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.

Ancient Wisdom

A Time to Keep Silence comprises three slim essays, this morning’s reading with a pot of tea. I read them once, replenished my tea, and read them again, more carefully, paying closer attention to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s use of language. With a good dictionary to hand I was able to look up scapulars and giaour and encomium. With Leigh Fermor I always discover fascinating new words.

As I read of Leigh Fermor’s monastery life, from the muffled footfall of the Abbey of St. Wandrille to the austere asceticism of La Grande Trappe, finally to the eerie riddles posed by the rock monasteries of Cappadocia, for a few hours I shared Leigh Fermor’s discovery of tranquility.

These essays end with Leigh Fermor referring to St. Basil of Caesarea, but the excerpt could so easily apply to the writer of this special book:

There is a mood of humanity and simplicity in his writings, an absence of bigotry that seems to blow like a soft wind from those groves of olive and tamarind and lentisk; gently ruffling the surface of the mind and then leaving it quiet and still. And, while the daylight vanishes from these northern hayfields, it is a similar blessing, an ancient wisdom exorcising the memory of conflict and bloodshed of the intervening centuries, that brings its message of tranquility to quieten the mind and compose the spirit.

2009: Some Favourite Books


This is the first year I maintained a list of the books that I read (more on that in a 10 days time). Keeping a record of what I have read has been fascinating. It is an exercise I shall certainly continue. Of my reading this year the following stand out as a top 10 of those I enjoyed most and will certainly reread:

  1. Thomas Mann – The Magic Mountain
  2. Vladimir Nabokov – Speak, Memory
  3. Jane Austen – Emma
  4. Patrick Leigh Fermor – A Time of Gifts
  5. Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire
  6. Roberto Bolaño – The Savage Detectives
  7. Jane Austen – Pride & Prejudice
  8. Sara Maitland – A Book of Silence
  9. John Berger – Here is Where We Meet
  10. Gabriel Josipovici – After & Making Mistakes

Categories That Amuse

Voracious readers have regular dilemmas about what book to read next. At Of Books and Bicycles, the perplexity is of genre or category. Always the question of whether to read deeply to explore a category or individual writer thoroughly, or widely to embrace a wide selection of genres. The categories that provide amusement at the moment are:

  • Philosophy to deepen my reading of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard; also to explore Kant to whatever extent I am capable.
  • Literary criticism of the novel: contemporary texts like James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Geoffrey Hill and Denis Donoghue; also earlier writing by Guy Davenport, Maurice Blanchot, Cyril Connolly and William Empson.
  • Fiction and non-fiction classics of all periods, with less emphasis on contemporary, and guided loosely by Bloom’s Western Canon.
  • Books about books, with the work of Alberto Manguel and Michael Dirda top of my list.
  • Natural history, inspired by my deep enjoyment of Roger Deakin.
  • A sprinkling of science, certainly all the output of cosmologist Paul Davies.
  • Psychology, working my way slowly through Freud’s essays and lectures.
  • Travel classics like Wilfred Thesiger, William Dalyrymple, Patrick Leigh Fermor.
  • Culinary-lit, particularly M. F. K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl

This is hardly comprehensive and is subject to whimsy.