studies in travel writing

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New Eyes

Someone once told me – he was a student preparing a presentation at art college featuring images of English suburbia at night – that J G Ballard was his favourite photographer. In the same spirit I’d like to nominate Marcel Proust as my favourite travel writer.

photo of car
Marcel Proust and Alfred Agostinelli

Proust is no more celebrated for his travel books than Ballard is for his photographs. Indeed, he is famous for hardly leaving home at all. Some explanation appears to be in order.

For a long time I went to bed early and all I knew of Proust was the Monty Python sketch. I didn’t read him until my late forties, via the Scott Moncrieff translation of A la recherche du temps perdu, working through it during my partner’s first pregnancy.1 I had been writing an essay on two memoirs that focussed on food; reviewers of both had invoked the Proustian madeleine and I was determined to return to source. Many months later, the baby nearly two weeks overdue, I was still on Time Regained, with a hundred pages to go. The exasperated mother-to-be sent me into the spare room with a large pot of coffee and told me to get it over with. I duly complied. Jack was born the next day.

Proust actually traveled quite widely as a young man (not only to the Normandy coast, but to Amsterdam, the Rhineland and Venice) and his great novel is full of journeys on a small scale, detailing the varying routine of country walks (I, 161, 220-2), drives by carriage (II, 327-30) and motor car (IV, 454-68), and unexpected - and sometimes scandalous - encounters on provincial railway lines (IV, 291-338).

A recurrent theme is the way his characters imaginatively turn their circumscribed lives into epic adventures. Thus Aunt Léonie invests the trivial details of her small town life with an importance they would only have had at the court of Louis XIV (I, 136-41); a footman treats moving house from one neighbourhood of Paris to another as a rare opportunity given to him to ‘see the world’ (III, 1-2).

Marcel himself admits to a fascination with old accounts of travel and exploration and ‘applied them to the events of my daily life to give myself courage' (IV, 9). And he compares his desire to get to know Mme de Guermantes to that of the traveller determined to get to fully explore a town (III, 25), in much the same way that he likens the working-class girls who sexually preoccupy him to the ‘marvellous cities that travel holds in store for us' (V, 188).

But what makes him worth reading is the quality of his attention, even when he is standing - or lying - still. His first impressions of the resort and the hotel at Balbec prompt some remarkable reflections on the phenomenology of familiar and unfamiliar rooms (II, 282). And the street sounds and smells that begin and end The Captive offer ample evidence of the extent to which Proust overcame his habitual responses to his environment to experience it afresh, as if for the first time:
At daybreak, my face still turned to the wall, and before I had seen above the big window-curtains what shade of colour the first streaks of light assumed, I could already tell what the weather was like. The first sounds from the street had told me, according to whether they came to my ears deadened and distorted by the moisture of the atmosphere or quivering like arrows in the resonant, empty expanses of a spacious, frosty, pure morning; as soon as I heard the rumble of the first tramcar, I could tell whether it was sodden with rain or setting forth into the blue (V, 1).
For many of us one of the pleasures of travel is that of recovering that level of heightened awareness to which routine has numbed us. But we do have to leave home in order to find it

Proust, by contrast, as Adorno remarked, 'developed a technique to resist the automatization and mechanization of his own thought'.2 He didn’t have to go anywhere. All his writing, you might say, is travel writing. Certainly the editor of an anthology of Proust’s Thousand and One Voyages was not troubled with a shortage of material.3

And if this still sounds counter-intuitive, we should remember that while the travel sections of bookstores are still dominated by accounts of journeys to far-away places, they are not all like that.

In RoadFrames, Kris Lackey makes a distinction between 'horizontal' books - those that 'emphasize road experiences' - and 'vertical' narratives, 'which downplay the travel itself and dwell instead on the knotty particulars of some local conflict.' 4 A few years later, Michael Cronin used the same terminology in Across the Lines:
Horizontal travel is the more conventional understanding of travel as a linear progression from place to place. Vertical travel is temporary dwelling in a location for a period of time where the traveller begins to travel down into the particulars of place either in space (botany, studies of micro-climate, exhaustive exploration of local landscape) or in time (local history, archaeology, folklore).5
If some travels cover many miles across the surface of the earth, others make a virtue of staying in one place and taking it all in. Their patron saint might be the philosopher Immanuel Kant who apparently never ventured more than a few miles from his home town. Asked why he didn't travel he is said to have replied, 'I have travelled a great deal - in Königsberg.'

