Posts Tagged ‘Ella Maillart’

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.

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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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Ella Maillart – photographs

November 21, 2017

Every now and then I get out my collection of large-format books of photographs from the Swiss traveller’s journeys in the East and marvel at them; I’ve just revisited them.

Ella Maillart was an amazing woman in many ways; a sportswoman, skier and sailor at Olympic level (Paris 1924) at a time when few women were doing such things; a solo traveller in all sorts of interesting and dangerous places – the Soviet Union in its early days, China during the Japanese occupation and civil war, and the Middle East and India generally. I don’t think she counts as an explorer, but her travels took her on many dangerous routes, probably rarely if ever trodden by outsiders. She observes, participates and records with understanding and without judgement or superiority.

I have become more intrigued by her Swissness; as I gradually tracked down and read all her books, and collections of photographs, I came to see how she had a completely different perspective on many things. Switzerland was not affected by the Great War, which meant her childhood experiences were rather different from those of most Europeans. I formed the impression that Swiss neutrality let that nation look on shocked and horrified whilst the rest of the continent tore itself to pieces in mutual slaughter, but equally allowed its nationals to move around ways not available to citizens of other countries. Similarly, the nation watched horrified as Europe drifted inexorably towards the action replay of 1939, and Maillart took the decision, being in a position to leave Europe behind, to head east once again; indeed by then her voyages had become increasingly interior and spiritual, and most of the second world war years were spent in India…

This time around, it was her photographs I was revisiting; black and white photos from the days when the art was far more primitive in the sense of dependent on the skills of the artist, rather than the technology as it is today. True, she had a state-of-the-art camera (a Leica) but it’s her selection of subjects – people and places – that enchant. There is a timelessness about many of her images, a sense of being a part of a permanent past where things didn’t change, and for many of the people and places that was true in those days. I was particularly struck by the faces – the inscrutability – of those who were possibly being photographed for the first time in their lives and must have had no conception of what a camera was, or a photo could be…

The books of photos are all good, all hard to track down now; there is some overlap between them, and useful commentary and context, too.E

Charles Blackmore: The Worst Desert on Earth

August 3, 2017

I’ve read quite a few accounts of travelling through and around the Taklamakan (the name apparently means you can go in, but you won’t come out) desert, most notably by Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming, who skirted it in the 1930s as they escaped war-torn China, and Sven Hedin, who explored parts of it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It seems to vie with the notorious ‘Empty Quarter‘ of Saudi Arabia for the title of the most inhospitable and empty area of the planet, and is perhaps the more inaccessible because it lies on the edge of a very sensitive area of the People’s Republic of China: an area inhabited by Uighurs who seek autonomy, and the Lop Nor desert where the Chinese test their nuclear weapons…

So, no-one had attempted to walk through the middle of this desert before, until Charles Blackmore, and army major, got the idea and contrived to set up a joint Anglo-Chinese expedition to do it. It was another of those semi-bonkers ‘because it was there’ ideas that get people doing insane things. Blackmore and his team enjoy considerable advantages as privileged army and ex-Army folk with contacts with moneyed people in the City; nonetheless the setting up and finding sponsorship for the expedition was not that straightforward. It was certainly useful having people with army logistics experience.

The expedition – which took place in the mid-1990s – was successful, and this is Blackmore’s account of it. On the ground, in the worst desert on earth, privilege, money and experience count for almost nothing, and it was a very gruelling exploit, touch and go due to illness, lack of water and friction between the British and Chinese. From what felt – from his account – like a typically old-fashioned British gung-ho approach to preparation and organisation, almost as if it were a spot of Munro-bagging, we move to serious slow trekking through extremely difficult terrain without any real maps: in spite of modern technology, almost nothing is known or recorded about a huge area, the edges of which were explored by men like Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin a century previously.

