“I see travel as a scale model of life” – the late Jonathan Raban in his favorite travel books

The late great writer Jonathan Raban - The Hulton Archive

The late great writer Jonathan Raban – The Hulton Archive

Jonathan Raban He died this week at the age of 80. This article was originally published in 2000.

Travel books are stories; no one seems to know about it, but they are. In other words, they draw a model out of the mundane chaos and debris of life and find meaning in it. The journeys themselves—short walks along the Hindu Kush, kayaking in Oceania, hiking in Patagonia—are pointless; however fun, tedious, frustrating and interesting for the traveler at the time, they are only a pile of experiences. But the narratives they give rise to are something else—formatted, plot, full of meaning, just like novels whose trigger events actually happened.

Consider Bruce Chatwin, the excellent “travel writer” of recent years. Chatwin was a mythologist; she found herself in her own life and traveled the raw material to create myths – most notably her own legend as a solitary nomad who travels and contemplates the world. In fact (as the excellent biography of Nicholas Shakespeare makes clear), Chatwin was such an obsessive speaker that he could not travel alone for more than a few hours. He raised people to bend their ears.

Took an Australian couple backpacking through Patagonia, too pale to appreciate their chance to be chosen by Chatwin as the confidants of the brilliant torrent of words. In Australia there was Salman Rushdie, who found himself the perfect friend, even dedicating all the allowances for Chatwin’s top-notch talent for relentless name-dropping. The Australian couple does not appear on In Patagonia and Salman Rushdie does not appear on The Songlines. The books Chatwin wrote are not simple transcriptions of Chatwin’s travels, and only naive readers will feel cheated by this discovery.

True, some travel books are actual diaries of the traveler’s journey: Gipsy Moth Surrounds the World by Francis Chichester; Annapurna South Side, Chris Bonington; South of Shackleton. But these journeys were in themselves more important than almost anything the traveler could say about them. The fact that he made the trip is reason enough for the reader to buy the book. It is nobody’s business whether Chatwin goes to Patagonia, Thubron goes to Siberia, or that Theroux travels most of the world in old steam trains. You probably did it yourself. Or your half-but-one-neighbour did. You read these books not for the travels described in them (anyone could do it given time and tickets), but for the author’s story of the travels. You don’t read Patagonia; You’ve read Chatwin. You don’t read trains; You’ve read Theroux.

I see travel as a model of life. You have been given three – or six – months to live. Between your departure and your return, everything that happens has potential significance, and it’s up to you to somehow turn what happened into the narrative. The travel book is the perfect form for the paranoid imagination because it forces the author to view every event on the road as part of a plot. What did that mean? Where does it fit? Then why did it happen? It is only in writing that the immature confusion of the journey begins to take shape and tells the writer – once a traveller – what it is really about.

“Compulsive talker” Bruce Chatwin – Ulf Andersen

The author and the traveler are two separate characters. The traveler who never knows what will happen next is in the dark – a traveler who, like all of us, is a greater journey, life itself, is an idiot. But the writer sitting at his desk – as if after his death – knows how the journey turned out. It predicts the end. He can watch his unfortunate alter ego get caught up in intrigue and feel a sense of pity for him because he knows that something really bad awaits the passenger just behind the next slope or at the next bend. river.

The best “travel books” for me (Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, Alexander Kinglake’s Eothen, Evelyn Waugh’s Labels, Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn) are essentially autobiographical novels. Like all determinable events along the way, they are true as long as the journey is actually lived, but it is also imagined, shaped, modeled, drawn. They make permanent sense of the contingency and chaos of the journey. Like Chatwin’s books, they are best read as myths and not as factual records, and the reader who sets out in search of the Australians in Patagonia or Rushdie in the Outback takes a journey of his own on the wrong path.

Evelyn WaughBettmann

Evelyn WaughBettmann

I admire Kinglake, who boasted in his preface to Eothen that the book contained nothing “useful”; tips and tricks, basic facts, nothing of practical value for future visitors to the Middle East. Now the “Travel” sections of television, guidebooks, and newspapers like this provide us with a wealth of travel information. Literary travelogue has a different function. It’s there to fuel the imagination with a story and create a new (one might say novel) world made tangible on the page for the reader.

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