Blessay 50: Books that Travel

This is my third piece on travelling. Like the previous essays on my mother and China, it’s an old piece that’s been hanging round on my desk. I wrote of carrying abroad lots of books in my luggage. That was in the 70s 80s and 90s. Today we have the kindle and I can now electronically store thousands of texts, but despite its convenience and non-glare screen I still take at least two paperbacks with me. Here’s my account of books and the countries they ended up in.

Firstly you decide on a book, or books, (not counting a guide-book) for your journey. I always manage to do this two hours before I leave home to catch my transport. It’s best to choose a book not in the presence of a partner or friend: for me books have to be deliberated on, and my slow choosing can drive them crazy. (I’ve you’ve read Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller you’ll recall the superbly absurd chapter about endless categories of unread books and the exasperation at to what read next.)  It has to be a novel, for a decent time span and narrative drive. If possible it should flow smoothly with your travelling. Ulysses is a linguistic Everest of a book to get through and shouldn’t be taken if you are thinking of climbing the real Everest; more to be read tottering lost round any great city, but preferable at home, drinking cider, on the sofa. Also beware of over-dense narratives. I love Kafka, but The Castle has always been a hurdle I could never overcome. Three times I’ve tried reading it and only got half way through. It’s an unfinished novel and maybe that’s the point: my never finishing it means I, like K, is doubly less likely to make it to the castle. As K struggles through the snow, ice, bureaucracy and tries to escape from its menacing characters, Kafka’s prose induces an eye-closing tedium. Sadly it was a disastrous choice for my Czech Republic trip.

Stories are allowed (though they’re more like snacks than a meal) and my personal favourite would be editor Alberto Manguel’s stunning anthology of fantasy stories, Dark Water. Reading H.G. Wells’ wonderful story The Door in the Wall in Romania had me speculating on quite a few bricked off entrances in the older streets of Bucharest. (Alas, the white wall with its green door opening into an enchanted world has never been discovered on any of my travels.) Poetry is too reflective and really doesn’t synchronise well when you’re on the move. My only exception was the great Polish poet Zbiegniew Herbert in Poland. His humour, surrealism, dark irony and cutting strangeness partnered well with the sceptical Polish temperament – especially when in Gdansk the month after Solidarity was set up in 1980. Essays are passable but like stories are a quick eat, and if they’re good you just want more and more and end up getting through them too quickly. (There’s nothing worse than finishing all your books within five days of a three-week trip and not finding a single bookshop that has anything readable left in English to buy.)

As for non-fiction, don’t bother. History books and biographies have never worked for, as my mind flits rapidly onto more books to instantly check out about the First World War or Dickens when my book collection or local library can’t be accessed. It really has to be good long novel or three short reads

Having the selected novel with you, during the first stages of travel, presents you with a dilemma. There’s a tense pull between the journey that imaginative prose demands and the journey that your prosaic actions – getting to your airplane seat, and strapping your seat belt –absolutely requires. Whilst the escapist part of you wants to be belted into your book, the realist side suddenly learns that the book isn’t resting on your lap but buried in the hand luggage. Stuffed amongst your clothes and travel guides are a book or two of that druggy stuff called fiction. You un-belt and retrieve it – ‘some author’s’ completed and paper-backed journey of his/her imagination. A yet to be read world is planning to kidnap you and hold you hostage – much more likely to happen than a real terrorist attack.

You get of your plane. Arrive in an unfamiliar land – usually the glaring sunlight of a Spain, Italy or Greece. You stagger round with too much baggage but make it to your hotel.  Up early next day to do the town or an out-of-the-way monument, being quickly exhausted by a dirt track road or tarmac highway. There are the gems in a great art gallery or the remains of a temple to take in. The mind soon begins to weary of its impaling rota – find a room, buy a meal, see some sights, catch a train, find a room, buy a meal, see some more sights, find a room, buy a meal…  Then you remember that you can return to chapter 12 of your Patricia Highsmith thriller. You read on – hopefully persuaded by the writer’s mind that you’ll get safely there and back, that the journey will be good one and you’ll enjoy being its surrogate author.

Why do we take certain novels away with us? Have they already been unconsciously chosen? If so, are they the right books? Does the unconscious lie and control us? Have they been carefully consciously chosen? An exasperated ‘anything readable will do action or ‘let’s return to my original choice, after a dozen wrong ones? My only rule about selection is to be a bit wary of taking the literature of the country you’re about to visit. (I recall reading Homer’s Odyssey in Greece. By a quiet deserted edge of Corfu I kept imagining Odysseus sailing towards the shore, anchoring himself in a real terrain, and me wanting to invent new stories for him.) My Penguin classic’s translation had to be put away, as the grip of the landscape was overpowering. Only after sailing back to Italy did I re-open The Odyssey and allow that amazing Greek to recount his own adventures.

You can pack old English novelists. Conrad, James, Dickens or Eliot in your bag. Or some modern Americans, Bellow, Roth, Ford Cynthia Ozick and Marilyn Ferguson. The beautiful clarity of their English helps calm the mind and expunge it of the terrible pidgin English you’ve been inflicting on the locals and they’ve inflicted on you. It always feels clumsier than your attempts at their language. (This was very apparent in the 80s in Europe. Now English is the dominant second language. Business speak has ‘saved’ the English race from being linguists. In Asia there can be ‘problems’ but less so because of the internet and charm of football.)

I remember being huddled in a tent on a hard Moroccan camping ground. An effusive argument, in Arabic, was raging nearby. I was reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady: the moment when Isabel Archer’s regrets having married Osmond.

