‘I did not particularly like travel books,’ explains the rancorous writer-narrator in Paul Theroux’s recent novel My Secret History: ‘the form had fatal insufficiencies. It was usually geography, and potted history, and a kind of lifeless boasting about how far the writer had gone and what he ate.’ It’s a scattershot complaint, but well made all the same. You don’t want to read a travel book which presses upon you, perversely, how much time the author has spent sitting in a chair reading – in which the principal journey has been made by fingers flicking through a library’s card index. Nor should travel writing approximate to an Anneka Rice challenge, celebrating the fulfilment of an absurd logistical ultimatum through can-do heartiness and a wide-eyed winning smile; nor should it feel like having someone else’s endless holiday snaps forced on you with the tacit smugness of ‘I’ve been there, and you haven’t!’
Theroux’s André Parent, like Theroux himself, opts in his own travel narrative for ‘the effect of people talking ... their exact words. Nothing was more human than direct speech. It could be very simple, the place making it extraordinary.’ This is one option: allow your chance-met travelling colleagues, in effect, to write the book for you. Leave yourself out. Alternatively, put yourself in throughout, for the journey you have made is your life, is part of your autobiography, and if it is worth writing about it will have been because you have been changed by it. At the end of An Area of Darkness, his exploration of India, V.S. Naipaul can write that: ‘It was a journey that ought not to have been made; it had broken my life in two.’ Graham Greene, surviving a feverish night in the Liberian interior, records a comparable epiphany: ‘I had discovered in myself a passionate interest in living. I had always assumed before, as a matter of course, that death was desirable.’ Between Theroux’s democratic self-effacement and Greene’s isolation of the self lie the dangers of half-measure: shoring up your unease at occupying centre-stage with plenty of solid book-learning, or affecting a complacent high profile of opinionation.
The commercial success of Theroux’s own The Great Railway Bazaar is sometimes seen as the catalyst for so much mediocre travel writing nowadays – for encouraging a market-led mentality of journeys by commission and advances impossible to refuse. But Greene obtained a commission for Journey without Maps back in 1935. What really separates a masterpiece of the genre like Greene’s from a frequently attractive work like William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu is that Greene seeks no pretext or context or subtext for his trip other than himself. Dalrymple’s, on the other hand, is both complicated and distracted by his notion of retracing the ancient travels of Marco Polo from Jerusalem to the mythical Xanadu. In the record industry it is called the cover version; travel writing prefers the ‘footsteps’ tag. Why repeat what Marco Polo has already done? Because it gives you the chance to point political and cultural ironies in the changes that have intervened in the lands you transnavigate; because it provides, in the task of delivering, like Marco Polo, a bottle of Holy Oil from the start of your journey to its destination, a sustaining Anneka Rice gadgetry; because it offers the chance for those extended displays of background erudition Theroux deplores – and because it saves you having to have your own reason for going.
In Xanadu is subtitled ‘A Quest’, which is pushing it. In Xanadu: A Wheeze would be more honest, or perhaps A Good Prang – for not only is there no Naipaulian quest, but the book’s larky, open opportunism is its proper strength, and Dalrymple tells his story with energy and wit. The story of his story, though, to apply Henry James’s maxim, is no more than that he got some money off his Cambridge college to use for travelling overland from Israel to China, with some idea of inspecting the vernacular architecture en route (a precocious and rather tedious aspect of the book), and the peg of Marco Polo to hang it all on. I can see why Trinity College’s travel fellowship custodians bought that – but I wish Dalrymple had then brazenly taken the cash and left all his academic baggage behind. As a travel writer he inclines far more to Theroux than to Robert Byron, with Theroux’s delighted fascination with conversational absurdity and a comparable resourcefulness in undertaking an arduous trip. No car touring or sightseeing or cool drinks on the terrace. His is also a thoroughly English book, though: good-humoured where Theroux would be sour, blithely confident and optimistic where a Naipaul would be tensely aware of his statelessness. Even the occasional xenophobic aside, as when Dalrymple assesses some ‘piratical-looking Afghans’ who ‘all shared a look of unmistakable villainy’, is balanced by a winning, and equally English, line in self-deprecation. Predictably, given the vaguely second-hand nature of his non-quest, Dalrymple doesn’t know how to end his book, once he and his companion have succeeded in breaching muscular Mongolian bureaucracy to attain the site of Xanadu and deliver their phial of oil. The ruined city turns out to be a morass of mud, pelted by a fearsome storm, and the most unexpected and touching image of the whole book. The two of them lamely recite ‘Kubla Khan’ amongst the puddles, and are then whisked quickly back to Peking. Lugubrious comparisons with Marco Polo’s time are thankfully absent: indeed, the irony is not only that this blasted, inhospitable spot has been the pretext for a boyishly entertaining journey, but that once there at his goal Dalrymple has forgotten his portentous mentor entirely, and quite right too.
