in Frieze | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

Transports of Delight

The golden age of travel literature

in Frieze | 09 SEP 01

'Mulai Hassen allowed his tame leopards to roam about his reception room; but his son, more timid by nature, confined the leopards in cages, and replaced them in his drawing room by guinea-pigs. The effect lost in majesty, but the afternoon callers were less nervous.'

Walter Harris, Morocco that Was, 1921

Many claim that the literature of travel has, with a few exceptions, declined in quality in proportion to the number of people who actually travel. Yet very early travel writing is almost purely descriptive: Pausanias' Periegesis Hellados, written in the second century AD narrates a tour of Greece and is mainly concerned with the art and architecture of the cities visited by the author. While the Middle Ages saw a few interesting journeymen, both explorers and missionaries, writings such as The Travels of Marco Polo (1298) are so embroidered and romanticised that it is difficult to engage with them as (relatively) factual accounts of real journeys. In contrast, the 18th century has provided us with many dull accounts of the Grand Tours of unimaginative English gentlemen. My enthusiasm is reserved for that most rewarding period of travel literature: the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is from this time that the writing becomes anecdotal, witty and as much about the travellers as the places they visited. These people were mainly adventurers, explorers or connoisseurs, and sometimes writers of merit: the bibliophile Robert Curzon, for example, who wrote Monasteries of the Levant (1849), an astonishing tale of an arduous journey through an exotic country in pursuit of his desiderata; and the historian A. W. Kinglake, whose Eothen was published in 1844. Travel during this period was a difficult, dangerous, expensive and long-winded affair undertaken by extraordinary men and women whose experiences, if well written, are enthralling.

Most of them were members of the aristocracy who not only possessed money but staggering self-assurance. Kinglake travelled with 'a certain retinue, and sufficient influence to secure the courtesy of the authorities', and entertained the feeling that he was '... a sultan possessed of absolute authority over his surroundings'. His writing is urbane and enthusiastic, and never entirely serious: 'But presently there issued from the postern a group of human beings - beings with immortal souls, and possibly some reasoning faculties; but to me the grand point was this, that they had real, substantial, and incontrovertible turbans.' Their curiosity and nonchalant fearlessness is particularly appealing today when fearful individuals make simple journeys rendered effortless by technology. Episodes that would nowadays be treated with a verbose self-centred hysteria are recounted with brevity as being merely matter-of-fact, lacking even the coy, self-conscious understatement of some contemporary authors. The anonymous introduction to the 1898 Methuen edition of Eothen describes the style as 'comfortably slipshod', which could equally well describe the journey.

Part of the appeal of this period of travel literature is that these eyewitness accounts describe a time and place recent enough for us to have some connection with it, but not so recent as to render it mundane. Somehow, recollections of the most brutal, squalid or insignificant events become vivid, exotic and compelling. 'Oh, yes, there is always a thrill in it - this setting sail for the hot countries [...] it enslaves one like a drug of which one disapproves, but to which one nevertheless succumbs' wrote the American Charles Flandraus in Viva Mexico! (1908). The allure of this age of travel writing is not simply because of the vanished world of Pashas, Viziers and Dragomans it describes but also the vanished world of the travellers themselves. Flandraus' perspective on Mexico of the first few years of the 1900s, Walter Harris's blustering Englishman in Morocco, or the kindly Italian doctor, The Duke of Pirajno, in North Africa; each has a shrewd interpretation of people together with delicate charm and naiveté. There is no offense in Flandraus' observation that everybody in Mexico 'looks like a home-made cigar'.

Contemporary travel writing has largely succumbed to the cult of the ego. Self-analysis has always been a feature of human thought and though potentially productive, only recently has it become universally acceptable to offer personal disclosure at the drop of a hat. A century ago this need to relentlessly impart any and all self-awareness was not considered good form. It was understood that however interesting it might be for the individual preoccupied with himself, it is usually a matter of unutterable tedium for others. Kinglake understood the dangers of such abandon, and warned in Eothen: 'if he gives to these feelings anything like the prominence which really belonged to them at the time of his travelling [...] he will sing a sadly long strain about self [...] and ruin the ruins of Baalbec with eight or ten cold lines.'

Most parts of the planet have been the subject of at least one travel book. Modern travel writers face the vexing problem of finding new places and experiences to write about. It is hard to escape the impression that many journeys (and subsequent books) have simply become excuses for a flight from ennui. As the choices become fewer the journeys have become more self-consciously difficult and consequently absurd. For his latest offering Paul Theroux went ocean kayaking across the treacherous Muskeget Channel, and Tony Hawks managed to hitchhike Round Ireland with a Fridge (1998). For my own part, I have decided to indulge my adventurous spirit and will traverse the Gobi on a shopping trolley - backwards.