Posts Tagged ‘Ella Maillart’

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.

Benedict Allen: The Skeleton Coast

September 7, 2020

Although I’ve read quite widely about travellers in many deserts, accounts of the Kalahari are few and far between and hard to come by, but this companion book to a BBC series from 1997 turned up; I’ve read one or two things previously by Benedict Allen and enjoyed them, as well as his door-stopper of an anthology of exploration. My father had told me about the Kalahari when I was a boy, and I know that his journey from Siberia to this country had included several months necessary rest and recuperation from starvation and illness in South Africa, but I don’t know whether he ever got to see the actual desert.

First thing: the map is excellent and means pretty much every step of his journey along the coast of Namibia by camel can be followed on it. The diary form works well, too, bringing a sense of immediacy as well as emphasising the hardship; yes, you know he’s going to survive because he writes the book in the end, but you share the journey quite intimately.

Allen conveys the weirdness of the place in good, atmospheric descriptions, which are accompanied by some amazing photographs. There is a sense of a place lost in time, which is emphasised by all the settlements which have been abandoned to the desert. The journey he proposed to undertake was a serious challenge, even at the end of the twentieth century, and many doubted that it could actually be done.

So what you get through his daily entries is a gripping, straightforward account of a very difficult journey, his enjoyment and endurance, and the feeling that he is a part of the place through which he travels. In some ways his manner and approach remind me of the travels of Michael Asher, which you can find reviewed elsewhere in this blog. His determination is important, and the sense that he feels part of the places through which he travels comes over effectively, though he is not travelling as a seeker in the same sense as someone like Ella Maillart, for instance. He enjoys the advantages and privileges of being a relatively wealthy and sponsored Westerner, but these do not intrude, are not flaunted or obvious; here is a real traveller.

In the end, another explorer of whom I felt envious: much as I’d love to do something like that myself, I know I’m not the sort of person who could; I admire anyone who can.

Amandine Roche – Nomade sur la voie d’Ella Maillart

August 27, 2020

81a+PrLYM5L._AC_UL320_     I’ve remarked before how little the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart is known over here, despite having written most of her books in English. She is much more popular in Europe, and this book is another ‘tribute’ to her: a French traveller attempts to follow in her footsteps seventy years later, in the early years of this century, and it’s quite instructive. I read it in the hope of understanding a little more of Maillart’s philosophy of life, some of which I had gleaned from Olivier Weber’s book.    

The book is very uneven: at times Roche’s travelling and encounters appear very superficial, and some stretches of her journey are sketched at breakneck speed: Maillart she isn’t, and this isn’t her fault. Her comparisons of the places Maillart visited and how they are now are very interesting, especially when we feel she is as engaged with people and surroundings as much as Maillart was. There are major changes: there is Islamic fundamentalism, and the limits it places on the possibilities for travel; there is the disintegration of the USSR, its fragmentation into numerous barely functioning statelets (Maillart travelled through the Soviet Union in its very early days); China is now a communist empire rather than a failed state in the middle of a civil war and experiencing a Japanese invasion; travel is so much more mechanised… and then there are the places which really do seem virtually unchanged since the 1930s, particularly in Tibet and Nepal. In poorer and more remote regions of the former USSR, Roche encounters a good deal of nostalgia for the good old days of communism among ordinary who have not been on the make.

What became clearer to me was what I picture as Ella Maillart’s flight from Europe in the wake of the horrors of the First World War, a continent where civilisation and its values had either vanished or been found severely wanting. It’s almost as if she could see the future unfolding as she gravitated towards India as the Second World War approached, stopped travelling and began an interior journey instead. I feel that one of the values of Roche’s travels and writings is how, via the inevitable comparisons, Maillart’s quest becomes clearer. At times, I also felt Roche had a tendency to romanticise rather. Travel in the 2ist century is certainly very different, and much harder, in many ways.

It’s when she’s in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China that Roche feels so much more immersed, more detailed and more observant; her reflections on how thing do or do not change over time show clearly that we are not necessarily progressing as a species. She happened to be in Kabul on 9-11: certainly chaos did seem to follow her about at times!

One thing was really unsatisfactory: clearly five years in India shaped the second half of Maillart’s life, and Roche did not really provide too many clues about those experiences. Nor – and this was a great surprise, especially since she mentions her intention of doing it – does she visit the places in Southern India where Maillart spent those five years of the Second World War.

