Travel writing is still dead, according to many book trade professionals – or still a “very difficult market”, as the jargon has it. And this despite the fact that these same people have been publishing great gouts of the stuff for the past decade. The key thing is to make sure you don’t call it travel writing. You can put “journeys in search of something-or-other” on the cover; stick the word “odyssey” or even “travels” in the subtitle; have the thing conform to every last travel writing genre convention. But you must make sure that its narrative doesn’t stray beyond the hardening borders of the United Kingdom, and you must insist that its primary quest-object is a suitably patriotic bit of British natural history. Look, I don’t mean to suggest that there’s something a bit Brexity about the so-called “new nature writing” – or maybe I do…
Anyway, in spite of all this, there must be at least a few commissioning editors who missed the edict. Because, from a reader’s perspective, 2019 has been a vintage year for travel writing. Here’s a round-up of some of those new travel books that I’ve had time to read.
January saw Monisha Rajesh’s Around the World in 80 Trains pull up to Platform 1 – and what a heartening way to start the travel writing year! On the one hand, it’s an unashamed, old-school round-the-world adventure which makes Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar look quaveringly unambitious in geographical scope by comparison. But on the other hand, I’ve never read a travel book so at ease with the technological realities of twenty-first-century travel (WeChat, FaceTime, Netflix – this book has more apps than your average smartphone). So much for the old saw about cheap airfares and the internet killing travel writing. And it proves that you can write entertainingly about Big Trips without having to pretend it’s the 19th century. I reviewed the book here.
There was a bit of a breather into the spring, but eyeing the upcoming publishers’ schedules felt like approaching a veritable book mountain. I began the ascent with Nicholas Jubber’s Epic Continent – his best book to date, as far as I’m concerned, an enthusiastic trip around Europe, which manages to be thoroughly immersed in the past without ever ignoring the uneasy present. I reviewed it here.
And then, of course, the big one, the rumblings of its ascent audible months – nay, years – in advance. On 2 May Robert Macfarlane’s Underland came up to grass, as the old men would say. This book has had more than enough praise already, but it’s all deserved of course. Underland is more ambitious than The Old Ways, but it’s also far tighter and more coherent. In fact, it almost matches The Wild Places for the controlled elegance of its structure. But here’s the real cause for celebration: Underland’s scope is properly, convincingly international. We might start down a hole in Somerset, but we then dig our way onwards to Italy, Paris, Slovenia, the Arctic. This is a travel book, and its author is way beyond the bounds of that dubiously exclusive British “our” which haunts so much of the new nature writing genre. Mind you, it ought to have a health warning for claustrophobes on the cover…
A couple of months after Underland came a book that plainly made its way to publication along the path that Macfarlane has cut. David Gange’s The Frayed Atlantic Edge will inevitably find itself shelved in amidst all the crow-chasing, otter-bothering, badger-harassing mass of the new nature writing. But it doesn’t really belong there. The thematic focus is the densely-peopled past; and the journey it describes – by kayak, down the western seaboard of Britain and Ireland – is probably the most authentically adventurous of all the books covered here. Yes, with its geographic scope we’re in the realms of “the Archipelago” – and yes, there’s something to be said somewhere (but not here) about the troubling idea of British literary territorial expansionism (though it should be said that Gange is specifically concerned with resetting conventional spatial orientation – and does so more convincingly than anyone so far). But, feck it anyway, it’s one of the best travel books of the year! There’s also some pleasing formal innovation in the way Gange lets maps do part of the lifting work of the travelogue aspect. Definitely a 2019 highlight.
July also saw new releases from a veteran pro, the mighty Sara Wheeler, and an excellent newcomer, Jonathan Chatwin (no relation – though as it happens he did write a very good academic book on Bruce a few years back). Wheeler’s Mud and Stars uses a form not dissimilar to that of her previous book, O My America! – a blend of travel and biography. This time, however, it’s Russia, and the lives are those of (mostly) male Russian authors. Of all the travel writers of her generation, Wheeler has always seemed to be most thoroughly embedded in the world of literature – that of printed matter, of the review pages, of the literary essay. Her 2011 collection of journalism, Access All Areas, offers a subtle genuflection – not that Wheeler’s really the sort to genuflect to anyone – in the direction of that other great book-world travel writer, Jonathan Raban. And Mud and Stars is very much a book about literature. For an absolute amateur in the Russian field like myself, she’s a perfect, gently authoritative and ever-enthusiastic guide. But she’s a traveller too, of course, and a sense of place is the book’s vital component. The idea of Russia that lingers beyond the final pages is a melancholy, faintly bittersweet, late-summer sort of place. This impression was powerful and enduring enough, in fact, that I found it interfering with the rather different Russian atmosphere in the final book of this round-up, which I’ll get to below…
Jonathan Chatwin’s Long Peace Street, meanwhile, was more concerned with history than literature, and it tackled it using a brilliantly simply device – a walk across Beijing via the eponymous “Long Peace Street”, an arrow-straight thoroughfare running right through the centre of the city. It works extremely well, chapters spinning off into eclectic historical episodes as the author makes his way along the street. To my considerable surprise, the book that Long Peace Street brought to mind was not one of those by Chatwin’s famous namesake, but W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn – a straight, rather than meandering Rings of Saturn, set in China rather than East Anglia…
And then it was September, and – oh my goodness!