There was a decent map in the book, which enabled me to work with my collection of maps and atlases to follow the journey in more detail. What I never really got a true feel for was the visual aspect of the terrain; description isn’t one of Blackmore’s strongpoints, and he’s much more interested in the interactions between people and the psychological effects of the task and the place on the expedition members (not that these aspects aren’t interesting). Apart from the vastness of the terrain, the endless dunes and the sand, that was about it, apart from the one moment when they came across ruins of a settlement some seventeen hundred years old which had been mentioned by one of the previous explorers: then I got the sense of how the desert heat and dryness can preserve remains for vast lengths of time…

It was worth a read, and clearly was an astonishing achievement, although in the end the book wasn’t quite the account I had been looking forwards to.

Ella Maillart: La Vie immédiate

January 5, 2017

51si-hpbtjl-_ac_us174_Many years ago when I was on holiday in France, I asked a bookseller in Dinan about travel writing, and he introduced me to the writing of Ella Maillart, a Swiss woman who travelled widely in the Middle East, China and India in the 1920s, 30s and subsequently. I never looked back: this was the last and hardest to find of her books, so my collection and enjoyment is complete.

It’s a book of her photos from many of her journeys, taken with her trusty Leica camera – she was one of the first people to have one – presented and introduced by her friend and traveller Nicholas Bouvier. There are some marvellous images that take one back into the first half of the last century, in distant parts of the world, atmospheric because of their age. They may lack the full-colour splendour of what the National Geographic magazine used to print, but they make up for it for me in their connection with one of the last few real travellers.

Maillart travelled in the Soviet Union in its early days, reaching places she wasn’t meant to go to; she travelled in central Asia; through China to India in the days of the civil war and Japanese invasion, in the company of Peter Fleming, a correspondent for The Times (his account of their trip, News From Tartary, is also well worth reading); in Afghanistan at the start of the Second World War and in India during that war. And her travels were hard work, gruelling, in the company of local people. She couldn’t escape from difficult situations by hopping on a plane or a train, she didn’t ease her poor Western limbs and sensibilities by taking time off in a luxury hotel when she got tired… she experienced the real life of the places through which she travelled, the difficulties and the hardships, and these willingly, as she gradually came to realise that she was not just on a physical journey, but on her own emotional and spiritual journey of self-discovery. It’s for these reasons that, to me, her observations and accounts feel far more real and interesting than most more recent travel-writing.

Initially Maillart wrote in French but soon turned to English so that most of her writings are accessible here, although also long out of print: she hasn’t been re-discovered yet. She used the proceeds from her writings – books and magazine articles – to finance her travels. She was extremely lucky to have been Swiss, in the sense that the two world wars did not directly impinge on her in the ways in which they would have done to almost any other European; she and her friends were appalled at what Europe had managed to do to itself in the Great War and were quite happy to leave it behind; equally, as the next nightmare approached, Maillart left for the other sideof the world.

I find her writing inspirational, in a way: she threw herself into her travels and became a part of them. There’s no European standing aloof or apart from people and places, and pontificating about them: she participates, shares, describes with a humility and an equality as well as an enjoyment of where she is and what she is doing, that is simple, healthy and life-enhancing, and I admire her more than any other traveller I have come across so far.

On religion

December 30, 2016

It’s not a very easy subject for fiction, really: too many toes to tread on, too many people to offend. But anything should be open to a writer, and there are some that have tackled the subject, in a number of original and interesting novels.

I remember finding Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge very liberating as a teenager, when I was wrestling with religion myself, prior to giving it up and trying to leave it behind for twenty years or more… That is another story, but the novel was about a young man’s quest to find himself, and something to really believe in and bring some meaning to his life, and that struck a chord with me at the time. I suppose it introduced me to the idea of a personal spiritual journey, something that I’ve now realised I’ve been engaged in all my life and will only reach the end of at the end. The hero eventually makes his way to India – a place that loomed large in the consciousness of many in the late sixties and early seventies – and explores Eastern religions and beliefs.

