Literature of Travel

Yesterday I wrote of Sartre the traveller, whom BHL esteemed above all for his literature of travel:

And I am convinced, be it said in passing, that the day when the ideology of tourism is finally brought to a discourse and a practice which, on the pretext of the right to exoticism and difference, offer a paltry folklore which diminishes at one and the same time the traveller and his or her host, and offers, in place of those original situations which were the passion of real travellers, landscapes whose picture-postcard aspect has a novelty value of zero – I am convinced that Sartre, the homing pigeon, will on that day be recognised as a master. People will speculate about his Queen Albermarle which Simone de Beauvoir said was to be, if he ever finished it, the Nausea of his maturity, and which he himself thought would draw a line under the modern literature of travel . . .

These days, increasingly, we travel to places that resemble an exotic version of home: the same Starbucks, Body Shop etc., as Robert Dessaix wrote:

But I’d seen it all before. At a certain point in life, like Stendhal and Chateaubriand, one has. Everything feels repackaged. The crêpe and ice-cream wagons, the miniature train, the hoopla stall, the Africans selling belts and fake Louis Vuitton handbags – even the gangs of teenagers in T-shirts emblazoned with jaunty slogans in English (I Love Beer, Fuck Work and so on) – I’d seen and heard and smelled it all before hundreds of times. It felt like the umpteenth performance of a circus act I’d thrilled to when I was five. Would nothing transformingly beautiful ever happen again?

Seeing the world through another’s eyes can invigorate our experience of travel. BHL writes of Sartre:

Sartre, a man reputedly incapable of seeing a thing, an absolutely cerebral presence who claimed coquettishly, that he had to wait until Simone de Beauvoir had described things for him before he could see them for himself.

Though I love to read great travel literature, I suspect that those worth reading would not fill a small shelf. A top ten of literary travel books, for me, would look something like this:

  1. Into the Heart of BorneoRedmond O’Hanlon
  2. A Time of GiftsPatrick Leigh Fermor
  3. Hokkaido Highway Blues – Will Ferguson
  4. Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It – Geoff Dyer
  5. Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World – Pico Iyer
  6. Riding the Iron Rooster – Paul Theroux
  7. To Noto: Or London to Sicily in a Ford – Duncan Fallowell
  8. Angry White Pyjamas – Robert Twigger
  9. Arabian SandsWilfred Thesiger
  10. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland – Gretel Ehrlich
Several other Paul Theroux books could have made the cut, but Iron Rooster is the one that stands foremost in my memory. Missing from my list, because I haven’t read them, are renowned travel essays or books by Voltaire and Stendhal. I also chose not to include Kafka’s travel writing as it forms part of his diaries.
Now over to you, what are your favourite literary travel books?

11 thoughts on “Literature of Travel

  1. >David: Thank you, The Roads to Sata sounds and looks essential about a country that I love to bits. Somewhere down the line, I feel a travel list coming on, devoted just to Japan.

  2. >Duncan: Thanks for the email and comment. I am so pleased that you've added to my growing list of essential travel literature.Your To Noto: Or London to Sicily in a Ford achieved what should be the ultimate accolade for travel writing, it made me visit the city. I discovered a part of Sicily that has become important to me, not just Noto, but Modica, Ragusa and Siracusa.

  3. >Some great suggestions, Fiona, thank you. I've avoided Chatwin, can't quite recall why, and recently bought Songlines to see what I was missing. Anything of his you particularly recommend?Certain Henry Miller books were passed around at boarding school, but never made the connection with travel writing. What would you suggest of his?I can't begin to explain how important Kerouac was to me as a teenager, but I haven't read his stuff for years. Perhaps I should reread On the Road, though I am nervous that I would be disappointed. Some things are better as memories.I thought of Ryszard Kapuscinski, but have not read anything that would qualify as travel-lit. What do you have in mind?Che Guevara's pre-revolution travel journals: is that The Motorcycle Diaries?

  4. >Hi Anthony, I have just finished Chatwin's "Songlines" and while I wouldn't recommend it as essential reading for a trip to Australia, there are some wonderful chapters just on travel which act as fantastic asides to his actual journey. As for Miller, I was thinking "Air-conditioned Nightmare", some believe that this book was very influential on Kerouac, but it is hard to know if he read it before he wrote "On the Road" or not. Either way, Miller presents a complex attack on American modernity after his long stay in Europe. I re-read a lot of Kerouac when I was doing my Masters on Ginsberg – and I still loved him. I read it differently now that I had traveled more and even more so once I had been to American, but for me he has a lasting appeal.I read Ryszard Kapunscinski's "Travels with Herodotus" and really loved it. He lead a remarkable life and the way he writes about emerging from the iron curtain and crossing the boarder for the first time was captivating. And yes, I read Guevara's "Motorcycle Diaries" and his travel companion Alberto Granado's diaries and they were really interesting. It was nice to see him as a "kid", rather than a revolutionary or mercenary. I would also add "Flaubert in Egypt" to my list, his travel diaries are stunning. Looks like you are gathering quite a list now!

  5. >Thank you so much for the further suggestions, Fiona. I will add each of your suggestions to the list I post, and to my own wish list.The Miller sounds fascinating, as does the prospect of revisiting Kerouac. I have Travels with Herodotus on the shelf, but thought I ought read the source book first (failed to grab me on last attempt).

  6. Pingback: Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear | Time's Flow Stemmed

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