I’m glad I read this book; I feel a little more informed, and the personal narrative of how things have changed over time is worthwhile. But the maps are poor…

August favourites #19: Travel writer

August 19, 2018

Male travellers and explorers are often out to prove something, particularly more recent ones, and I often find this tiresome: I’m expecting to read about places and peoples, not egos. If a writer is going somewhere because it’s there, out of curiosity, then I warm to them, as I did to the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart when I was first introduced to her writing some twenty years ago. Although she began writing in French, she soon switched to English; nevertheless it’s the French and the Swiss who have kept pretty much all her writing in print. She travelled quite widely in the early days of the Soviet Union, blagging her way to various places where foreigners weren’t wanted and onto expeditions that got her to those places; she travelled very widely in the Middle East and central Asia, and from China to India through forbidden territory during the Chinese civil war and Japanese invasion of that country… and ended up in India reflecting and meditating on the meaning and purpose of her existence. Maillart was an intrepid woman moved by curiosity about and real empathy with those among whom she lived for months, sharing their lives and dangers, and travelling at a time when places weren’t easily accessible, and instant communication was not available.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach: Où est la terre des promesses?

August 18, 2018

51oUriYpn5L._AC_US218_Anne-Marie Schwarzenbach was a friend of the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart, about whom |I’ve written a number of times; they travelled together to Afghanistan by car as the Second World War was about to break out. Maillart recounts this journey in The Cruel Way/ La Voie Cruelle and Schwarzenbach’s account is in this book. The accounts are quite different: Schwarzenbach was a drug addict who was attempting numerous cures to rid herself of her dependency, and in some ways this journey, with a companion, and to places she loved, was another attempt to break her habit, through cold turkey. Ultimately, it failed. Schwarzenbach concentrates almost exclusively on her impressions of people and places and most of the time you would not know Maillart was her companion; Maillart on the other hand is conscious of a sense of duty/loyalty/care/protectiveness to her friend and we never lose sight of her in The Cruel Way…

Schwarzenbach’s descriptions of the beauty of the places through which they travel have a lyrical, almost ethereal quality to them, and more than once I did wonder if she had been under the influence when she wrote. There is a genuine sense of thrill, excitement even, at being on the edge of what was regarded as the civilised world, further and further from the cotton-wool safety of the West, even as it moved inexorably towards another war. There is a Westerner’s innocence as she describes the simplicity of people’s lives and their great friendliness and hospitality; nevertheless she is aware of the difficulties they must undergo, particularly during the harshnesses of winter in the Hindu Kush or the foothills of the Himalayas, and of the limitations to women’s lives under the strictest of interpretations of Islam. In fact, these are the most interesting sections of her book: as a woman, accompanied by another woman, they do have access to so much more than a male traveller would ever experience, and Schwarzenbach does her best to ask questions and discover the truth about how women feel and behave. Such a picture from nearly eighty years ago fascinates both by its detail and by our knowledge of how little seems to have changed.

Schwarzenbach’s love for Afghanistan – or is it its remoteness? – comes across powerfully, and she is also aware of a society, in the late 1930s, at the cusp of change as the inevitable influence of Western technology and life possibilities begin to percolate a very isolated society, and destined irrevocably to change their world…

There is an excellent explanatory postface and notes in the French paperback edition, and the map is adequate, too.

Peter Fleming: News From Tartary

March 2, 2018

510EcZdDwsL._AC_US218_It was good to come back to this classic travel account from the 1930s, a journey through the unknown from Peking (as it was then called) to India, through wild and lawless territories, during various Chinese civil wars, without real authority and never knowing whether one might be turned back at any point… whilst making one’s way through some of the most inhospitable territory on the planet.

Fleming was a correspondent for The Times, and had made several other interesting and arduous journeys previously; he has that gung-ho British upper-class game-for-anything approach, without being a twit, and on this journey he travelled with the Swiss adventurer Ella Maillart, for the sole reason that they both wanted to make the journey, and thought it might be easier for them to succeed together; they survived the seven months that it took, and seem to have made a decent team, at least from Fleming’s account. It is clear how his admiration of her stamina and capacity for organisation and endurance – from an amateur like himself to the professional Ella, as he himself puts it – increasingly impressed him. I shall, sometime soon, re-visit her account of the same journey in Oasis Interdites.

It’s clear that the two of them were basically 1930s hippies with a ‘well, let’s go and see what happens’ approach. I am still astonished by the rudimentary nature of the gear that travellers took with them in the past; theirs included marmalade, cocoa, six bottles of brandy and… two typewriters! Fleming closely observes and record the details of their journey, and maintains a philosophical attitude to the possibility of failure. He is urbane, civilised, curious, interested; he takes the time and several chapters to clarify the various Soviet (and British, and Indian and Chinese) machinations going on in Xinjiang province. And he remains calm when faced with interminable waits and delays where they are at the mercies of various officialdoms and dare not insist too much given the inevitable irregularities of their situation… A dry sense of humour keeps him optimistic, and sane. His ode to tsamba, the staple diet of the region, is a masterpiece.