Later I came across Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha is a short novel, enigmatic, imagining the life and spiritual development of the Buddha. When I first came across it, I didn’t really understand it; more recently I’ve listened to it a couple of times in an excellent librivox recording and it’s made me think much more deeply. As a student, though, it was Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund that really moved me and had a powerful effect on me, through its exploration of the contrasting secular and spiritual journeys of its two protagonists and the ways in which they were so deeply interconnected.

Novelists who have encompassed Christianity in fiction are rather harder to recall. There was Nikos KazantzakisThe Last Temptation, which scandalised many when it was filmed, and the disturbing Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, which looks at the attitudes of inquisitors as they go about their work. I’ve come across – though can only vaguely recall – a couple of interesting science fiction stories which imagine God sending his Son Jesus to other worlds, to alien intelligences, and what might have happened to him on those planets: sacrilege to some, but legitimate speculation for others. I have yet to read Philip Pullman’s novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ; I don’t know why I have managed to avoid it for so many years.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s astonishing The Master and Margarita takes in the story of the trial, condemnation and execution of Christ, from the perspective of Pilate and his wife. It’s only one strand of the novel, but is skilfully woven in, and makes one think, as a good writer will.

A final mention, not of a novelist but of one of my all-time favourite travel writers, Ella Maillart, who, after years of travelling and exploring the East, was drawn to India and its religions on her own spiritual journey as she strove to make sense of a world which had descended into the Second World War; her account of some of her search can be found in her book Ti-Puss, which I really enjoyed: her years of motion and restlessness brought her to calm fixedness in India for a number of years, and seemingly allowed her to make some sense of her life in her later years.

Philosophy in literature

February 11, 2016

I wrote generally about philosophy in a recent post, and it occurred to me I should develop my thoughts and look at philosophy in the literature I’ve read.

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I suppose I must first have met it when I read Sartre‘s novels all those years ago: The Age of Reason, The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul seem to have been compusory teenage reading in the ninetee-seventies – all that existentialism, and attempting to live by it. It made a stunning BBC TV series in the seventies, too, one that I and many others would live to see again, but I’ve never really felt tempted to return to the novels.

Another philosophical novelist I encountered at roughly the same time was Hermann Hesse, and I have returned to some of his novels recently (Narziss and Goldmund, and Siddartha, via Librivox). In the former, his two heroes spend their lives seeking out paths to live by, one through religious and contemplative life and the other through travel, exploration of and involvement with the world; it’s still one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. Siddartha tells the story of the development of the Buddha; it’s still, for me, the clearest exposition of Buddhist teachings and way of life I’ve read, and far more accessible than that faith’s philosophical and sacred texts.

Again, as a teenager, I read Somerset Maugham‘s The Razor’s Edge, another story of the search for a way to live and a meaning to life, a bildungsroman of the kind that would appeal to a teenage male looking out at the potential of the whole world for the first time.

Interestingly, the philosophical novel took a back seat for many years as I got on with living my life, rather than thinking about it. In passing, I encountered Russian novelists such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, both noted for wandering off-piste to philosophise about the world and the meaning of life for while, whenever it suited them…

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One of my favourite novels of all time, which I only came across a decade or so ago, is Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life. It explores and espouses quietism and flight from the world, perhaps a perfectly understandable response to the Great War. And also quite stunning in terms of its evocation of a sense of place.

If asked to choose my favourite travel writer of all time, I think it would be the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart, whose travels and explorations in the first half of the twentieth century led her to India and Hindu philosphy and yoga in her search for tranquillity and a meaning to existence towards the end of her wanderings; Ti-Puss is an account of some of her time and adventures in Southern India.

Most recent discovery of philosophy in a novel (only available in French, I’m afraid) is the story of the eleventh century Arab doctor and savant Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. Gilbert Sinoué‘s novel Avicenne ou la Route d’Ispahan is a marvellous imagining of his life, trials and tribulations.

I’ve often written of, and spoken about, novels that have made me think; those I’ve mentioned above have taken that quality a level deeper, as it were.

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