Posts Tagged ‘travel writing’

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.

Advertisements

Paul Theroux: Deep South

May 28, 2018

51mXwxzI4VL._AC_US218_This book annoyed me; it felt like a lazy book, in need of decent editing.

I’ve enjoyed travel writing by Paul Theroux in the past, but it has been about his travels in other countries than his own; here he travels through the Deep South of the US for a year, visiting and revisiting at different seasons of the year. He clearly feels deep affection for his country and this part of it, strives to know the region and its people and to understand it, strives to describe and report fairly about a region that has experienced many troubles. And yet, ultimately, I was rather bored.

The book began badly for me, with Theroux mocking a good number of other writers who have made road trips around the US, attempting to show them up to be fakes or imposters who hadn’t travelled properly, who took short-cuts, who pretended to have done what they hadn’t.

It’s very loosely written, rambling often: sketches, vignettes, cameos, all trying to build up an accretive picture of the Deep South. For a non-American reader, there were too many names and too much detail, and no map at all; perhaps some of the names and places may be familiar to an American reader, I don’t know. Perhaps one needs to be an American and to be familiar with the country to appreciate the book, in which case sorry, but the writer hasn’t done his job properly.

There’s much interweaving of references to the literature of the South as well; I failed once in an attempt to read a William Faulkner novel (not that I’m proud of that), and his caustic and snarky remarks about To Kill A Mockingbird came across as the words of a man who thinks he knows the South better, and ‘real’ Southern fiction better, than everyone else. Maybe he does, but Harper Lee‘s novel is far more than he allows it to be…

The country comes across as quite scary in many ways; there’s the inevitable racism and violence, the gun shows, the details of events from the past. I was deeply shocked, even though I have read about it before, by the details of the abject and grinding poverty and third world conditions he describes in so many small towns in the richest and most powerful nation on the planet. Shocked, too, by the stories about US military nuclear facilities, which fit into the Chernobyl pattern in terms of carelessness, sloppiness, lack of care for people and the environment.

I had been looking forward to reading the book and wanting to enjoy it, but didn’t; it needed editing to make it shorter and less shapeless, and a bit more thought for non-American readers, really. Sadly, it felt self-indulgent, in need of a bit more anger, perhaps…

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.

Nothing new under the sun…

November 20, 2017

When are our tastes in literature shaped and formed?

I wrote recently about the phenomenon of older men reading less fiction, and the other day found myself discussing with my daughter the fact that I was not really that interested in much of what was being written now, or indeed films that were being released now, whereas in my student days I had been an avid reader of fiction and an avid film-goer. And we got on to thinking about how early on in life our tastes seem to be shaped and formed. It was interesting to find someone of a different generation in broad agreement with me, and I pondered things further…

I first met Sherlock Holmes, in print and on the wireless, at age seven. I’ve liked detective fiction – or a certain range of it – ever since; I’ve written else where in this blog about my enjoyment of Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Ellis Peters, Josef Skvorecky and others, too, no doubt.

I also first came across science fiction in my younger years, in the junior section of Stamford Public Library when I found the Lost Planet series, by Angus MacVicar. The premise was bonkers, as I recall, visiting a planet that had an orbit somewhat resembling that of a comet so that eventually it would be unreachable from earth, but the notion that there could be life elsewhere, and reachable from earth, stuck with me. As a student I became aware of science fiction with a political and social message, read lots and ended up researching and writing both an MA dissertation and an MPhil thesis on it. And I still keep an eye on what’s being written now, though I read very little of it.

About ten or fifteen years ago, there was a major shift in my reading habits as I began to explore all kinds of travel writing, and you don’t have to look very far in this blog to see how often I’ve written about it. I though this might be an example of a new direction in my reading, until I recall the voraciousness with which I tracked down and read every single book in the Young Traveller series in the local library. Again, a simple and repetitive premise which appeals to younger readers: a family travels – using some vague and largely irrelevant excuse – to a country, meets and converses with people, experiences local customs and food, visits important tourist attractions, all suitably sanitised for a readership of children.

I’ve always read a lot of fiction from other countries, mainly European, but do cast my net more widely. And I remembered friends at boarding school who pointed me at writers like Sartre and Günter Grass, and realised that here was yet another shaping of my literary tastes. Obviously when at university studying French Literature, my outlook broadened further.

