw my younger self entering the hotel, crossing the hot terrace, passing the wall of yellow glazed tiles, ordering a cup of coffee and asking for a glass of water, pretending to be poised.
And where that half-naked teenager lay on the chaise longue there had been an awning — few people sunbathed in Sicily then — and under it the couple near the pool wall, like lovers, wearing identical Panama hats, the woman in white, and wearing lovely lacy gloves, intent in conversation, no one else around.
From a distance — and I had been a little bleary-eyed from my sleepless night — the golden-haired woman looked young and attractive — mid-thirties, maybe — and the man seemed more attentive than a husband. I took them to be lovers for the way he beseeched her, imploring her, looking helpless, the way Fabiola beseeched me. The meal set up in front of them looked delicious — the sorts of salads and antipasti served at lunch in the Italian summer, yellow tomatoes, red lettuce, sliced meat, lobster tails, prawns, olives and pickles, artichokes and palm hearts, fruit drinks in tall glasses, and this lovely day, the blue sea in the distance, a rising trickle of gray smoke from Etna, and the squat thick-walled palazzo. The two people looked magical in their white hats under the big green awning.
Thinking again, I want your life, I envied them with an envy I could taste on the roof of my mouth, something unfamiliar and corrosive. They had no idea how lucky they were, and I tried to imagine displacing them, being at their table myself this fine Sicilian noon, eating lunch, with nothing else to do, with a room in this amazingly named hotel. My curiosity made me bold. I got up and strolled nearer to them as I made sketches of the glazed plates and the flower vines on the wall and the beautiful blue sea beyond the tops of the poplars and cypresses. Often bystanders said to me, “Let’s see,” asking to look at my sketches.
The couple said nothing and, closer to them, I realized that only the sea was real.
The sun’s glare had been kind to the woman, had smoothed and simplified her features. I could see from her lips that she was older than I had guessed, a tight white fish face and bleached-blond hair, a very skinny figure — a girl’s stick figure, somewhat starved. But I was still intrigued by her hat and her sunglasses and her strawlike hair and her gloves of lace. The man was scribbling on a pad, the meal was untouched and probably inedible.
I was on the point of walking back to my table when the man said hello and beckoned. The way he crooked his finger, and his intonation, told me he was foreign, not Italian.
“We want to see your sketches,” he said.
Just as I had guessed, yet I hesitated.
“You’ll have to show us, you know,” he said with the sort of confidence I associated with wealthy people. “There is no one else here.” In the moment of saying okay I was betrayed by my first feeling, my sense of I want your life. I had seen these people as lovers enjoying a romantic lunch. I could not have been more mistaken.
I knew at once that I was wrong and it seemed to me that I would have to pay for this envious feeling of finding them attractive and wishing to displace them and wanting what they had. I approached their table feeling disappointed and yet compelled to follow through, for I had nowhere else to go.
“Have you just come to Taormina?” “I’ve been here awhile,” I said, being evasive. “In town doing some drawings and a little literary research. D. H. Lawrence lived up the road in the Via Fontana Vecchia in the 1920s.” Ten minutes at Lawrence’s house, looking for a water trough to sketch. I could not tell them the truth, or give anything away: the hard seats of third class, the long walk up the hill, the stink of cigarettes called Stop, were just too awful.
“His wife was German,” the woman said in a correcting tone. “Thomas Mann was also here.” The statement, and her accent, told me she was German, but she said nothing else. The man, who was swarthy and yet fine-featured, with a thin face and a beaky nose, did the rest of the talking, praising my sketches and asking questions. I answered him untruthfully to put myself in a good light.
I had been wrong about their ages. A twenty-one-year-old knows nothing of time and cannot assign anyone an age — thirty-eight is old, forty is hopeless, fifty is ancient, and anyone older than that is invisible. Desirable and ugly are the only criteria. The German woman was not ugly, but in attempting to appear young she seemed faintly doll-like and trifled with.
