Four classic works of travel literature.
—Reading and travel are ultimately the same. We embark on a novel much as we enter a foreign city, roaming paragraphs and passages as we slowly familiarise ourselves with the landscape. Every step into unknown territory obliges us to decipher blocks of signs in a language that escapes us; to grasp at possible meanings though most often falling prey to error or misinterpretation. Possibly there is no greater pleasure than to transport our body to, say, Lapland and our mind to Africa: to short–circuit our senses and our neurons by juxtaposing two narratives, two illuminations. We could of course quote some of the great names in travel writing ( Pierre Loti, Nicolas Bouvier, V. S. Naipaul, J. M.G. Le Clézio … ), but given the immensity of today’s travel library, we have chosen four books, each Asia–bound, that we have particularly enjoyed and which we are convinced have their place in every reader’s suitcase. Marcel Schwob, “VerS SaMoa” ( Éd. oMbreS )
Vers Samoa ( To Samoa ) is a compilation of the letters which, between October 1901 and March 1902, Marcel Schwob sent to his wife, the actress Marguerite Moreno who had remained in Paris while he travelled to Ceylon, Australia, and Polynesia. Schwob, in failing health, was a great admirer of Robert Louis Stevenson ( they were prolific correspondents although they never met ), who died of a brain haemorrhage in Samoa. Schwob’s journey would prove increasingly difficult as his health deteriorated. Tormented by the thought of being unable to return home to Marguerite, he clung to writing as a drowning man clings to a lifebuoy. His descriptions are instilled with melancholy: “The sea is flat, the tropical sky pale blue and white, with its thick band of heavy, coloured vapour on the horizon, and its succession of forms as though sketched by Michelangelo’s hand — rowing boats the colour of fire, handkerchiefs of black batiste, bright pink flames, blackened islands, and thick banks sliced from beneath like knives.” Gabrielle wit tkop, “carnetS d ’ aSie” ( Éd. VerticaleS )
Gabrielle Wittkop ( 1920–2002 ) achieved recognition late in life, with the publication of Sérénissime Assassinat shortly before her death at the age of 82. Her Carnets d’Asie ( Asian Journal ) is therefore a posthumous publication, bringing to our attention a woman who for twenty years travelled through Thailand, Malaysia and the most remote parts of Indonesia. Much of her life remains a mystery; she claimed to have spent ten months working on a nature reserve in India, in the highlands of Satpura, then in northern Sumatra “to study tigers in the wild”. In Carnets d’Asie she vents her disdain for Bali, too affected in its ways, and her love of Borneo: “Nowhere in the world are the storms so fabulously elementary. Clouds burst into showers of phosphorous, the heavenly oceans empty onto a screeching jungle, rivers pour forth above a tangle of hilltops, everywhere there is roaring, rolling, foam …”.
Antonin Potoski, “nAger sur lA frontière” ( Éd. gAllimArd )
“From the outside, we associate Bangladesh with the Indian world and Myanmar with the south– east Asian peninsula. In my mind, these two countries form a whole. The same rain and mud for seven or eight months, the same gentle impressions during the clement months, the same outward appearance at the exact junction between the Indo–European and Far–Eastern physiques. Possibly the states of north–east India should be added to this ensemble of mud and damp gold; I’m not familiar with them.” With these words, the young author and photographer Antonin Potoski explains his attraction for the border region spanning Bangladesh ( with its Muslim majority ) and Myanmar ( predominantly Buddhist ). His style is sparse yet able to transform even a few minutes by boat into a journey to a futuristic otherworld. “The more I travel, the more I use up the reality of the world, the more I’m able to identify other spaces. I look out for them, ready to s lip a l ittle further into the impossible of each society.” Amicable and sexual encounters are an essential part of his writing ( see also Cités en abîmes, published by Gallimard ). “We have so little time ‘on earth’ and we spend so much time not meeting each other …”, says Potoski who has spent the last fifteen years by hill and by dale, after a childhood shared between France’s Lorraine and Provence regions. His website, where he posts the photos he takes during his travels, is well worth exploring: www.udistance.com ( short for “University of Distance” ).
“The more I travel, the more I use up the reality of the world,
the more I’m able to identify other spaces.”
PAul theroux, “the greAt rAilwAy BAzAAr” ( Éd. grAsset )
“Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it,” writes Paul Theroux in the opening line of The Great Railway Bazaar, one of his best–known works, published in 1975. Theroux has indeed spent a large chunk of his life on trains, and is unsurpassed in describing what can be seen of the world from a packed or deserted compartment, on expeditions during which months can pass almost without setting foot on a station platform. With him we board the 15:30 London to Paris, and on to India, Burma, Laos, Japan and Russia. “Asia washes with spirited soapy violence in the morning. The early train takes you past people discovered laundering like felons rehearsing — Pakistanis charging their sodden clothes with sticks, Indians trying to break rocks ( … ) by slapping them with wet dhotis …”