Archive for the 'travel writing' Category

Jan Potocki: Voyages

May 15, 2022

     I bought this because I was planning to re-read his amazing novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and then watch the film; I hadn’t known much about his life or that he was widely travelled, in the years at the end of the eighteenth century when his native Poland was gradually being dismembered and removed from the map of Europe.

Potocki is a careful observer with a good eye for detail and a focus on the exotic (or what would have seemed exotic to a European traveller at the time). The book is extremely well presented with a very detailed commentary and copious annotation, rather like the current Hakluyt Society volumes in the UK. The one thing seriously lacking is maps of any sort, to allow the curious reader to track the traveller’s progress.

It’s a strange mish-mash of places: travel through Holland during a revolution, extensive travels through the then Kingdom of Morocco, travels in Astrakhan, and detailed analysis of why a Russian diplomatic mission to the court of the emperor of China was an utter fiasco. Morocco is closely described, and Potocki seems to avoid Western prejudices against Arabs and Islam. The minutiae of events at a chaotic time in Morocco now seems rather dull and dreary stuff, though.

Descriptions of peoples, places and customs in Astrakhan are rather more interesting; perhaps Potocki was one of the first Westerners to travel there and write a detailed account? He comes over as erudite and a seeker out of knowledge, balanced in his approach, eschewing the racism and bigotry often found in accounts of that time. He’s not only interested in the peoples – and lists and differentiates many of them – but also their languages, and the differences between them: a researcher in the sense we would understand the word.

The piece on the mission to China is fascinating. Potocki is far more aware of the demands of diplomacy, of understanding others and how their approach might differ from his own, of the necessary sensitivities and protocols required in such situations, than are the Russian diplomats he accompanies. They plod woodenly on, it seems, trampling on every sensitivity until the Chinese basically tell them to clear off, that the mission will not be received…

Having said all that, reading the book was something of a chore and I am not going to recommend it to you unless you have similar and quite particular interest as I do. Not a piece of light travel reading for a casual reader.

On choices and prejudices

February 8, 2022

My reaction to The English Patient has had me thinking. Regular and long-term readers of this blog will know that I have occasionally admitted to gaps in my reading, and to certain preferences – prejudices, even – in what I choose to read.

We all make choices about what we read or don’t read; as I get older, mine are increasingly based on limited time. But that won’t do as an excuse. There are fellow bloggers I follow with interest who only write about women’s fiction, or science fiction, for example; I’ve no way of knowing whether these are deliberate choices or their exclusive reading matter. I write about every book I read; very occasionally, if I’ve re-read a book quite quickly but have nothing to add, I won’t write about it a second time.

So where have all my prejudices and predilections come from?

Science fiction from my childhood, and from my student days, but I read very little of it now, and most of that is re-reading of old favourites. I used to have the run of the Science Fiction Foundation library as a postgrad and wrote reviews for Foundation magazine. My prejudice now, when I reflect, is due to my impression that fantasy has long overwhelmed the market, and I’m not interested in fantasy. Science fiction made me reflect on the world I live in; fantasy is merely escape and doesn’t cut it for me on those grounds.

Travel writing is a relatively recent pleasure, though it’s now fading, ironically, when I can’t do very much of my own. Specifically, I link it to the recommendation by a very helpful bookseller in a shop in Dinan who persuaded me to buy a couple of books by the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart about 20 years ago. I’ve never looked back. My prejudices here are about the kind of travel and the traveller: I like travel that borders on exploration, that involves effort and hardship, where the writer observes and reports rather than centring the narrative around themselves – so a lot of more recent stuff doesn’t get a look-in from me. I’m also picky about where: deserts and isolated places are what I most enjoy reading about; South America, the Far East and a lot of Oceania don’t interest me at all. What’s going on here?

English and American literature I studied for my degree; I necessarily met the ‘classics’, a lot of which I liked, many I didn’t. Dickens and Hardy, for example, bored me stiff and I cannot be bothered with them, a statement many will find rather shocking, no doubt. Most stuff written in the eighteenth century, apart from the very earliest novels, I have completely forgotten. And there was a fair amount of very dull American literature. I’m surprised that the student-era reactions have stuck, and I’ve never gone back to such writing. My main feeling was of twentieth century writing in English largely disappearing into self-obsession and triviality, almost as if there was nothing real left to write about; my regular readers will perhaps recall my saying that I found much more meaningful and relevant writing in other languages, all of which apart from French I have to read in translation.

