Reading Lately …

I’m much more familiar with Iliad than The Odyssey. As a teenager, with the help of a magnifying glass and Liddell and Scott’s ancient Greek lexicon, I learnt to write the first line of Iliad in Greek from memory, a silly party trick.


Robert Fagles’ verse translation of Odyssey succeeds at turning the poem into fathomable vernacular, though there are times when one feels he must have strayed reasonably far from the nuances of the original Greek. On balance I probably prefer the prose translation of E. V. Rieu, revised by D. C. H. Rieu, philistine though that might appear. I intend to read George Chapman’s Homer sometime soon. Fagles‘ Odyssey has been a fine companion though and despite knowing the story am still not immune to the heightening tension as it progresses toward the slaughter of the suitors.

This summer I plan a second attempt at Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, joining Richard and Francis for the 1130 pages—or 1770 with From the Posthumous Papers edition—translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. I am hoping this more modern translation keeps my interest longer than that of Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser.

As a side project I’m slowly collecting and reading a series of little books on modern European literary figures, published in the fifties by Bowes and Bowes of Cambridge. The first four I have are on Sartre, Kleist, Jacques Riviere and Valery. They caught my eye when watching the video of Duncan Fallowell’s library. They look wonderful and may number fifty or so in number.

Other reading plans, always subjects to whimsy, include dipping into Anita Brookner’s oeuvre, exploring whether William Gerhardie’s work still stands up, undoubtedly more Schmidt and Redonnet, and more ancient Greeks.

Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear

Assembling even a small collection of essays is a performance. A single essay may sparkle with brilliance and wit-particularly dangerous if the first in a collection-but a collection risks being abased by its weakest part. A coherent collection that manages to avoid the danger of redundancy is a rare and thrilling performance.

Reading Duncan Fallowell’s essay collection How to Disappear is to play for high stakes. His earlier To Noto: London to Sicily in a Ford is a touchstone book for me, an exemplar of modern travel literature. Like Geoff Dyer, Fallowell writes idiosyncratic non-fiction where he is as present as the subject of his essays.

There are but five essays in How to Disappear connected thematically by the notion of disappearance, whether by reclusion, death or disregard. Fallowell’s fondness for his subjects is evident in his obsessive research and tender portrayals, in particular of social climber Bapsy Pavry and Alastair Graham, Evelyn Waugh’s inspiration for the Sebastian Flyte character in Brideshead Revisited.

How to Disappear equals the charm and discursiveness of Fallowell’s To Noto and is enlivened by its chosen subjects. With the exception of the subject of the final essay-Diana, Princess of Wales-each subject had me googling to learn more about their lives. Besides the final, thankfully short essay, the collection is a performance of sustained pleasure.

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?