Yet they were obviously rich, and the rich to me then were like the mythical El Dorado: a race of golden giants, powerful in every way, even physically superior, protected, able to buy anything, confident, speaking a special language and, from their towering position in their palaces, regarding only each other. It was painful for me to think about the couple in this way. I tried to forget how limited my choices were. And how, if I were to succeed in life, I would have to penetrate that palace and inhabit it — not lay siege to its fortifications but insinuate myself, creep in through a mouse hole, use the postern.
The woman seemed to be smiling to herself and presenting her profile to me, her chin slightly lifted on a lacy finger of her gloved hand.
“We were just talking about opera, what a shame it is that the Teatro Greco here has no production,” the man said.
This was a helpful cue. I had no material resources but I was well read, I spoke Italian, and in my determined self-educating mission I had tried to know as much as possible about opera.
I said, “I’ve just seen a new production of Otello in Urbino.” “The common people love Mr. Green,” the woman said.
“Not Verdi’s Otello,” I said.
This seemed to perplex them, which pleased and emboldened me.
“Rossini’s Otello. They did the version with the happy ending.” “French opera is more to my taste,” the man said.
“I wish Bizet had succeeded with Salammbô.” “There is no Salammbô,” the woman said, a querulous tone of literal-minded contradiction pinching her face.
“He never finished it. Flaubert wouldn’t let him.” Was what I was saying true? Anyway they believed it. They were listening closely to my cleverness. Instead of dealing with Wagner or Verdi, whom they would have known well, I made myself seem intelligent by mentioning obscure works. We would take the others for granted — though I knew very little, just the records, not the performances. Removing the great works from the discussion deflected their scrutiny. I was young but rich in ruses.
“I get tickets for Glyndebourne every year.” Saying this, the woman revealed that the man was neither husband nor lover. Otherwise she would have said “we.” The man was a flunky or a friend.
“We have very good opera where I come from. In Boston. And at Tanglewood, in Lenox.” “I have heard so,” the man said.
This was to impress them with the fact that they were dealing with a bright and cultivated person.
“You’re right — it’s a shame they don’t use the Greek theater here for operas.” “Well, they do of course,” the man said.
Fearing that I had revealed my ignorance, I risked another generalization and said, “I mean, this summer,” and the man nodded, and I knew I was flying blind.
“The seats are so hard,” the woman said. “I refuse to sit on marble stone. I want a soft chair in a balcony!” Spoiled bitch, you’re supposed to think, but I admired her for her forthrightness and for being uncompromising. No Greek ruins for me, forget the ancient stone benches of Siracusa and Taormina.
We talked some more — trivialities about the heat, the blinding brightness of noon, the wildflowers, the emptiness, the absence of visitors.
“It is why I come,” the woman said.
Again that “I” told me she was in charge and the man a mere accessory.
“Have you had lunch?” the man said with a gesture that took in all the plates of food. “You are welcome to help yourself.” I was ravenous yet I said, “No, thank you.” I was too proud to accept, and anyway, by my seeming restrained and polite they would be reassured and would respect me more.
“You will forgive us?” the man said, and picked at some salad. The woman, still with her gloves on, and using a silver tool, pierced olives from a dish of antipasto and nibbled them.
“Such a pleasure to talk with you,” I said, and excused myself. I went back to my table, my empty coffee cup, and opened my sketchbook again and indulged myself in shading a sketch I had done.
The couple conferred some more. Then the woman got up slowly and, in a stately way, for her white dress was long and lovely, she left the terrace, shimmering in the dazzling light. The man paid the check — the Italian business, the saucer, the folded bill, the back and forth, and more talk with the waiter. When the waiter left, saucer of money in hand, the man came to my table.
He looked at me intently and then smiled in a familiar way, as though he knew me well. “I have arranged for you to stay here,” he said. “I was once a student” — I had started a polite protest — “no, no. It will be pleasant to have you as a neighbor. We will talk.” He had read me perfectly.

