Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt

I began to read travel literature when the peripatetic period of my late teens and twenties came to an end. Patrick Leigh Fermor, Dervla Murphy and Wilfred Thesiger offered some relief for the yearning for adventure and wild places that came when I hung up the dress-like jalabiya that had allowed me to pass discreetly through much of rural North Africa (my last significant, open-ended travel adventure), and adopted the traditional jumper of native England.

The sort of haphazard drifting that impelled me across North Africa, through much of aromatic East Asia, deep into the steamy jungles of Borneo and across a small part of the largest desert on the planet, is best bookended at either end of the grown up responsibilities of raising a child and trying to hold down a career. Or so I managed to convince myself.

Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water offers the intimacy that comes from reading great travel journals, conveying a strong sense of personality as well as a strong sense of place. There were times when I felt Hunt had outshone Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his own teenage trek from The Hook of Holland to Istanbul. What was so familiar from my own wandering is that intense optimism that is so essential to goad you on your journey when the discomforts or dangers occasionally feel too pronounced. If you enjoy travel literature Nick Hunt’s book is recommended. Like Patrick Leigh Fermor who inspired his adventure, Hunt is a traveller from an ancient tradition.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

Ten Outstanding Books That Combine Walking and Thinking

Inspired by Verso Books’ excellent Guide to Political Walking, below is my guide to books that effortlessly combine walking, with musing about culture, literature, politics and geography, a form of exercise that I endorse.

  1. Wanderlust – Rebecca Solnit
  2. A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor
  3. Wildwood – Roger Deakin
  4. The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane
  5. The Arcades Project – Walter Benjamin
  6. London Orbital – Iain Sinclair
  7. Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways – Phil Smith
  8. A Field Guide to Getting Lost  – Rebecca Solnit
  9. Psychogeography by Will Self
  10. The Lost Art of Walking – Geoff Nicholson

I’ll also point you to Paul K. Lyons’ compelling straight line walk across London, which some enterprising publisher ought to pick up.

Please make suggestions of any books that ought to expand this list.

Paddy Leigh Fermor

With a few hours to spare I indulged one of my favourite pursuits, scouring the shelves of secondhand bookshops for surprises. My targets were Slightly Foxed and Heywood Hill. I stumbled upon 3 first editions: The Woman Who Was God by Francis King, The Haunt by A. L. Barker (both writers advocated by Rebecca West) and a rare Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

A few hours later, to my surprise, I learnt of Leigh Fermor’s death. His travel books are outstanding examples of the genre. We shall see if there is a third volume, long promised, of his legendary walk, as a teenager, from Holland to Constantinople.

The World is a Book

A few days ago I asked, “What are your favourite literary travel books?” Thank you for your suggestions, added to mine below to compile a quintessential shelf of travel literature:

  1. Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour – Gustave Flaubert
  2. Rings of Saturn – W. G. Sebald
  3. Travels with Herodotus – Ryszard Kapuściński
  4. The Air-Conditioned NightmareHenry Miller
  5. Songlines – Bruce Chatwin
  6. The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara
  7. On the RoadJack Kerouac
  8. In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin
  9. Pictures from Italy Charles Dickens
  10. Collected Travel Writings: The Continent and Great Britain and America – Henry James
  11. The Roads to Sata – Alan Booth
  12. The Way of the WorldNicolas Bouvier
  13. Into the Heart of BorneoRedmond O’Hanlon
  14. A Time of GiftsPatrick Leigh Fermor
  15. Hokkaido Highway Blues – Will Ferguson
  16. Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It – Geoff Dyer
  17. Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World – Pico Iyer
  18. Riding the Iron Rooster – Paul Theroux
  19. To Noto: Or London to Sicily in a Ford – Duncan Fallowell
  20. Angry White Pyjamas – Robert Twigger
  21. Arabian SandsWilfred Thesiger
  22. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland – Gretel Ehrlich
I’ve added the new suggestions to my wish list and anticipate reading them with genuine pleasure.

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?

A Year of Reading: 2010

It’s been a memorable year in my reading life, more concentrated than most years. The high points have been extraordinary, the lows few and forgettable.


The unexpected revelation of my year are the novels, letters, essays and diaries of Virginia Woolf. After the thrilling discovery of A Writer’s Diary, The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway and the climax of my year’s reading To the Lighthouse, I intend to read much more of her writing. My thanks to Frances for the motivation to tackle Woolf.

I’ve been slowly acquiring decent editions of Woolf’s diaries and plan to start on these next year, dipping into the other novels, essays and letters as the mood suits. Reading (and rereading) more deeply into a writer’s output, over a few months, is proving more satisfying than my recently acquired habit of flitting from author to author.

My plan next year is to read a lot more Woolf. I expect also to immerse myself into the literary output of Coetzee, Flaubert, Kafka and Bellow, each of whom, to different degrees, I am mildly obsessed with at present.

My other fictional landmark of this year is undoubtedly Ulysses. My reading began as a provocation and ended as an unveiling. That a novel can capture the agony and beauty of life so coherently shook me, continues to agitate me. It is a book I dip into weekly.

Finnegans Wake has replaced Ulysses as a delayed, taxing challenge, but not one I wish to accept at the moment. My only Joycean plan for next year is to read Richard Ellmann’s Biography.

The third in the trio of books that set my head on fire this year is What Ever Happened to Modernism? Offering a personal perspective on literature and Modernism, Josipovici enabled me to understand why some forms and styles of novel electrify me and others leave me still hungry, or worse, nauseous.

Other books that left an indelible mark during the year were Coetzee’s trilogy of fictionalised memoirs, Leigh Fermor’s short but very beautiful A Time to Keep Silence, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, John Williams’  brilliant Stoner, Josipovici’s The Singer on the Shore and Andrei Codrescu’s The Poetry Lesson. Don Quixote, of course, is also sublime but that will not be news to any serious readers.

Revisiting Kafka this year, unbelievably reading The Trial for the first time, and now slowly digesting the Collected Stories and Diaries, occupy a different cavity than everything mentioned above. His writing is the ‘axe for the frozen sea’ inside me.

Uniquely this year, there is only one book that I completed (though several I threw aside after fifty pages) that I regret, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Out of a misplaced love of Mrs. Dalloway I finished the book but cannot reclaim the hours I devoted to this execrable book.