The regions through which they travel are incredibly remote; many people have never seen a European before. Just when you think they cannot head into somewhere more remote, they do. It is a seriously long, dangerous and gruelling journey, of the kind it is no longer possible to make in our times, and it isn’t just the phlegm of a certain kind of Brit, or the organisational capabilities of a more seasoned adventurer, that get them through the two thousand plus miles. It is the urge to do something not done before, to see if it might be possible. On Fleming’s part there is a certain amount of curiosity about the territory and its peoples, and a recognition that this world, so very different from the one he is heading back to, has its attractions despite its arduousness. The last stages of their journey, down into British India – the Raj – are positively surreal, both for the travellers and the reader.

Olivier Weber: Je suis de nulle part

February 3, 2018

51Em0ULZj1L._AC_US218_This is the nearest I’ve come to an account of Ella Maillart‘s life, although it’s written by an admirer, and is selective in its detail, rather too eulogistic to be a true biography. Indeed, I know of no other travel writer who seems to have established such a cult following of – worshippers is too strong a term – younger followers who seem determined to track her every footstep as far as is possible, in the quest for what exactly I’m not quite sure. Clearly, Maillart exerts quite a spell.

She spent her younger years learning to sail with a friend on Lake Geneva; she was a sporting type generally, uninterested in academic achievement or success. She came to crave adventure early, experiencing, in common with many others of her time, the strong desire to leave post-Great War Europe far behind, regarding it as a world and a way of life that had completely lost its way and meaning in the recent horrors. Thus her need to travel gradually became an awareness also of her need to explore within, and find meaning to her life, for herself; re-reading this book I was much more aware of her roaming as a quest for inner meaning and purpose, too.

Despite all her hopes, her sailing and navigation skills never got her anywhere exciting, and she found herself drawn to Asia, where perhaps the people and life would be different. She set off for Moscow by train with only a rucksack full of food, and stayed for months as a curious observer of the new and totally different world of the Soviet Union, though never deceived into imagining it a utopia, as many Westerners of the time were. There followed a number of lengthy trips into the Caucasus, to Central Asia, to China during the civil war and period of Japanese occupation of Manchukuo, from where she travelled back over the Himalayas to India in the company of English Times correspondent and traveller Peter Fleming (his account of this journey, in News From Tartary, is an excellent complement to hers), to Persia and Afghanistan, and finally to India, where she came to a halt.

Maillart was clearly profoundly changed by her experiences of these journeys, by the lives of others and their closer, more intimate connection with the world; in her late thirties, at the start of the Second World War, she declined to return to Europe but remained for several years in Southern India, exploring and practising the teachings of a well-known guru, living a very simple life with a cat as a companion…

Maillart supported herself and her frugal needs through her writings, photography and occasional film-making, and giving public lectures and conferences on the far-flung places she had visited; she had many contacts with well-known writers, travellers of her day.

Her present-day admirers and followers, in Europe rather than in Britain where she remains relatively little-known, seem to be attracted both by her travels and adventures, and her inner quest, reflecting, I suppose, the relative emptiness that more and more people find in our society and our civilisation, where money, material goods and consumption seem to be the main reason for existence. I find her story attractive and interesting, but I certainly don’t share her sense of adventure! Her enjoyment of the different, the other, and her search for deeper meaning to life I very much do share, and revisiting this book, particularly the closing chapters about the second half of her life, when she had largely retired to a small village in the Swiss mountains, I came to understand her better. There is no side to her, and a genuine rapport with those among whom she travels and shares a common humanity: in this, for me she resembles Wilfred Thesiger and Michael Asher. And yet in her restlessness she goes deeper, acknowledging our nomadic past where unending physical movement connects with our spiritual search for significance in a vast and beautiful world.

If you are interested, there is an informative website: http://www.ellamaillart.ch/index_en.php

This is getting just a little ridiculous

January 31, 2018

Is there anything better about what I do, compared with watching TV every night, binge-watching box-sets, playing computer games for hours? Am I any the better or wiser for all this hoovering up of knowledge? Surely I’m just frittering my life away like everyone else does?

What got me this evening was realising that I have a reading list longer than the rest of my life, and it’s growing; occasionally I joke with friends that I’m saving this or that activity or place to visit ‘for my next existence’, and it has become no joking matter. Currently I’m re-reading Je suis de nulle part, a sort of biography of Ella Maillart (see my last post) by a contemporary admirer of hers. It’s reminded me I need to re-read Oases Interdites, her account of travels in China and India in the 1930s, and then also News From Tartary by Peter Fleming, as the two made the same journey together and wrote different and equally fascinating accounts of it. Then, as Maillart travels to Afghanistan with her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach, I fell the need to re-read her account of the same journey, and also several more books of hers that I haven’t yet read; so far I’ve resisted the temptation to order them all…

And then it turns our that Maillart knew Erika and Klaus Mann; I read Erika Mann’s fictionalised account of the gradual Nazification of her homeland last year and wrote about it, then took Klaus Mann’s autobiography down from the shelf – bought in 1987 and still unread! But now I want to read that, and, of course that reminded me of Stefan Zweig, and I have been wanting to go back to his autobiography for a while now…

You can see how I might be starting to feel that this is becoming ridiculous. Then I will set all these books up in a pile waiting to tackle them, read a couple and get side-tracked onto something else, and eventually have to put the rest of then away for another time. I’d already mentally made a couple of plans for which book I’ll take away with me to read on my Ardennes walking holiday in April, and will have to revise those plans.