So I have found myself wondering – is there anything I’ve acquired a taste for more recently, as in, since my student days of forty years ago? If there is, when I remember, I’ll let you know. But until then, I’m struck by just how much the tastes and interests of one’s life are laid down at a pretty early stage…

Ryszard Kapuściński: Nobody Leaves

April 9, 2017

I’ve long been a fan of Kapuściński’s reportage and travel writing, and still am, even though his reputation has taken quite a serious knock in some quarters with the revelations in recent years of his somewhat cavalier and casual attitude to truth and accuracy, and his propensity for inventing; at times his writing does read a little like the magic realism of novelists like Marquez… I don’t necessarily see this as a flaw, as long as one is aware that it is happening: it seems to be part of his quest, his determination to create a full and clear impression of his subject-matter, to which he always displays a great sensitivity.

Context is important, too: although a citizen of the Polish People’s Republic, and a respected journalist with great freedom to travel, and benefitting from a light touch from the censor, he did nevertheless have to operate under certain constraints: perhaps his chosen approach allowed him to be published and read, rather than hide his manuscripts in the bottom drawer. Perhaps I’m making excuses for a writer whom I really like; I definitely think it’s easy for Westerners to be critical when they have never experienced similar condition themselves. It reminds me of the pontifications of those who criticised the late Gunter Grass for taking so long to come clean about his membership of the Waffen SS.

Kapuściński is best known in the West for his reporting from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s; The Shadow of the Sun is a beautiful book showing an understanding I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. His book The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie, is fascinating, as is his account of the last Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlavi. Reflections gleaned from his travels around the Soviet Union, in Imperium, are enlightening, and his tribute to the man he regarded as the first reporter, Travels with Herodotus, is another good read.

Nobody Leaves is rather different, more magical, if anything, and this seems understandable as it’s about his own country in the 1950s and 60s – difficult times in many ways, although remembered by fewer and fewer people now. His style is more laconic, suffused with a touch of dry, wry humour; it reads like quite a lot of (translated) modern Polish fiction I’ve read. It’s an ideal style gradually to portray, in an accretive, impressionistic way, the dreams and hopes of those years, the terrible sense of loss and waste, now obliterated by the bright new capitalist future the country has embraced so wholeheartedly.

Kapuściński doesn’t intrude; he’s very much a reporter in the background, and so when, very occasionally, he foregrounds himself, or a question he has put to someone, there’s a deliberate reason for doing this, and an evident effect. The most painful and shocking piece, for me, was about two illiterate parents who sacrifice their lives and health to further their daughter’s education; their pride is unbounded when she becomes a teacher, but she rejects their sacrifices and her career to become a nun, and her order block contact between her and her dying parents. My father was a devout Catholic, but often scathing about the religious authorities in his homeland; now I understand why…

I suspect the pieces in this book meant more to Poles reading them half a century ago, but for me the man’s humaneness, his humanity, shine through. It’s well-translated and has a helpful introduction, too.

Colin Thubron: Mirror to Damascus

December 21, 2016

517pyetfy1l-_ac_us160_This is a lovely book, by a true traveller who clearly lived in Damascus for a serious length of time and fell in love with the place. I’d never heard of it before, found it in a secondhand bookshop in the summer and felt I wanted to read something about this country that has been tearing itself apart for the last few years… it seems to have been Thubron’s first book, published in 1967. It has beautifully-drawn maps which are nevertheless not quite as informative as they look, and quite a lot of blurry black and white photographs.

Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world, and Thubron takes us through its history, episode by episode, epoch by epoch, linking us to significant places and describing them in detail, often lyrically: we get a picture of a city of great age, rambling and ramshackle, home to many different tribes and peoples, full of historic remains from many different centuries, and cultures. There is a Roman Damascus, a Jewish one, a Christian one, a Muslim one, an Ottoman one, a French one…

To Thubron, the people are friendly, welcoming, curious; he wanders far and wide, seeking out places he has heard of, remains he’s interested in, sometimes finding and sometimes not, observing and reporting with an open mind, non-judgemental, talking with anyone who will speak with him: an ideal traveller. There’s also a fascinating chapter about the many travellers who have visited the city through the ages…

I’m not aware that Damascus has been quite so comprehensively wrecked as Aleppo or Homs in the current conflict, but have found myself wondering how much of this lovely place that he visited fifty years ago still exists. The chapter on the French Damascus reminds one just how much responsibility the West bears for the unspeakable horrors that are going on in Syria and other Middle Eastern lands, and underlines for me that it would be far better if we just left other nations to sort out their own internal affairs. Thubron’s book manages to capture some of the relative peace and innocence of earlier days, and I really enjoyed it.