My deep interest in, and exploration of, Eastern European literature is perhaps a positive prejudice and deliberate choice, given my family background: I seek to understand something of my origins, the history of my father’s country, and the troubled and strange choices made by, and forced upon, nations in that part of the world over the last century or so.

Looking back at what I’ve written, there are clearly some pretty lame excuses! There’s a brief, and not very long-lasting sense of regret about some of the lacunae in my reading, but in the end there’s so much out there to read that I will never get to the end of; I sometimes joke that I’m compiling reading lists for my next existence… And when students used to express amazement at how well-read I appeared to be, I disabused them, referring to my age compared with theirs, and telling them about some of the gaps, and prejudices I’ve confessed to earlier.

There was a time – centuries ago – when it was possible for someone to know or be familiar with everything in their field. I’m both humbled and astounded by people like Athanasius Kircher, who some have described as the last man to have known everything in his time, or Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the internet, who wrote the first encyclopaedia, containing all that was known in his time, the seventh century. My translation of his Etymologies has about 400 pages. So, choices are now inevitable. I’ve made mine, or mine have made me. So be it. What about you?

Colin Thubron: The Amur River

December 30, 2021

     A very welcome Christmas present was this latest book from travel veteran Colin Thubron, an arduous journey along the Amur/Heilongjiang river (and tributaries) which forms the disputed frontier between Russia and China. It was a little while before I registered that Thubron was in his eightieth year (!) when he made this lengthy trip: my admiration increased given the evident physical endurance he needed, and the injuries he sustained. And so there still are incredibly remote, unexplored and relatively dangerous places on the planet for intrepid travellers to explore, even though, as we learn, they are inhabited by peoples who have eked out their living there for centuries…

The joy of such a book is being in the company of someone who writes really well: his style is atmospheric, he is knowledgeable, the prose flows almost effortlessly, and Thubron knows how to not intrude, how not to make his narrative me-me-me-look-at me! His curiosity is evident throughout the book, and for me it’s the mark of a seasoned traveller the way he patiently reports casual conversations and encounters without any commentary or judgement, because he’s aware of his relative lack of knowledge. There is room for him to report a personal reaction or feeling to what he sees or hears, but that’s different, as well as separate from his account. This humility and respect on Thubron’s part remains, even if it’s clear or evident that what someone says is wrong, or sounds incorrect. Thus the horrors of the Stalin era and the collectivised past are allowed to stand and speak for themselves. And they do.

One thing which I learned from this journey and these places is the centuries-old distrust bordering on open dislike, even hatred that exists between Russia and China; I did not really know much about this, other than being aware of military skirmishes way back in 1969. We learn about various treaties which moved borders in various directions, the Chinese sense of injustice, and the different native peoples who had been innocently caught up in the greater powers tussles over their ancient homelands…

It comes across in the way he writes, that Thubron is aware that his picture of both Russia and China is necessarily limited: an outsider, try as they might, can never really know what it is like to live permanently as a citizen of another country, which is why careful impressions offered by a seasoned and thoughtful traveller are so interesting. He is open about what he does not see or cannot understand.

The overall picture which emerged for me was of Chinese dynamism and confidence in its new-found place in the world, contrasted with Russian entropy, and its searching for a sense of itself since the disappearance of the Soviet Union. There is much mutual resentment and dislike.

Necessary explanations and contextualisations are carefully woven in as we go along, and the one map is very useful and very carefully drawn and helpfully labelled, and most of the time was a good deal more use than my collection of atlases. I was, however, disappointed to find no photographs included in such a travelogue. It was hard to conceive of the utter remoteness of some of the places he writes about, and he made me want to return to Vladimir Arseniev’s account of the region. It’s a very good read.

Central Asia: Though Writers’ Eyes

October 29, 2021

     If you’ve never done any armchair exploration of Central Asia, then this anthology isn’t a bad place to start. Although the two sketchy maps are inadequate, there is a very good bibliography and pointers to further reading for those who are more curious.

