Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Golden Ages of Travel Writing

Last week I began to wonder whether we are about to enter another golden age of travel writing, which may be another way of saying that we "live in interesting times." The world is in turmoil, in fact we may be at a major inflection point. There is upheaval in the Middle East, changes that once looked promising and now look like a long, grim road to an uncertain future. This week upheaval in Russia as well, and possibly in the near future in China too. There are a number of a small wars on the verge of commencing (here's hoping they don't). Some smaller, long-running conflicts continue. Travel is cheap and, for better or worse, where it once took Patrick Leigh Fermor a year to walk from the hook of Holland to Istanbul, one can now fly there from London in a few hours for a few quid... though perhaps something may be lost in that translation of time and space. For one thing, where we come from life is not cheap, though it is in some other parts of the world. For all of us, wherever we are, it is however short, as I was reminded by a friend just today. I now recall another time when this was brought home so sharply to me, when I was traveling in La Mancha, on a plain southwest of the town of Soria. The woman I was traveling with told me to stop the car and led me on a hike up the single hill on a wide plane... a mountain it began to seem, after a half hour of walking. Atop it was a castle fortress that had crumbled half to the ground and from which one could see on that clear summer day a score of miles across the plain.

"This must be what... five hundred years old?" I'd guessed that it had been destroyed during the reconquista.

She laughed, laughed knowingly, since she'd grown up near here and had gone to university in Valladolid.

"A thousand?!" Something shifted underfoot.

She shook her head. "Older."

"Whose was it?" She shrugged her shoulders.

That was a lesson, but the real lesson she offered there I missed and did not figure for some years.

Aside from cheap airfare, travel now is however wholly different in that with smart phones and email and globalization one never wholly leaves the known world behind. That's too bad, but you can always turn it all off and tell your loved ones the reception was bad.

This month in preparation for my own travels in the new year, to Mexico and Rome and elsewhere, I've been reading "Paddy" Fermor, Robert Byron (not the lord and poet, but the writer and traveler whose rucksack Fermor borrowed when he set off on his own tramp in 1933), along with Norman Lewis and other British travel writers.

One editor, Lorin Stein, recently noted that the English tend to be good at this genre, and its true that late Victorian British travel literature, and the work of those British writers mentioned above is superb, but in fact Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi," a best-seller in its time and a work to put alongside his classic "Huck Finn," is a kind of travel book, and I've just downloaded to kindle Twain's "Innocents Abroad." Hemingway's short stories and novels, though fictional, could be considered travel literature. A few years after he published the Knickerbocker Tales, his quintessential New York work, Washington Irving lived in Granada, Spain, working in the consulate there and residing in one of the apartments carved out of the ruins of the Alhambra. His account, "Tales of the Alhambra" (1832), is essential reading before visiting. Through Irving one can see that, the most beautiful palace in the world, not as it stands today, wonderfully restored, but instead lit up at night, spectral, illumined by the dozens of open-air fires that gypsies and other neighbors made and huddled around in the ruined palace's crumbling rooms left open to the sky. Oh, and then of course there is Paul Theroux, author of the classic about train travel through China is still at work today.

In future posts I'll be writing about Camilo Jose Cela, the early twentieth-century Spanish novelist and travel writer, and Cees Nooteboom, the contemporary Dutch novelist and travel writer, but for now here is a wonderful reminiscence by Josh Lieberman, from the Paris Review Daily, about a great American magazine, Holiday, that once published travel literature for a wide audience.