You know that scene in Don’t Look Back? The one where Bob Dylan and his entourage are sitting around in a smoky room in the Savoy? Donovan’s there, and he elects to play one of his thin little ditties (I mean, what was he thinking?). When he’s done, Dylan, smirking atrociously, is like, “Mind if I play something?”. Still smirking, he launches into “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The camera lingers mercilessly on Donovan’s face – the face of a man brutally confronted by the relative measure of his own talent.
The Donovan look – that must have been the expression on the face of every other writer of place, travel or nature with a book out this year as they realised that Kathleen Jamie was in the room and was, like, “Mind if I play something?”
Surfacing – the book of the year? Of course it bloody was! But then, just like Bob Dylan, Kathleen Jamie’s not a normal mortal. She sold her soul at some Scottish crossroads years ago – she must have done, to be able to write like that. I reviewed the book here. (I’ve no reason to believe that Kathleen Jamie suffers from any of Bob Dylan’s obvious bastardry – but I do think she allowed herself a sly little smirk, just for a passing moment, in the opening pages of Surfacing, as explained in the review.)
Not all 2019’s travel books were strictly new. Every aficionado of the genre gives thanks to the gods of literature for the magnificent institution that is Eland Books. In June they published a new edition of Moritz Thomsen’s The Saddest Pleasure. It originally appeared in 1990, and as I read I found myself muttering, “How did I not know about this already?” A remarkable book in so many ways. In synopsis: an ageing and rather crotchety American sets off on a trip through Brazil. At the outset it seems that he has recently been the victim of a very considerable injustice in his adopted homeland of Ecuador, though the circumstances are left vague – deliberately, it transpires, for (soft spoiler alert) as the book progresses and Thomsen tears more and more strips off himself, your perspective shifts in advance of the ultimate reveal. One hell of a book. My first take was “as if Paul Theroux learnt self-awareness and humility and gained lyricism in the process”, but I don’t think that really does Thomsen justice. There are hints of Jonathan Raban (also kept in print by Eland) at his best, but really he’s in a class of his own.
(Incidentally, Theroux himself reportedly had a new travel book out in 2019. But he’s been signalling his own retirement from writing about foreign travels since at least 2013, and I have long since run out of patience.)
Eland were also responsible, in October, for something wholly new – in English, at least: So it Goes, a delicate little collection of freshly-translated pieces (with Robyn Marsack on translation duties) by the great Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier. I reviewed it here.
I wrapped up my year of travel reading with new titles from two writers who, like Sara Wheeler, first appeared at the start of the 1990s, and who are still going strong.
I’d been looking forward to Philip Marsden’s The Summer Isles – which came out in October – for a longer than any of the other books on this year’s list. It did not disappoint. A worthy follow-up to 2014’s superb Rising Ground, this time Marsden is offshore, aboard a wooden sailing boat, and travelling much the same route as David Gange (we’re in “Archipelagic” territory again). But where Gange was concerned with hard history, Marsden is looking instead at the islands of the Atlantic edge as receptacles for the imagination. That premise might sound a few warnings of dangerous waters ahead, but Marsden is an old pro at this travel writing business: he’s equally concerned with the lived lives of the present, the chance encounter, the quayside dialogue. Perhaps counterintuitively, The Summer Isles turns out to be a much more densely peopled book than The Frayed Atlantic Edge. It has serious emotional heft too – suddenly and unexpectedly in the first chapter. And as I approached the end (again, a soft spoiler alert) the book that came to mind above all was Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard…
Last, but by no means least, the wry trickster of contemporary travel literature, Rory MacLean returned in November, thirty years on from his genre-bending debut Stalin’s Nose, with Pravda Ha Ha (just how to read that “ha ha” I’m not sure – and I think that’s intentional, though it comes to sound decidedly sarcastic by the end). He’s covering the same ground as that earlier book, but this time in reverse, east to west (and without Winston the pig), beginning in Russia. And this is a much darker book, for all MacLean’s customary humour and eye for the absurd. He made the Stalin’s Nose trip as the walls were coming down; now they’re going up again. Russia as it appears here is more dystopian, nightmarish, than in Sara Wheeler’s Mud and Stars. The other countries MacLean visits are often similarly grim – toxic nationalism, truth-be-damned hate speech and all the rest. All told, it’s a powerful portrait of a continent in a pretty bad way. The most chilling moment is the encounter with a trio of “alt-right” media professionals in a trendy Warsaw wine bar. And the Britain that MacLean returns to in the final chapters is very much the same sour place that Nicholas Jubber reaches towards the end of Epic Continent (like Jubber, MacLean handles the contemporary European issue of migration very deftly). He does manage a note of optimism at the very last – though it takes considerable effort.
Make no mistake, the dark shadows are falling. But surely that makes travel writing all the more important – travel writing that goes beyond borders (and beyond badgers). This is a genre with a built-in capacity to find space for individual stories, multitudinous voices, connections, empathy. Judging by this year’s bumper crop of travel books – possibly the best single haul since the glory days circa 1990 – we’ve plenty of writers up to the pressing task in hand.
Travel writing is dead; long live travel writing!
© Tim Hannigan 2019