Initially I found the book odd from the conceptual point of view, consisting as it does of a series of chapters focused on key places in the history of the region, but arranged alphabetically. However, the region is comprehensively covered, with a history of each place supplemented by lengthy quotations from the writings of a good number of travellers though the ages. But the main focus of much of the narrative and quotation is the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with particular emphasis on the ‘great game’, the rivalry between Russia and Britain as we feared the former’s designs on the jewel of the empire, India. So overall, it feels a little unbalanced. There is a good selection of historical photographs, and I have to say my overall opinion of the book gradually improved as it progressed. Quite a few of the books I felt moved to read at some point turned out to be available as free e-book downloads too, via the Internet Archive, which can’t be bad. I think, in the end though, I’d already read rather too much about Central Asia before coming across this book for it to be very enlightening.

Amin Maalouf: Leo the African

July 13, 2021

     I’d no idea it was so long since I last read this novel, which never ceases to amaze me, because it is a (fictionalised) account of a real life, and I really don’t believe you could make it up.

Jews, Muslims and Christians live reasonably peaceably alongside one another in pre-Reconquista Granada; there is a recap of events leading to the fall of Granada to the Spanish in 1492, and the mayhem which follows for those who are not of the Catholic faith. There is the full vileness of the Inquisition, persecution and the inability of Christians to accept that anyone might be different. Our hero, and narrator, is a Muslim. And though it’s technically a novel, it’s also an autobiography: we cannot have the same expectations of plot as we might have of a completely fictional text; the narrative is linear, but we do grow inevitably attached to people and places.

The narrator and his family leave Granada and settle in Fez; we learn of schooling and lifelong friendships. Eventually he becomes a rich and successful businessman, close to those in power, travels widely and is used on various diplomatic missions by the authorities. His weirdest adventure is his kidnapping by Christians and presentation as a gift to the Pope! Here, his knowledge and skills are put to the service of the incredibly corrupt Church at the time of the Reformation; he is baptised against his will, but escapes being ordained priest before one of his missions. In the end, after years of wanderings, he is able to return to his home and family and live out the remainder of his life in peace as a devout Muslim. I had mis-remembered the plot from my earlier readings, and forgotten how small a section of the novel is his life in Rome at the service of the Pope.

I realised that the narrator’s famous book The Description of Africa is based on his travels all over the north of that continent; when I last read the novel, I had yet to track down that book. Leo travels in the footsteps of his earlier Muslim forbear Ibn Battutah, whose journeys a couple of centuries earlier rivalled those of Marco Polo.

I found the first person narrative effective and convincing. In the back of my mind was always the thought, this stuff is true; the narrative style is that of a devout Muslim, whose faith is at the forefront of his life and deeds (most of the time), and the adventures are almost non-stop. Towards the end of the book, the narrator is at the centre of world-changing events, with the Reformation, the attempts of an incredibly corrupt papacy to consolidate its power and build alliances to secure its future, even if this means joining forces with the Ottomans, and also the various rivalries weakening the Muslim world in those tumultuous years.

Over the years I have come to realise how good a writer Amin Maalouf is. Not only has he written some very good novels, but also a number of very interesting historical and social texts in which he presents thoughtful and powerful analysis of the current state of the world. He has received recognition by being elected to the Académie Française, but that’s all, as far as I’m aware. At the moment, I’m reflecting on what is different about Arabic fiction, thinking of Maalouf, and also Naguib Mahfouz in particular. Maybe it’s my position as an ‘outsider’ to their world, but I’m conscious of a different feel to their novels, one which cannot just be explained by the Muslim background that is omnipresent in a way that Christianity isn’t in Western fiction, for instance. Does anyone out there have any pointers?

The search for meaning

June 30, 2021

I’ve clearly reached a stage in my life where I’m looking back and reviewing things, wondering where I’ve got to, and I’ve found myself returning to a number of novels I first read in my student years, with the perspective and hindsight of a lifetime.