There is a strong tradition of vertical travel in French literature: Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around My Room (1795) is notorious, and there are some fine examples of what might be called square-inch anthropology by Georges Perec (repeated observations of the Place Saint-Sulpice in the Latin Quarter), François Maspéro (explorations of neighbourhoods adjacent to a suburban train line), and Julio Cortazar (a month-long journey along the motorway from Paris to Marseilles).6

But there are many fine examples in English too. I have in mind the highly localized ethnography associated with books like Prairy-Erth by William Least Heat Moon (dwelling in Chase County, Kansas) or Isolarion by James Attlee (walking the two miles or so of Oxford's Cowley Road).7 Or, perhaps above all, the remarkable studies of the Aran Islands and Connemara in the west of Ireland by Tim Robinson, the first of which prompted Cees Nooteboom to remark: ‘it is as if every metre of the coast, with its types of stone, plants, birds, stories, names and shapes has been described.’8

For one reviewer, a book like Isolarion ‘proves that good travel writing is not about where you go, or how you go there, but the way that you look at the world that you pass through’. And indeed, this Proustian principle is something of a cliche. In a collection of 50 Most Inspiring Travel Quotes of All Time, a similar point is made several times:
One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things (Henry Miller)

We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open (Jawaharaial Nehru)
A commenter added one from Proust himself:
The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes,but in having new eyes.
Indeed, this aphorism seems to be the most quoted of all, judging by its constant reiteration on Twitter.

But it’s strange that these words are not taken from the standard translations of Proust – neither Moncrieff (or its subsequent revisions) nor the more recent Penguin version under the editorship of Christopher Prendergast. They actually appear in a rather obscure volume entitled The Maxims of Marcel Proust, edited and translated by Justin O’Brien, published in 1948.

This enhanced vision would appear to be rather selective, for the quotation as it generally circulates is not exactly as it is written in O’Brien’s book, for five words are traditionally removed. O’Brien actually has:
The only real voyage of discovery, the only Fountain of Youth, consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.9
We know better than Proust, whose second clause gets in the way of its quotability. Its archaic capitalization of nouns not entirely to modern tastes.

The (revised) Moncrieff version I have - to quote the longer passage to which it belongs, with its reference to interplanetary travel and the invocation of art, through the figures of Proust's fictional painter Elstir and composer Vinteuil - reads:
A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as things of Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star (V, 291).10
I suppose we justify calling writers like Proust - who write so intensely, with such freshness, of their immediate, familiar surroundings - travel writers because they bring to bear a degree of attention, of scrutiny that most of us can only approach when we come across something new, strange, even a little dangerous.

But Proust's point is stronger, more challenging than this. He suggests that travellers are no more capable of such perception than anyone else. What is required is a very special power - something like an exceptional ability to forget. For the only way to remain eternally young is to greet each moment as if for the first time, to erase one's own self and adopt - imaginatively at least - the multiple perspectives of others.

To whom do we turn for inspiration? He suggests we can learn much more from painters and composers than explorers. But Proust is also - as his narrative begins finally to discuss the conditions of its own coming into existence - offering his own work as an example to follow, a guide-book that advises us not how to travel but how to write about travel.


1. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time. Translated by C K Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D J Enright. 6 volumes (London: Vintage, 1992). Subsequent references will be by volume and page number: eg III, 45).

2. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘On Proust’, Notes to Literature, Vol 2. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann , translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 315-16

3. Anne Borrel (ed), Voyager avec Proust: Mille et un voyages (Paris: La Quinzaine, 1994).

4. Kris Lackey, RoadFrames: The American Highway Narrative (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 53.

5. Michael Cronin, Across the Lines: Travel, Language and Translation (Cork: University of Cork Press, 2000), 19.

6. Xavier de Maistre, A Journey around my Room [1795], translated by Andrew Brown, introduced by Alain de Botton (London: Hesperus, 2004); Georges Perec, Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien [1974] (Paris: Christian Bourgeois, 2008); François Maspéro and Anaïk Frantz, Roissy Express: A Journey through the Paris Suburbs London: [1990], translated by Paul Jones (London: Verso, 1994); Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop, Autonauts of the cosmoroute : a timeless voyage from Paris to Marseilles [1983], translated by Anne McLean (London: Telegram, 2008).

7. William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth: A Deep Map (London: Andre Deutsch, 1999); James Attlee, Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey (London: Black Swan, 2009).

8. Cees Nooteboom, Nomad's Hotel: Travels in Time and Space [2006], translated by Ann Kelland, introduced by Alberto Manguel (New York: Mariner Books, 2009), 77.

9. Justin O'Brien (ed), The maxims of Marcel Proust (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), 181.

10. Another translation, which I think I prefer, is provided by Robert Pippin, who cites this passage at the very end of his collection of essays on post-Kantian philosophy: 'A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything that we saw in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage of discovery, the only really rejuvenating experience, would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we really do fly from star to star.' Robert Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian Aftermath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 338.
Posted by Alasdair Pettinger Thu 27 Sep 2012 10:25 GMT+0100


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