Slow odyssey across an undis­sected world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Susan Kuro­sawa

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.

The Spec­ta­tor

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.