I can still remember the powerful effect of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge on me, while I was still at school: the idea of travelling the world searching for what life was all about, and the sense of freedom called to me, and I suppose I responded by becoming a hippy and doing a modest amount of travelling and exploring alternative lifestyles. I came across Jack Kerouac’s famous On The Road while at university, and that reinforced the notion of complete freedom to go wherever the whim took me; not so easy to accomplish in the UK in the 1970s, though. I quickly came to find that book somewhat superficial and haven’t felt the need to go back to it; when I read his Desolation Angels, with its accounts of solitude in the forests, I was more responsive. There has always been a part of me that has craved solitude, and I have always loved forests.

Round about the same time, I encountered Hermann Hesse, and if you look back over the past few months’ posts, you will see I’ve been revisiting his novels; I’ve just re-read my favourite of all time, Narziss and Goldmund, and there will be a post about it in a few days. It’s all about the duality of human nature, being torn between freedom and adventure, and the urge to seek safety and security, issues I’ve felt pulled in both directions by throughout my adult life: there was the immense freedom of my student and hippy days, the era of career, family and responsibilities, and now, in my later years a renewed sense of freedom and openness to do what I like, which is, sadly, a little curtailed by physical ageing. Hesse explores it all, which is why he spoke to my condition all those years ago, and still does. The rather more deliberate spiritual journey he describes in Siddhartha is just as powerful and moving, though in a different way…

More recently – that is, in my adult years – I came to read Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life, which is also about the values of solitude: set after the Great War, a German sea-captain, disgusted by what he has seen and experienced, leaves the world behind for the deep forests of East Prussia, to live with a single companion in a simple hut. It’s a somewhat romanticised vision of solitude, and undercut by the looming Nazi period and the eventual disappearance of the place after the war, but it’s appealing in its portrayal of the attractions of simplicity, away from the noise, complication and corruption of the outside world. I suppose part of my reading of books like that is that I’ve always imagined myself transposed into the setting, and wondered how I would (a) manage (b) enjoy that existence. That goes right back to my very first reading of Robinson Crusoe.

The final writer I’ll mention is not a novelist, but a traveller – and I use that word advisedly – Ella Maillart. She began her travels after the Great War, having experienced a sense of alienation from Europe and what it had just inflicted on itself; the Second World War she spend studying and practising with a guru in India, having realised that the external journeying had become an internal one. I have found her accounts of travel and her reflections on what she saw, experienced and learned through seeing the world, very interesting and enlightening; her move to introspection in her later life is another thing I have come to recognise in myself.

Where this all gets me, I suppose, is an awareness of my internal restlessness, and a strong sense of having been drawn in two different directions as I’ve lived and experienced my life. It has been both helpful and enlightening to learn, through my reading, that I’m not alone in this, and to accept the likelihood that the journey goes on as long as I do… The books I’ve mentioned I have found compelling and powerfully moving whenever I have returned to them, so much so that I often hesitate before picking them up again, knowing that I’m heading for an emotional and mental shake-up.

Robyn Davidson: Tracks

June 12, 2021

     I’m a sucker for books about desert travel and exploration; I’m can’t remember what pointed me at this account from 1980 of a woman who decided she wanted to buy and train camels and travel with them across more than half of Australia, though desert, alone, from Alice Springs to the west coast. The book is an easy read, her tone chatty, and her mind open. And the journey is real travel and adventure, not tourism.

I was struck first by the horrible, open racism of white Australians towards the aboriginal population, and by the ridiculous machismo of white Australian men. Then I realised just how crazy Davidson’s plan was, along with her single-minded determination to succeed, against any and all odds. It quite quickly became evident that the book is as much about Davidson herself, her personal problems, and her developing self-knowledge, as it is about the camels and the desert, and I felt rather deceived, deprived of the account of the desert I had been expecting. A good half of the book has passed before she actually – finally – sets off on the trek.

Everything becomes messier and more complicated than she anticipated. The native Australians are suspicious of her because she is often accompanied by a photographer – she eventually sought sponsorship from National Geographic magazine for the journey. Camels turn out to be rather trickier to manage, and at times she’s less and less clear about what exactly she’s doing, or why. She also offers considerable insight into the world of the aborigines, their lives and the meanings and explanations they have accumulated over millennia of living in some of the harshest conditions on the planet; her revulsion at the whites’ behaviours and attitudes is very evident. The most interesting section of her journey is the one where she is accompanied by a single, elderly aborigine who decides to go part of the way with her; she learns much from the encounter.