Here’s how it begins. You are in a bookstore on the main drag of a small town. You walk along the mystery and western paperback sections, and then you see a wicker basket overflowing with Life magazines. You idly flip through the stack because you know Life was once an important cultural force but have never seen the magazine in person. The copies of Life are musty and torn, and in the middle of the heap you come across something called Holiday. It has the same heft as Life, more than a foot tall and surprisingly heavy, but in place of a black-and-white photograph on the cover there is a colorful swirling yellow illustration of the sun and the words “California Without Cliches.” The magazine is from 1965 and you think it would look good on your coffee table. Also the ads are campy and fun (“San Diego Is a See-Do Vacationland!”), so you buy the magazine—why not, it’s only a few bucks—and take it home. You turn on the TV and half watch Seinfeld as you flip through for the ads. Then you come upon “Notes from a Native Daughter,” the Joan Didion essay you read in college but don’t really remember. You read how California is only five hours from New York by jet but really that is just a delusion: “California is somewhere else.” Now you are somewhere else. Seinfeld ends and another Seinfeld begins and you read the entire essay and then discover a piece by Ray Bradbury, your old pal from high school English. You read his rhapsodic paean to Disneyland (“No beatniks here. No Cool people with Cool faces pretending not to care, thus swindling themselves out of life or any chance for life”), and you think that’s pretty good, too. You head back to the bookstore to see if they have any more issues of Holiday.

Whenever I mention to someone that I’ve started collecting old issues of Holiday, the excellent yet forgotten monthly travel magazine that was born after World War II and lived until the late seventies, the response generally falls between bafflement and irritation. “Why would you do that?” people ask, as though I’ve just admitted to hoarding old shoehorns or something truly sinister.

Holiday was composed of almost all long-form travel essays—it was not, like many modern travel magazines, list after list of where to eat, shop, and sleep. (There would be little point or pleasure in reading a 1957 Holiday if it were just about where to get the best goulash.) A handful of the pieces are dated, but, like the greatest travel writing, many are timeless. After all, plenty of people still read The Great Railway Bazaar and Travels with Charley, not to mention the roughly 150-year-old Innocents Abroad.

The most puzzling thing about the lost history of Holiday is that the magazine published so many famous writers: Joseph Heller, Irwin Shaw, Arthur C. Clarke, E. B. White, Arthur Miller, Gay Talese, Paul Bowles, Steinbeck, Saroyan, Kerouac, Cheever, O’Hara, Bellow, Thurber, Faulkner.

But more than the essays by major writers, what I find most fascinating about Holiday is the articles by little-known, or totally unknown, authors. In my first issue of Holiday... I came upon an essay by Romain Gary.

Gary’s essay, published in 1967, is a relatively straightforward travelogue about Guadeloupe, the southernmost archipelago in the Caribbean, but it ends with one of those anecdotes you find yourself recalling at odd intervals in the following days and weeks. As part of Gary’s trip he plans to visit an old Royal Air Force buddy from whom he hasn’t heard in twenty years...

Read the rest of that tale, and the whole of Lieberman's wonderful piece HERE.

And see Paris Review editor Lorin Stein's indefensible characterization of travel writing as an English genre HERE. I encourage you to give him a piece of your mind on that score. Their comment section is open, his email address is available.

Some hot-links to the books mentioned here:



Washington Irving's TALES OF THE ALHAMBRA.



Cees Nooteboom's ROADS TO SANTIAGO.


Anonymous said...

I think you're right about a looming golden age of travel writing, JSL. Despite ease of movement across borders there seems to be more of a hunger for travellers' tales than ever before. TV documentaries are usually an arm of the tourist industry; we need the traveller's voice, honesty, avalanches of detail, and the space for discursion.

Places transform with bewildering speed, never more so than in 2011 (go to Athens). It's hard to avoid the feeling that this year is as crucial to contemporary history as 1989 or 1968.

As you know I just spent six months backpacking through the US and Mexico, then east across Europe, from London through Portugal and Spain and into Central Asia. The greatest insights into the Arab Spring and the mass upheaval of the EU came not from world news but from late night conversations in hostels with fellow backpackers, people who'd been in Damascus and Cairo at the most dramatic moments.

The long form accounts of this period of our history, the travel pieces and fictional stories that will help us make sense of 2011, are surely still gestating.

Have you read George Packer's account of a trip to Lagos a few years ago?

all the best - Matthew Asprey

James Scott Linville said...

Hi Matthew, Good to hear from an expert. I do plan to go to Athens, but not until 2012. Thanks for the tip re: Packer, and for the comment, more soon. J