Jason Goodwin is another recent Cambridge graduate, and another traveller-on-a-pretext, and even more burdened with the learning of many historical archives. The Gunpowder Gardens is subtitled (a giveaway, all these subtitles, as guilty special pleading) ‘Travels through India and China in Search of Tea’. If ‘A Quest’ is loftily pretentious, this is surely erring on the side of the literal. But the pretext in Goodwin’s case is precious in the extreme: the tea caddies on his two grandmothers’ mantelpieces that had stood as evidence of their memsahib days in China and India, spending afternoons routinely drinking tea, (‘Well, they’d hardly have been picking it,’ sighed a friend of mine, glancing at the blurb.) This imperial heritage leads him to seek out the modern tea trade, as well as surviving relics of its 19th-century heyday. Why? In order to answer what questions? Partly Goodwin’s travels are a connoisseurial tea-tasting assignment, but his heart isn’t really in it, and I’m not surprised, since the most highly-prized specimens he tries appear to have the furry consistency and heart-stopping strength of that last cup out of a well-stewed pot. Partly his journey is simply homage: to visit the tea plantations in China because they’re there.
Goodwin’s last chapter, indeed, back in London, and speculating on the British predilection for tea, should have been his first. It is the nearest he comes to a rubric for his work, and it belatedly defines the true interest of his subject, for a book he hasn’t written. Brief Encounter, he pertinently notes, ‘opens and closes in the tea room of a railway station: the first shot is stirring. It’s bathos, English and repressed. It is a storm in a tea-cup.’ Tea, in other words, is a complex manifesto of manners, and matter for a fascinating work of British social history. Who cares how tea plants are made into Tetley tea-bags? Goodwin’s inconsequential travels are larded with far too much uninvigorated history of the tea trade, while his prose can affect a horrid writerliness. ‘By the 16th century ... Venice was in her wily dotage’: imagine that enunciated by one of the Brooke Bond chimps, dolled up in curlers and lace, in a fluting Molly Sugden voice. Goodwin doesn’t mention the PG Tips ads, so I will. Their subtle parodies of tea-drinking England, from cloth-capped scullery to drawing-room drinking blended Brooke Bond tea – perhaps twenty different strains from twenty different locations, Combined to produce one inoccuous, standardised commodity, the cuppa – bring down to earth the attempt to exalt tea into an epicurean quest, or into a key to unlock the interstices of empire. Better to start, as well as finish, in England.
Self-importance is a bearable failing in Dalrymple and Goodwin when set against the extraordinary egocentricity on show in Axel Madsen’s travel-biography of André Malraux and his ‘Asian adventures’, Silk Roads. In later life Malraux acquired an ungainsayable reputation for political courage, generosity and civic altruism. Here, in these travels in Cambodia and Vietnam during his twenties, he appears, even through Madsen’s craven, glutinous apologia, a spectacularly unpleasant bounder. Running short of cash in 1923, and hearing about some ancient ruined temples in Cambodia, Malraux hatched a plan to go out there, nick some of the most precious relics, and flog them for a fortune back in the West. Much to his annoyance, he got caught. To his arrogant ingratitude, he was eventually released. He then returned East to start a campaigning radical newspaper in Saigon – not, one suspects, because such political views were then necessary for him, but because here was a way to make a splash. Madsen renders all of this in an improbably immediate narrative which manages to recall every line of cheesy dialogue spoken between Malraux and his wife, and their every innermost thought (‘she sensed that he loved her, but wished his question had been asked with more tenderness’), while fawning at every turn: ‘For a man with a gift for taking quick and forceful possession of ideas and for formulating them in dazzling propositions ...’ Nor are we spared the homespun philosophising with which this prodigious couple tirelessly articulate their perfect lurve for one another, nor is there a wink of humour in the entire book, though Madsen, inevitably, salutes Malraux’s own. ‘Lifeless boasting’ of the sort Theroux’s hero condemns hardly measures up to this panegyric to megalomania.
