Slow odyssey across an undissected world
WITHIN a simple subtitle is a world of promise: Two Men in a Car from Geneva to the Khyber Pass. It was 1953 and Swiss writer Nicolas Bouvier and artist Thierry Vernet were eluding national service by taking a car — a two- person Fiat Topolino so toy- like it should have come with a key in its roof — on a slow, unfolding journey to Afghanistan.
This new edition of their travelogue, translated from Bouvier’s French with a beautifully delicate touch by Robyn Marsack, is from Britain’s Eland Press, a small house dedicated to the revival of out- of- print travel classics.
A selection of Vernet’s bold black drawings is included — veiled women, a billy goat, a wandering musician, the sharp contours of mountain ranges — and a page from Bouvier’s notebook with drawings and comments on location, weather and the car’s progress ( la voiture marchant si miraculeusement ).
Bouvier, who died in 1998, was a proponent of slow travel way before the process became a tourism buzz term; here was a vagabond for whom the getting there held more allure than arrival. ‘‘ Travelling outgrows its motives,’’ he wrote. ‘‘ It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you, or unmaking you.’’
Europe had begun the slow process of reconstruction after World War II when the two men took off. In Bosnia, they saw ‘‘ one- legged, one- armed, wheezing men hobbling on crutches’’ and tramps asleep in shell- holes ‘‘ covered with newspapers’’. Bouvier suggested he was a loafer who liked nothing better than to be absorbed by new worlds; but, like the best travel writers, he was a stickybeak whose patience and curiosity winkled out small but telling discoveries. His writing is devoid of urges and restlessness but fantastically imbued with the driving need to discover.
He engaged with the locals — he and Vernet frequently found themselves in farmhouse kitchens or ‘‘ little, ugly, comforting sitting rooms’’ — and derived amusement and wonder from even the most unlikely situations.
The men move at a mesmerising pace, tootling under limitless skies and slanting red suns, past willow- shaded rivers and clay and straw houses, through countryside smelling of lemons and herbs, by freshly skinned bear pelts nailed to barn doors. They frequently slept under the stars, watched by ‘‘ the phosphorescent eyes of foxes’’. Often they cracked little more than 16km/ h, the tiny car ‘‘ heavy with its ballast of drinking water, petrol, melons and a bottle of cognac’’. In Kerman, they added several flasks of Iranian wine, ‘‘ the colour of dried blood and strong enough to raise the dead’’.
Bouvier said that ‘‘ a traveller’s social mobility makes it easier for him to be objective’’. So persuasively does he write, with such descriptiveness and without passing judgment on places or their people, that it’s little wonder The Way of the World became a 20th- century classic.
Few of today’s travel authors could afford the time to beetle about for 11/ years in the smallest
2 and slowest of cars, not just putting up with deprivation but actively seeking the barest of lodgings and singing for their supper ( in the case of Bouvier and Vernet, with poetry and accordion recitals).
This form of frontier travel writing is all but a dead genre; in a thoroughly explored and dissected world, today’s scribes mostly cross trammelled territory and the adventure lies
merely in new and inventive means of achieving the journey.
Which makes the Eland catalogue of reissued travel gems such an important resource. Just when it seems that 21st- century travellers must make do with the seemingly infinite surge of transplant books — women who fall in love with swarthy men and convert French farmhouses or Italian villa wrecks — here’s a simple opportunity to build a superior library of journeys.
So far in the Eland assembly is Norman Lewis in Asia and Italy ( A Dragon Apparent and Naples ’ 44 ), A Year in Marrakesh by Peter Mayne ( most definitely not to be confused with A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, who spent his 12 months at lunch) and the estimable Martha Gellhorn in Travels with Myself and Another .
These are authors who were born to get up and go and always told it as it was; Gellhorn subtitled her travel memoir Five Journeys from Hell ( and is shown on the cover with a rifle; ‘‘ I wish to die,’’ she declared at one stage). Bouvier was an innate traveller, too; he claimed that at age eight he ‘‘ traced the course of the Yukon with my thumbnail in the butter on my toast’’. Once his nomadic life was in full flight, he was pleased it took him longer to travel from Switzerland to Japan than had Marco Polo.
When the journey described in The Way of the World ended, Bouvier continued through India and what was then Ceylon to Japan, a country he loved and frequently revisited. But he would never accomplish another great gallivant on this scale, a journey during which he found happiness too ‘‘ thin and limited’’ a word to describe the joy he felt.
Susan Kurosawa is The Australian’s travel editor.
For Hughes, poetry was a matter of archetypes and of dreams transcribed; the account here, years later, of the dream that inspired The Thought- Fox is mesmerising. A powerful spirit, he confidently engaged with the ouija board, which has destroyed less committed minds, and took professional advice from his spirit guide, called Pan. ( Apparently, Pan gave him the numbers for the pools draw, one number out from top to bottom.) He thought, as these letters and Birthday Letters clearly imply, that poetry, once written, creates as much as inspires a situation, and he may have been right. Crow , that terrifying statement of nihilistic madness, was not, as we all thought, driven by the terrible suicide of his lover Assia Wevill and her murder of their daughter, Shura; it was finished on the day before Assia’s final act.