Copyright © 2004 by Paul Theroux. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Table of Contents

Contents The Stranger at the Palazzo d’Oro 1 A Judas Memoir I. Holy Week 111 II. Pup Tent 136 III. Seeing Truman 154 IV. Scouting for Boys 163 An African Story 225 Disheveled Nymphs 265

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First Chapter

1
This is my only story. Now that I am sixty I can tell it. Years ago, when
Taormina was a village most travelers avoided in the summer, because of the
heat, I sought it out, to feel the heat. Heat was everything in the
poem 'Snake,' that D. H. Lawrence wrote in Taormina. Great names and
associations also mattered to me, which was another reason, lingering in the
steep town of old stone and fresh flowers, I stopped by the Palazzo d'Oro,
loving that name too. Beyond the gilded cast-iron faces on the spiked
gateway to the terrace, I saw a handsome couple, a golden-haired woman
and a beaky-faced man, dressed in loose white clothes enjoying a big Italian
lunch. I imagined being seated at that table. I thought, I want your life — the
sort of envious wish I was too young to know was like asking for my undoing.
I always excused my waywardness by saying that I was poor and
so was forced into this or that course of action. The truth was that I enjoyed
taking risks. I should have been ashamed. It was not that I behaved badly,
rather that I was secretive and seldom straight. I was creative in my lies.
Saying I was poor was one of them.
The world knows me as a hero. My paintings are like good deeds,
the pictorial record of my lifetime of travel, the nearest thing to the
pharaonic 'profession of sinlessness' — the negative confession: all my
arduous journeys, the discoveries I made my own, the arrivals I turned into
triumphs. At a time when celebrated painters stayed home and splashed
paint or used slide rules, or glued feathers and broken pots to canvases,
painted stripes and circles and wholelarge monochromes, I was in distant
lands painting portraits of people in their landscapes — ornery people, kind
people, all of them native, none of them posing. I have had my detractors,
professional critics mostly, who carped about the explicitness of my line, my
clear figures, their sideways glances, but I believe that what rankles are my
other figures, the profits I have made. Yet my patrons and collectors have
defied the belittlers and chosen to travel with me through my pictures, my
exotic views, the many series available in signed lithographs, Pictures of
India, Pictures of China, Pictures of Africa — not single pictures but
narratives.
When I am disparaged for painting 'accessible' pictures I say that
my strength is storytelling. What I have never said is that the most
resourceful storytellers are the ones who avoid a particular story, the only
story the teller has; the very avoidance of it is the reason for the other, wilder
tales. The source of fantastic narratives is often this secret, the fantasist
using a concealment to hint at the truth, but always skirting the fundamental
story. Or the stories may not be bizarre, but numerous and various, for the
same reason. This is one ritual of creation. As I say, this is my only story.
Such a traveler as I was could easily have found a way to return to
Taormina, but I steered clear of the place, even when I was traveling in Sicily.
I resisted, yet I knew that the time would come, when I was myself turning
sixty. Not old — though everyone else seemed to think so.
At fifty, I had painted a birthday self-portrait of my watchful face,
and th subtle suggestion of the haunted eyes only made people praise it for
seeming beatific. Ten years passed. But sixty was not an occasion for that
sort of self-portrait. I needed to travel, and in the same spirit as before, for in
travel I became someone else — in this case, in my birthday month, the
person I had once been, a boy of twenty-one, in the hot summer of 1962,
when I found myself in Sicily, being rebuffed by a girl I liked, Fabiola, a
principessa. 'It means nothing here!'