No such slackly gushing verbiage in V.S. Pritchett’s collection of travel essays, At Home and Abroad: Every adjective in place, every sentence balanced and settled, every judgment considered, every piece a model of composure, whether Pritchett is disserting on Uruguay or the River Thames. Consequently, however, these descriptive articles are unmemorable: if they originally read well individually, a few thousand words at a time, three hundred odd pages at a run is hard going. Pritchett’s lapidary composure, impervious and sanguine, is itself the problem: none of these journeys could ever have broken his life in two, and if they had the fracture would have been healed with knowledge and consideration by the time it made it to print. The Rhine attracts the same measured prose as the Thames, London as Lima. His habitual pronouns are ‘one’ and ‘you’: ‘Here, in Santiago, as soon as you arrive, you note how people speak closer to your mind.’ Not only is the sound of that slightly weightier than the meaning, but with that impersonal generalisation Pritchett is taking refuge inside the carapace of judicious Englishness, rather than allowing Chile to test the particular temperament of V.S. Pritchett. Where Theroux seeks the wild idiosyncrasy of others, and Greene the spiritual ordeal of exhausted prostration, Pritchett offers a reverse democracy of travel – blueprints for journeys which any reasonable citizen could make, prototypical literary package tours. Sometimes his descriptions seem too easily competent: when he can routinely come up with images like waves ‘creaming on the sand in whispers’ you wonder if he mightn’t actually try for something even better. Occasionally, when the prose subsides into rippling waves of ‘splendids’ and ‘tremendouses’ and ‘superbs’, one infers merely, as Desmond Macarthy once similarly said of Conrad, a performance on the Pritchett. That in a sixty-page essay Pritchett can cover the whole of South America, country by country, is both a tour deforce of compression and slightly pointless: everything has receded into smooth prose.
Ian Frazier, in contrast, has burnished and bevelled Great Plains not at all, but rather followed his nose and slung in whatever took his fancy. If the result isn’t quite the ‘brilliant, funny and altogether perfect book’ that Garrison Keillor lauds on the front cover, nevertheless at least half the time it is very good. When it sags it is because Frazier has succumbed to too much geography and potted history, to interminable and arid résumés of the careers of celebrated Indians like Sitting Bull. These are dragged in as some of the characters of the Great Plains, the vast tract of prairie stretching 2500 miles down the centre of the United States alongside the eastern edge of the Rockies – but Frazier’s real success is to evoke the Great Plains’ unpeopled, unpunctuated desertion. A spooky land of endless straight roads, two-bit cowtowns and the occasional nuclear missile silo, part of Frazier’s territory is already familiar as Richard Ford country, the featureless far horizon behind the plangent, spacy tales collected in Rock Springs.
Frazier’s deadpan wit is often very nice. Here he speculates on the now-abandoned anti-ballistic missile system command centre at Ledger, Montana, a concrete hull of the modern world beached in the middle of nowhere: ‘Usually, ruins refer to the past, but what I like about this one is that it will still be here a thousand years from now ... Palaeontologists sometimes infer from a fragment of mandible whole skulls, species, cultures. Maybe in thousands of years this ruin will be evidence from which people infer nuclear weapons, the internal-combustion engine, automated banking, Phil Collins albums and diet pancake syrup.’ But his penultimate chapter ends with an angry peroration on the whole trajectory of American history, from the trapping of the first beaver, as it is mapped in the Great Plains landscape: ‘And in return’ for plundering the Plains’ natural resources, driving out its indigenous population, and impoverishing its precarious communities, ‘we condense unimaginable amounts of treasure into weapons buried beneath the land which so much treasure came from – weapons for which our best hope might be that we will someday take them apart and throw them away, and for which our next-best hope certainly is that they remain humming away under the prairie, absorbing fear and maintenance, unused, forever.’
Frazier’s is the only book out of these five to risk such passion, and at the same time to have calibrated a humour appropriate to its subject: its writer has measured his own necessary presence in his work, while letting the landscape, his true protagonist, breathe around him. ‘Convincing someone not to destroy a place that, to him, seems as unvaried as a TV test pattern is a challenge,’ Frazier reflects. ‘The beauty of the plains is not just in them-selves but in the sky, in what you think when you look at them, and in what they are not.’ Here is no need to talk up your journey with subtitles or literary antecedents: instead, on a Wyoming cattle ranch, the rancher points out to Frazier an eagle poised in its eyrie. ‘He stays around here all winter,’ says the rancher.’ ‘Sometimes I see him when it’s twenty below with a forty-mile wind, and he’ll be all hunkered down on top of a phone pole, waitin’ for a prairie dog or somethin’. I respect the hell out of that.’