That belief in immutable dark forces that weren’t, especially, worth trying to understand, just to accept, had good and bad effects on Hughes as a person. At his worst, and silliest, he wrote a long letter to Philip Larkin, a month or two before Larkin’s death from cancer, telling him all about a faith healer from Okehampton in Devon who could cure him: ‘‘ It isn’t absolutely necessary to meet him. All he seems to need is name, details of place — but best of all contact over the phone.’’ It is all too easy to imagine what Larkin thought of this suggestion.
But he is seen at his best and most instinctive when dealing with the fallout from Plath’s suicide. If, in retrospect, the letters written to friends immediately before her suicide seem selfdeluding — ‘‘ Sylvia and I are great friends’’ — the letters subsequently are utterly clear- sighted. He takes on, even writing to Plath’s mother, what blame is due to him. What concerns him above everything else, especially as the Plath industry through the years takes on a sort of madness, is not that he should not be blamed but that their children should not be affected. Every literary biographer ought to be required to read his excoriating letter to A. L. Alvarez on the publication of his suicide- enchanted study The Savage God, making Alvarez understand for what petty reasons he was dabbling in the stuff of other people’s souls.
I used to think that perhaps that last volume of Plath’s journal, which he said he had destroyed so that her children would never have to read it, might in reality be sealed away somewhere. Having read this volume, it is clear that not just her reputation, which he did so much to further, but his reputation as well came a long way behind their welfare. He was obviously a wonderful father: the letters to their offspring, both as children and as adults, are full of love and engagement, talking frankly about almost everything, giving the sort of solid advice anyone would be happy to get. He probably did burn that last journal and he was probably right to do so. And perhaps he did have powers of divination: in the early 1960s, he proposed to publish a volume under the pseudonym of John Major. That was an odd and inexplicable glimpse into the remote future.
I’m not mad about the editing of this volume. The dating of each letter has been guessed at, generally plausibly, but it would be helpful to know where each letter was sent from, too, particularly when, halfway through a letter, Hughes turns out to be talking about Iran, where he mounted a play with Peter Brook.
The selection, too, could be much more varied. I find that a little of Hughes’s explanations of his poetic methods and mythologies, which he was generous with to inquiring students, goes a very long way. It is impressive that Hughes wrote back to near or total strangers at such length on literary matters; the biscuit is taken here by an 8000- word letter of, really, no ultimate value on the subject of Measure for Measure to an unknown Swedish director.
Too much of the volume altogether is taken up with expansions of the ideas set out in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being , a theoretical- critical- typological work of unusual eccentricity, occupying the same place in Hughes’s work as A Vision does in W. B. Yeats’s and, in my view, of only doubtful interest to the study of Hughes or Shakespeare.
I would have liked to have seen some business letters, whether on the subject of money, publishing matters or indeed farming, of which there are some but not enough; Hughes emerges from this selection as a much less practical man than he must have been. There are some letters here to his publisher, but most are screamingly mad ones about what the star signs say about propitious dates for publication. When practical and insightful letters do enter, they are transfixing. I never thought I would read at such length and with such pleasure letters dealing with the minutiae of fishing. The one of October 23, 1983, to Barrie Cooke about his visit, with his son Nicholas, to a fishing community on Lake Victoria is a stunning anthology piece. A thunderstorm breaks: We got into a race with another canoe . . . under those great vertical 15- second rivers of orange or blue or green lightning, & great skyfulls of blazing thorns, & continuous overhead thunder, with great long swells coming along the gunwales, pouring in on both sides, one man bailing like mad, the rest paddling & yelling, and our sail like a map of the world in giant rips & holes, and those fish, unbelievable, their eyes glaring like orange torches . . . Hughes’s gift for the visual can hardly be examined in isolation from his other effects. Plath’s, on the other hand, has inspired a scholarly work. Few people have attained originality at writing and the visual arts; Michelangelo, Jean Cocteau, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and de Chirico’s brother Alberto Savinio are rarities. Plath took trouble over her drawings, publishing some of them in a small- scale way, and a lavish Oxford University Press volume examines them and the art of ekphrasis, or literary descriptions of paintings, in her poetry.
It is hard to think of much of her art as possessing any interest in itself; it is all competent, tidy and quite dead. The authors, perhaps unfamiliar with the history of art, make excessive claims for what are really only artroom exercises, often not recognising specific models. The volume does her no favours, really; it draws attention to that part of her — a nagging presence in too much of her poetry, as well — that was satisfied to be graded A in undergraduate classes. I find it amazing that scholars find so little to use in Hughes’s comments about her, even in the explication of the different significance of the colours red and blue at the end of Birthday Letters . It is an omission only to be explained by an ongoing and irrational animosity towards Hughes in the Plathite community. The book is an interesting addition to our sense of Plath, but in the end a small one, and its authority is undermined in minor but telling ways: if you are going to praise Frida Kahlo, you ought to be able to spell her name.
Hughes, on the other hand, was a man in touch with something that the rest of us can only dimly glimpse, and in his letters we see not only an account of that long connection but moments of it as well. This is a book, like the letters of Keats, that will be read in 200 years.
Gallivant: Thierry Vernet in the Fiat on the road to Ankara, Turkey, in 1953
Poets in the prime: From left, members of the MacSpaunday generation, Louis MacNeice, Ted Hughes, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender bend their elbows in 1960