Sometimes, I imagine giving up reading for a year to see what it would be like. One day, perhaps. Meanwhile, I need to calm down and come back to my senses: lying on the sofa with a good book, Bach or Chopin playing, and a bottle of good beer to drink… there’s not much better to do at this time of year.

Ella Maillart: Cette réalité que j’ai pourchassée

January 24, 2018

51D5DJ3YHVL._AC_US218_Every now and then I’m drawn back to Ella Maillart, my favourite travel writer. If you’re interested, you’ll find plenty about her and her books at various places in this blog. My latest re-read is of her letters home to her mother over a period of some twenty years of her travelling.

Although as a Swiss citizen Maillart was spared direct experience of the horrors of the Great War, they were nevertheless common knowledge, and my impression of her early years sailing and travelling is that she was striving to escape Europe, the cradle of such horrors.

Letters home to a parent are inevitably much more personal than more carefully crafted and written travel accounts, composed in peace and quiet rather than dashed off in the hope of catching an occasional postal opportunity from the middle of nowhere. So the letters have an immediacy, almost like extended postcards from a holiday destination at times. There’s not much detail, description or analysis of what she encounters, and in some ways this is quite revealing. Her youth is much more evident, as is her incredible sense of adventure, too. Here is a young woman who is open to all experiences, seemingly carefree in her approach to any journey…

She also seems to be everywhere, because suddenly there is a lapse of time in the sequence of letters and she is no longer writing from the Soviet Union but from Iran, or India. Maillart was more widely travelled than I remember – she did not write about every single trip she made – and her accounts are also a reminder of a very different world from ours today, a world much less dangerous in terms of organised violence and warfare and where entire regions are off-limits to travellers, but at the same time potentially a risky world for the individual traveller because it was less connected, because the stranger was the unknown, and perhaps much more easily attacked and robbed, even killed.

Maillart comes across as completely unfazed by anything, very patient in a time where travel was so much slower and where much waiting was inevitable: she just gets on, enjoys the next adventure, coping with privation and poverty as she shares the lot of those among whom she finds herself.

Writing home was incredibly complicated; letters took incredibly circuitous routes and long periods of time to (possibly) arrive at their destination. Often she sent duplicates via different routes, and in those days it seems that a country’s diplomatic representatives were ready to do rather more to help their citizens than is the impression nowadays.

Maillart lived to the age of 93, and yet her serious travelling life was over before she was half that age. Through these letters perhaps more clearly than in her books, which are discrete accounts in the way that a series of letters is not, we see that ultimately her travels and her personal search turn inwards, as she realises that what she has been seeking through movement is actually more likely to be found in the stillness within herself. Reflecting on the fortune of her homeland being spared the horrors of the Second World War, she nevertheless took herself far away from Europe, to several years of contemplation in India. Not only is her travel writing fascinating, but her accumulated wisdom shines though.

Christmas Books 2017

December 26, 2017

5178JPz9XvL._AC_US218_5190gvBe8QL._AC_US218_I’m trying – with not a great deal of success – to cut down on the number of books I acquire, so I put rather fewer new books on my wish list this year. I also look at said wish list rather infrequently, so the books I received this Christmas, only four, (!) came as very pleasant surprises, and I shall very much look forward to reading them.

For the record, I received Montaigne by Stefan Zweig, Au Pays des Sherpas by Ella Maillart, All Things Made New by Diarmaid MacCulloch, and the wonderful Explorer’s Atlas.

I have long enjoyed Montaigne’s essays, his way of looking at and reflecting on the world, and indeed the way he may be said to have invented and developed that literary form, and although I haven’t thus far enjoyed Zweig’s fiction, I have found his non-fiction thought-provoking. Some of my readers will know of my passion for the travels, writings and photography of Maillart, the Swiss traveller: here is more for me to enjoy. And having used 2017’s being the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation as an excuse to revisit some religious history (see this year’s posts passim), MacCulloch’s recent collection of essays will no doubt shed some more light and raise a few more questions. The Explorer’s Atlas is the nearest I get to coffee-table delights and I’m really looking forward to it.

These should keep me going until the new year, at least…

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