“In that sense, that of the love of harmony and order and decency and all the stately offices of life, he went with him freely, and his morning had contained nothing ominous. But when, as the months, had elapsed, she had followed him farther and he had seen her into the mansion of his own inhabitation, then, then she had seen where she really was.”

I was 6 kms from Rabat and under the canvas of my cheapo tent. The two Arab men’s argument was getting louder. But the suspense of Isabel Archer’s doubting and the pressing anxiety of her dark night of the soul drew me further into the Jamesian scene. James wrote many stories speaking of the mystery and power of it. It is never properly explained – the heart of the matter or ineffable mystery? That night I felt it pressing in on me.* Was I really listening to that argument or sympathising with Isabel? The language of Henry James and the incomprehensible sound of the Arabs competed for attention. I couldn’t decide where I really wanted it (My story-reading frustration and story-writing yearning) to be. I threw down the book, inserted my earplugs and tried to fall asleep.

Travel brings a constant stimulus both good and bad. A novel pulls you inwards trying to make you forget how hard your seat is on a long bus or train journey. In 1974. I was returning home on the Athen’s express train to London. (It was scheduled as a 30 hour trip but took 36) and was reduced to my last bag of peanuts and a bottle of mineral water. I was avidly reading Lawrence’s The Rainbow. Unknown to me, and my wife, was the fact she was one month pregnant. After a bout of morning sickness, on the train and then boat, she plucked the book from my hands and read some D.H. at his most fecund.

“She faced outwards to where men moved dominant and creative, having turned their back on the pulsating heat of creation, and with this behind them, were set out to discover what was beyond, to enlarge their own scope and range and freedom: whereas the Brangen men faced inwards to the teeming life of creation, which poured unresolved into their veins.”

Half-way through our shared reading of Lawrence we were interrupted by a young sociology teacher. At first we exchanged banalities about the weather. Then he stopped and asked us to hear him out. He launched into a gloomy projection of a severe economic crisis for England after the oil crisis of 1972. His apocalyptic tone was accompanied by the rain of Munich lashing against the compartment window.

Three weeks later Prime Minister Edward Heath was struggling with the miner’s crisis. A three-day working week was coming: forced upon us by people, who in the Heath’s words,” want to change our whole democratic way of life.” That remark caused me to pick up again an other Athens Express read, Women in Love and read this.

“There were always miners about…They belonged to another world, they had a strange glamour, their voices were full of an intolerable deer resonance, like a machine’s burring, a music more maddening than the siren’s long ago.”

One definition of the occult is a form of hidden knowledge that’s miraculously connected to coincidence. Books that travel can play a strange and quite magical role in reflecting political acts. Or being prescient. So even stranger than the Lawrence case was Dostoyevsky.

June 1989 saw me touring the art cities of northern Italy. One evening in Perugia I encountered members of the local Communist Party. They were showing videos on large screens in the centre of town. It was TV footage on the uprising in Beijing’s Tian’ anmen Square. The C.P. had appealed for financial help, sung protest songs and delivered speeches of solidarity with the Beijing protesters. I strolled quietly away wondering what China’s old guard leadership would do next. On reaching my hotel I realised that I’d left my copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils on the table of a restaurant. I hurried back to find it being read by a C.P. worker I’d noticed collecting funds. He looked up and smile. “Ah, my friend. You have the right book here….look what I’ve found.” He stood up to read this paragraph.

“The great writer was most painfully afraid of the advanced Russian revolutionary youth, and imagining, in his ignorance, that the keys to Russia’s future were in their hands, he ingratiated himself with them in a most fulminating way, mainly because they paid no attention to him whatever.”

“That’s exactly my problem to. Wanting to be accepted by the group but staying a free and individual writer. Joining the Communists didn’t help me!” I said that at that at this moment in China people were exerting more power than one writer could ever do, in order to change things. “Yes I suppose that’s true,” he admitted,” But I’d have liked to have written important stuff like The Devils so that people of the future would respect me!”

“You know the novel well then?”

“Not at all. Just read a few chapters waiting for you to return.”

He handed over The Devils – probably the blackest and most savage critique on revolutionary activity in all literature, an uncomfortable text both for Beijing’s revolutionaries, pseudo-Maoists and Trotskyites. I wanted to talk to him but he suddenly left, leaving a CP leaflet on the table.

Never read extremely leisurely paced fiction on bumpy buses or crowded third class Indian trains. The first volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past suffered greatly. Its immensely long and allusive sentences, with their challenging syntax, are hell to concentrate on when beggars are singing in front of you, tea sellers are crying out Chai! Chai! and the train screams to a halt and your backpack crashes to the floor. Re-positioning myself in my seat (The long luggage rack that I paid the guard 8 rupees baksheesh for) I once more attempted Proust.

A Hindi voice recited what I thought to be a prayer in Sanskrit written in an exercise book. The old man was closely watched buy a second old man who explained it was a Hindu translation of a poem by Longfellow called The Psalm of Life. He complained that great English poetry was no longer being read by Indians anymore. The man asked me what I was reading. “Just some French book” I replied wearily. For the reader’s Longfellow I swapped him two stanzas of Wordsworth. These were then translated into Hindu.

It was days before I returned to the vicissitudes of jealousy expressed in Swann in Love. In my new hotel room I devoured more Proust and unfortunately some very sweet Indian sweets. I was sick all day and couldn’t handle sentences either very long or very short. Books that travel have to be careful. For their readers may fall ill. And they may go for days without being picked up and loved.

“Its not that great books are not being written anymore. It’s more that there aren’t any great readers.”

Gore Vidal

Nor great travellers to enjoy them too.


* This is my feeble reference to the opening sentence of Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch. “I can feel the heat closing in.”






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