The title meant something to me, though. I had followed her to
Palermo from Falconara and Urbino — more lovely names — but she was
home in Sicily and it was forbidden in those days for her to be seen with me
unless we were engaged, or nearly so. She had to be my fidanzata, I had to
tell her I loved her, otherwise she was a slut, she said. Maybe she suspected
I was not very serious, just a brash, too young American (Fabiola was twenty-
three) searching for the Italy of Fellini and Antonioni, hungry for experience. I
told her I was an existentialist — it was a popular word in the Italy of 1962 —
because it was a convenient way of avoiding responsibility. I was intense,
impatient, game, and wary of being trapped. These qualities made me a
loner. Fabiola wanted romance, she wanted me to adore her. Love me, was
the appeal in her eyes, love me and I will give you what you want, but to me
love was surrender, love was death. In those days I swore I would not utter
the word.
And then I had my life, forty years more, the ones that matter
most: the years of family and struggle, love and acclaim, but with enough
disillusionment and loss to show there would be worse to come in the
tapering off nearer my death.
In Sicily again, a man of sixty, I retraced my steps, avoided the
good hotels, looked for traces of my earlier self. Palermo was a more
Americanized place these days, and freer — women using cell phones, men
in blue jeans, even the nuns looked somewhat secular in their dowdy
dresses. I called Fabiola, but she was unknown at the only address I had for
her and she was not in the phone book. I prowled and looked for the past and
found very little that related to the frugal boy I had been, moving lightly
through Sicily.
I took the train to Messina, changed for the express to Catania,
got off at Taormina-Giardini, climbed the hill, as I had done many years
before, glad for this chance to test my memory, sketching in my head,
mumbling as I do when I want to remember.
Hotels stand up better than restaurants. The Palazzo d'Oro on the
Via Roma was surrounded by newer and fixed-up places yet it had aged well.
I was relieved to see that I could happily stay there again, to recall the old
days, and do some serious sketching, and write my story — making this visit
a significant occasion, or, more than that, a kind of ceremony, a ritual to
mark the passing of all those years.
Walking by the pool, a new pool, I saw a girl of no more than
seventeen, with short untidy sun-struck hair, sprawled on a striped chaise
longue. She was topless, small breasts with no weight in them. Her legs
were open, her hands behind her head, a Balthus fantasy but only for
seconds, for she crossed her legs, yanked on her k rolled over, plucked
at her gold bikini bottom like a sprite, half innocent half wicked, or else just a
bored teenager. I was tormented. Because she did not see me I stared, and
could not take my eyes off her — breasts so small and firm, nipples so pale
they made her seem chaste.
I was led past her by a room boy in a robe and a white skullcap —
Arab, a Moro in the Palazzo d'Oro.
The young sunbathing girl reached for a glass of pink liquid and
drank. I watched her drinking, loving the motion of her neck muscles working
in a pulsating way, her throat filling as she swallowed. I imagined that she
was looking at me over the rim of her glass.

In 1962, on my way from the Via Fontana Vecchia, where Lawrence had lived
and — I guessed — written his lovely poem of sorrow and self-accusation, I
had lingered by the wall of this palazzo. I was struck by the name, the
images of the gilded faces, and, still looking around, the sight of the man and
woman at lunch. I had wanted to stay but had no money for anything except
one of those very dirty places on the road below the town, between the public
beach and the railroad track. I was hot and tired, having traveled third class
on the train, a slow train, and at just this time of year, in the heat.
In those days I traveled with one change of clothes. I wore a
seersucker jacket over a T-shirt, and a pair of jeans. My bag was so small I
didn't look like a traveler but rather like a student on his way from school with
books and papers. With so little to carry it was easy for me to explore and
make sudden decisions: to stay, to move on, to the beach, to
hitchhike, or to sleep third class on the night train to save money. It was not
until nightfall that I would decide where to stay, and now it was hardly
midmorning in Taormina. I imagined writing someone — perhaps the
Principessa, Fabiola — a letter on the headed notepaper of the Palazzo
d'Oro. I saw a sheet of it on a menu posted near the terrace — the two gilded
Moorish faces, and palm trees, a glimpse of Africa in Sicily.
From my room, I saw my younger self entering the hotel, crossing
the hot terrace, passing the wall of yellow glazed tiles, ordering a cup of
coffee and asking for a glass of water, pretending to be poised.
And where that half-naked teenager lay on the chaise longue there
had been an awning — few people sunbathed in Sicily then — and under it
the couple near the pool wall, like lovers, wearing identical Panama hats, the
woman in white, and wearing lovely lacy gloves, intent in conversation, no
one else around.
From a distance — and I had been a little bleary-eyed from my
sleepless night — the golden-haired woman looked young and attractive —
mid-thirties, maybe — and the man seemed more attentive than a husband. I
took them to be lovers for the way he beseeched her, imploring her, looking
helpless, the way Fabiola beseeched me. The meal set up in front of them
looked delicious — the sorts of salads and antipasti served at lunch in the
Italian summer, yellow tomatoes, red lettuce, sliced meat, lobster tails,
prawns, olives and pickles, artichokes and palm hearts, fruit drinks in tall
glasses, and this blue sea in the distance, a rising trickle of
gray smoke from Etna, and the squat thick-walled palazzo. The two people
looked magical in their white hats under the big green awning.
Thinking again, I want your life, I envied them with an envy I could
taste on the roof of my mouth, something unfamiliar and corrosive. They had
no idea how lucky they were, and I tried to imagine displacing them, being at
their table myself this fine Sicilian noon, eating lunch, with nothing else to do,
with a room in this amazingly named hotel. My curiosity made me bold. I got
up and strolled nearer to them as I made sketches of the glazed plates and
the flower vines on the wall and the beautiful blue sea beyond the tops of the
poplars and cypresses. Often bystanders said to me, 'Let's see,' asking to
look at my sketches.
The couple said nothing and, closer to them, I realized that only
the sea was real.
The sun's glare had been kind to the woman, had smoothed and
simplified her features. I could see from her lips that she was older than I had
guessed, a tight white fish face and bleached-blond hair, a very skinny
figure — a girl's stick figure, somewhat starved. But I was still intrigued by
her hat and her sunglasses and her strawlike hair and her gloves of lace. The
man was scribbling on a pad, the meal was untouched and probably inedible.
I was on the point of walking back to my table when the man said
hello and beckoned. The way he crooked his finger, and his intonation, told
me he was foreign, not Italian.
'We want to see your sketches,' he said.
Just as I had guessed, yet I hesitated.< us, you know,' he said with the sort of
confidence I associated with wealthy people. 'There is no one else here.'
In the moment of saying okay I was betrayed by my first feeling,
my sense of I want your life. I had seen these people as lovers enjoying a
romantic lunch. I could not have been more mistaken.
I knew at once that I was wrong and it seemed to me that I would
have to pay for this envious feeling of finding them attractive and wishing to
displace them and wanting what they had. I approached their table feeling
disappointed and yet compelled to follow through, for I had nowhere else to
go.
'Have you just come to Taormina?'
'I've been here awhile,' I said, being evasive. 'In town doing some
drawings and a little literary research. D. H. Lawrence lived up the road in the
Via Fontana Vecchia in the 1920s.'
Ten minutes at Lawrence's house, looking for a water trough to
sketch. I could not tell them the truth, or give anything away: the hard seats
of third class, the long walk up the hill, the stink of cigarettes called Stop,
were just too awful.
'His wife was German,' the woman said in a correcting
tone. 'Thomas Mann was also here.'
The statement, and her accent, told me she was German, but she
said nothing else. The man, who was swarthy and yet fine-featured, with a
thin face and a beaky nose, did the rest of the talking, praising my sketches
and asking questions. I answered him untruthfully to put myself in a good
light.
I had been wrong about their ages. A twenty-one-year-old knows
nothing of time and cannot assign anyone an age — thirty-eight is old, ancient, and anyone older than that is invisible. Desirable
and ugly are the only criteria. The German woman was not ugly, but in
attempting to appear young she seemed faintly doll-like and trifled with.
Yet they were obviously rich, and the rich to me then were like the
mythical El Dorado: a race of golden giants, powerful in every way, even
physically superior, protected, able to buy anything, confident, speaking a
special language and, from their towering position in their palaces, regarding
only each other. It was painful for me to think about the couple in this way. I
tried to forget how limited my choices were. And how, if I were to succeed in
life, I would have to penetrate that palace and inhabit it — not lay siege to its
fortifications but insinuate myself, creep in through a mouse hole, use the
postern.
The woman seemed to be smiling to herself and presenting her
profile to me, her chin slightly lifted on a lacy finger of her gloved hand.
'We were just talking about opera, what a shame it is that the
Teatro Greco here has no production,' the man said.
This was a helpful cue. I had no material resources but I was well
read, I spoke Italian, and in my determined self-educating mission I had tried
to know as much as possible about opera.
I said, 'I've just seen a new production of Otello in Urbino.'
'The common people love Mr. Green,' the woman said.
'Not Verdi's Otello,' I said.
This seemed to perplex them, which pleased and emboldened me.
'Rossini's Otello. They did the version with the happy ending.'
'French opera is more to my taste,' the man said.
Salammbô.'
'There is no Salammbô,' the woman said, a querulous tone of
literal-minded contradiction pinching her face.
'He never finished it. Flaubert wouldn't let him.'
Was what I was saying true? Anyway they believed it. They were
listening closely to my cleverness. Instead of dealing with Wagner or Verdi,
whom they would have known well, I made myself seem intelligent by
mentioning obscure works. We would take the others for granted — though I
knew very little, just the records, not the performances. Removing the great
works from the discussion deflected their scrutiny. I was young but rich in
ruses.
'I get tickets for Glyndebourne every year.'
Saying this, the woman revealed that the man was neither
husband nor lover. Otherwise she would have said 'we.' The man was a
flunky or a friend.
'We have very good opera where I come from. In Boston. And at
Tanglewood, in Lenox.'
'I have heard so,' the man said.
This was to impress them with the fact that they were dealing with
a bright and cultivated person.
'You're right — it's a shame they don't use the Greek theater here
for operas.'
'Well, they do of course,' the man said.
Fearing that I had revealed my ignorance, I risked another
generalization and said, 'I mean, this summer,' and the man nodded, and I
knew I was flying blind.
'The seats are so hard,' the woman said. 'I refuse to sit on marble
stone. I want a soft chair in a balcony!'
Spoiled bitch, you're supposed to think, but I admired her for her
forthrightness and for being uncompromising. No Greek ruins for m Siracusa and Taormina.
We talked some more — trivialities about the heat, the blinding
brightness of noon, the wildflowers, the emptiness, the absence of visitors.
'It is why I come,' the woman said.
Again that 'I' told me she was in charge and the man a mere
accessory.
'Have you had lunch?' the man said with a gesture that took in all
the plates of food. 'You are welcome to help yourself.'
I was ravenous yet I said, 'No, thank you.' I was too proud to
accept, and anyway, by my seeming restrained and polite they would be
reassured and would respect me more.
'You will forgive us?' the man said, and picked at some salad.
The woman, still with her gloves on, and using a silver tool, pierced olives
from a dish of antipasto and nibbled them.
'Such a pleasure to talk with you,' I said, and excused myself. I
went back to my table, my empty coffee cup, and opened my sketchbook
again and indulged myself in shading a sketch I had done.
The couple conferred some more. Then the woman got up slowly
and, in a stately way, for her white dress was long and lovely, she left the
terrace, shimmering in the dazzling light. The man paid the check — the
Italian business, the saucer, the folded bill, the back and forth, and more talk
with the waiter. When the waiter left, saucer of money in hand, the man
came to my table.
He looked at me intently and then smiled in a familiar way, as
though he knew me well. 'I have arranged for you to stay here,' he said. 'I
was once a student' — I had started a polite protest — 'no, no. It will be
pleasant to have you as a neighbor read me perfectly.

Copyright © 2004 by Paul Theroux. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.
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