Her account also becomes interesting – but only briefly – when she’s alone, and faced with nature in the raw, and she experiences these times as liberating her of all inhibitions, and describes places and feelings in more detail, sometimes conveying a clear sense of the isolation and the beauty of it all.

I’m glad I read it – I did get a sense of the vastness and the emptiness of the continent, as well as the ways it’s being pillaged by whites – but it’s not one I’ll be going back to. Too short on the desert and the description.

W H Davies: The Autobiography of a Super Tramp

May 15, 2021

     Here’s a book written well over a century ago; it’s been in my library since 1985, apparently unread (though I actually have a vague recollection of having read it at some point). It’s an autobiography – well, a partial one – an interesting slice of life which sustains the reader’s interest because it’s so far from the norm, the story of younger years spent on the road, by a man of humble enough beginnings, but with a clear literary bent. Davies is basically fortunate, having been bequeathed a legacy of ten shillings a week, which was actually plenty enough to live on at the end of the nineteenth century…

He ends up in the USA, where he learns the skills and science of being a man on the road, hustling and begging successfully; he recounts several years of adventures bumming around the country, working for a while and then blowing the wages on a spree with his mates, spending time with a whole crowd of varied and interesting characters. Davies is clear, from his experiences, about the friendliness and camaraderie between the down-and-outs, the way they share and look out for each other, and provide companionship for weeks at a time before moving on. It struck me that in a sense these men were the gig economy of their day.

His observations on, and experiences of the racial divide in the Deep South are scary: he witnesses at least one lynching.

Home – England – calls eventually, and although he has not touched it for five years, he acknowledges that the pension he has serves to make him lazy and fritter time away pointlessly, not that he ever comes across as feeling too guilty about this. Home again, he is unable to settle, and heads back over the Atlantic, and the Klondyke goldfields. Suddenly an accident – he falls from a moving train he has attempted to board, and loses a foot – changes everything. He writes of many kindnesses from total strangers in Canada, and then heads back to England to try and make a life as a writer, but cannot manage this, and reverts to a hand-to-mouth existence, which is evidently harder to sustain on this side of the Atlantic. His accounts of all the different ways it’s possible to scrape a living are fascinating, and I am sure that some of the inspiration for George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London must have come from reading this book, which was helped to eventual success by impressing George Bernard Shaw, who contributed the preface. A good, easy and eye-opening read.

Irma Kurtz: The Great American Bus Ride

March 3, 2021

     There is a certain romanticism in the idea of spending three months travelling the entire United States by Greyhound Bus; you certainly wouldn’t get this feeling from thinking about National Express coaches over here…

Here is an unsettling book. Kurtz writes in a very readable, slightly laconic style. We learn a little, but not very much, about her. Her project – criss-crossing the entire country using three months’ worth of bus passes – is about her observations of a slice of American life, mostly focused on people, and very little on the places, meaning that as a piece of travel writing, it’s very frustrating. And the map is too rudimentary to do the job, I’m afraid.

I got an overall impression of the vastness of the country and the distances between places, but then I knew that already. A sense of atmosphere was evident at times. But overall the effect was very disjointed, and I suppose that is inevitable, given that she was travelling rather than stopping to visit places; there was only time in a town or city while waiting for the next connection, really.

So here was a book that did little more than reinforce a good number of the prejudices I have long held about the country and its people. Oddballs tend to gather in bus depots, I knew, and we meet an awful lot of them in this book. And you get a very skewed picture of a country, and a nation, from its bus depots alone. And because Kurtz is basically interacting with random strangers for short periods of time, she tends to categorise and label people. This goes further when she speculates about someone she sees, an approach which increasingly I found somewhere between insensitive and hurtful.

Ultimately I felt it was a wasted opportunity; we might have gained a much deeper insight from such a journey. I could not really see the point of her writing about what she had done, and I certainly couldn’t see the point of inflicting that much physical discomfort, appalling food and encounters with strange folk on oneself. Fortunately, it was a quick and forgettable read, and I am glad that I have read a good number of far better books about travelling the United States, a country I have never visited, and have tried long and hard to understand.

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

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