Joseph Roth: Croquis de Voyage

November 6, 2016

downloadJoseph Roth wrote two of my favourite novels, The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March, to which I shall be returning shortly, prompted by my reading of this collection of travel pieces. I find the nineteen-twenties fascinating, as a world trying to recover from the trauma of the Great War, and unaware of the morass it is slowly sinking into.

As a traveller and journalist – nearly all of the pieces in this collection were written for various German newspapers and magazines – he is very observant, missing nothing, and also unintrusive: I have the feeling of being with a very intelligent observer and recorder who does not seek to over-interpret.

There is a wide range of pieces in the book; perhaps the most powerful for me was his visit to the Somme region in 1926, so only eight years after the end of the war, and his descriptions of how towns are still struggling to recover their previous ‘normality’ are quite shocking, in a low-key way. I also liked his descriptions of Deauville, and Provence, both places I’m familiar with.

There are a good number of pieces from travels around the Soviet Union in the same years, so before Stalin’s purges and terror: these are fascinating because he shows us the hope and optimism of those early years before the aims and direction of the Revolution were permanently perverted. And yet, with hindsight, it’s also evident how much he doesn’t see, or know to look for…

His picture of Poland in the years of the Second Republic, a nation reborn after more than a century of extinction, is also very enlightening: it’s a naive country in which Roth can quite clearly see the problems inherent in a state with so many national minorities, and which Hitler and Stalin would both take advantage of…

Italy is already Mussolini’s fascist state in embryo and quite scary when he visits; there is no hint of the horrors to come in Germany, however.

I’ve written before about how accounts written at a particular time are capable of being illuminating in ways totally different from history books, and this is a very good example; I fear, however, that it’s too much to hope that this collection will appear in an English translation.

Jan Morris: Coast to Coast

June 5, 2015

9780571241774This is a fascinating, and well-written account of a road trip around the USA in the 1960s. A helpful map helps non-natives work out roughly the route taken, as well as putting the size of the country in perspective.

Morris, in a recent foreword to a re-issue of the book, notes that she travelled at a time when the US was probably at its happiest and perhaps its most confident: certainly that feeling emerges from its pages, along with all the aspects of the US that would strike a British observer or traveller as most distinctive and notable, drive-ins and instant coffee among them. The whole book is really a trip back in time. Her language is very descriptive, evoking a clear picture of the places she visited, and certainly (almost) persuaded this non-visitor that I’d actually probably quite like to go there…

Certain aspects shock a twenty-first century reader – the crude, overt and offensive racism of the times probably most of all, and the moment where the prospect (in the early 1960s) of a negro (sic) in the White House is mentioned as possibly the ultimate shame, fair took my breath away…

Elizabeth Bowen: A Time in Rome

February 11, 2015

51Ye+XnR8TL._AA160_At some point reasonably soon, I intend to go and explore Rome seriously, so when I came across this in a secondhand bookshop, and because it’s in the generally reliable Penguin Travel Library, I thought it might be worth a read. I suppose it was…

It wasn’t really what I expected, though. The writer clearly has a great feel, and enthusiasm for Rome: she writes about a three-month stay at some point in the 1950s. What was good was the maps, which seem to be a useful help to negotiating some of the main antiquities in a helpful and sensible way, and her thoughts and reactions to much of ancient Rome, which is the part that interests me most, from my studies of Ancient History at school…

But, in the end, it’s a ‘me, me’ travel book, I felt, much more about her and her feelings about Rome than the place itself, and far less about the city itself; there’s a lot of emoting about the place, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of vagueness that in the end is lost on someone not familiar with the city: you have to know the city as well as the writer fully to appreciate her portrait of it.

So, ultimately moderately disappointing, although she hasn’t in any way weakened my resolve to spend time there.

%d bloggers like this: