Written in 2004 for Sky magazine
Being both a novelist and travel writer for a quarter-century has made me all too aware of how suddenly, how powerfully, the world is changing. Every time I go back to a foreign destination I feel I know well, I realize I am out-of-date. The place in my mind’s eye is already obsolete; and the articles I wrote, about Fez or Georgia, Delhi or Rarotonga, seem to be describing destinations inexorably far-off—because they no longer exist. Why didn’t someone warn me? How could it happen so fast? This is why, ultimately, travel writing is more an experience of time than of space.
And yet, as we all know, what we seek when we travel is not primarily what’s current. We would rather come home with an understanding of the eternal aspects of Paris than having learned our way around the metro. It can be argued that there’s an archetypal date one can assign to any place, and the right fictions transport you there in time as well as in space. A better way to read the unchanging essence of a destination is not by devouring stacks of guidebooks, but by visiting it through the eyes of novelists both great and small, who used it not just as a stage set but as the heart of a book.
Think of the following personal suggestions, then, not as a voyage around one man’s bookshelves, but as a few choice pages from an inexhaustible literary atlas.
Although Irwin Shaw (1913-1984) built his reputation first as a short-story writer, he was also a novelist of considerable worldliness and depth for years before becoming known as an author of bestsellers. One of my favorites is Two Weeks in Another Town (1960), set in the Italian film milieu. An American, an ex-actor long out of the profession, returns to help out a director friend. It is at once a portrait of a man in midlife crisis, of the unreal fishbowl of Cinécittà movie society in the 1950s, and of Rome at the summit of its modern glamor. (One chapter, which will never age, captures all the contrary characters at a Roman cocktail party.) And as a French journalist in it recalls, “When I saw the color of the walls of Rome for the first time on a summer morning, I knew I had been longing for the city all my life. . . .”
The American writer and composer Paul Bowles (1910-1999), an expatriate from his early twenties, made his home in Morocco for a half-century. Though not as celebrated as The Sheltering Sky, to my mind The Spider’s House (1955) is an even finer novel. Its setting is not Tangier, where Bowles lived, but the labyrinth of Fez. It follows the country’s accelerating struggle for independence from France through two radically opposed points of view: of a Moroccan teenage boy, and of an American journalist. It is that rare achievement, a superb political novel, subtle in every way and saturated in Bowles’ knowledge of North Africa: “Stenham smiled: unaccountable behavior on the part of Moslems amused him. . . because, as he said, no non-Moslem knows enough about the Moslem mind to dare find fault with it.”
Much of the work of Dublin’s odd comic genius, Flann O’Brien (1911-1966), has echoes of Alice in Wonderland, steeped in mystic Celtic twilight. His real name was Brian O’Nolan, and for years he wrote a word-mad, hilarious column for the Irish Times. One novel in particular is extraordinary: At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), the only book I know to earn a cover blurb from James Joyce. Like most of Flann’s work, it is constantly, fantastically turning in on itself, a book inside a book inside a book. It contains few descriptions of place, yet it is filled with Dublin’s lacerating talk—of half-crocked boyos, a philosophical Good Fairy small enough to fit in a pocket, and the malicious Pooka arguing through the night. It is, therefore, full of Ireland.
Victor Pelevin (b. 1962) is the most fascinating of Moscow’s younger writers, an amusing and acidic observer of the new Russia; as he points out, he has lived in several different countries in the last decade simply by staying home. His first novel, Omon Ra (1992), is narrated by the hero, Omon, in the final years of the Soviet Union. Having dreamed of becoming a cosmonaut, Omon joins the space program and is chosen for a glorious mission: to drive a supposedly “unmanned” vehicle on the moon (Russian technology can’t handle any technical difficulty), set up a radio transmitter to beam Lenin’s words to far galaxies, then hang around till his oxygen runs out. It would spoil Pelevin’s fun to give away any more surprises.
Michel Tournier (b. 1924) has written at least three remarkable novels: The Four Wise Men, Friday, and The Ogre (1970), which won the Prix Goncourt and was called by Janet Flanner “the most important book to come out of France since Proust.” Beginning in 1938, it chronicles the odyssey of Abel Tiffauges, a giant misfit who works in an auto shop and has only a very limited understanding of the historic upheavals he witnesses—and little more of the youths, both French and German, he does his best to protect. Philosophically it is as much about Germany as about France, shot through with bursts of observation and landscape—as when he speaks of Les Halles as “that deluge of fruit and vegetables which creates in the heart of Paris a kind of super-kitchen-garden with sharp sweet smells and crude colors brought out by the metallic light of acetylene lamps.”
The British thriller writer Eric Ambler (1909-1998) is still best known for The Mask of Dimitrios or Journey Into Fear, which brought a new sense of political reality to the form in the 1930s and paved the way for John LeCarré. By the ’60s Ambler’s novels were acquiring a sly wit as well. “The Light of Day” (1963)—narrated by Arthur Simpson, a charmingly inept small-time con man with passport troubles—contains a realistic portrait of Istanbul and its diverse security forces at the time. Arthur gets conned into assisting a team of jewel thieves burgling the sultans’ palace (it was filmed as Topkapi, with Peter Ustinov). Poor Arthur, so misunderstood! “I am not asking to be loved. I am not asking to be liked. I do not mind being loathed, if that will make some pettifogging government official happier. . . . Sheep I may be; and perhaps certain persons find my breath displeasing; but I am no longer merely indignant. I am angry now.”
R.K. Narayan (1906-2001) is spoken of as the Chekhov of India, for across six decades of novels and stories he chronicled with vast humanity the denizens of a fictional village, Malgudi, in their gossips, rivalries, friendships, and quarrels—from the sign-painter to the English teacher, from the financial expert to the taxidermist to the astrologer. It’s impossible to go wrong with Narayan, for all Indian village life is here. The Vendor of Sweets(1967) concerns Jagan, a widowed candymaker who is also a frustrated writer (his book on diet has stalled at the local printer’s). His son returns from America with both a young woman in tow and a modern invention: a story-making machine. ‘“Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self,” said Jagan to his listener, who asked, “Why conquer the self?” Jagan said, “I do not know, but all our sages advise us so.”’
Recently filmed, The End of the Affair (1951) by Graham Greene (1904-1991) takes place in London just after the war, and its setting of rainy streets and grim buildings bombed half to smithereens aptly conveys the torment, chapter-by-chapter, of a clandestine affair that ends in profound sadness. “So this is a record of hate far more than of love,” the narrator writes, a novelist midway through a career like Greene’s (who was himself in the throes of a similar relationship). Here is the gray city that was: the daily paper, the gentlemen’s club, the crowded tube, the gas-fires, the post-war rationing, the daily whiskeys and the pain of other people. A hundred years from now Londoners will still be reading it to discover themselves.
Juan Goytisolo (b. 1931) is one of our most experimental novelists, a writer unafraid of not being understood. Though the texture of his later prose will confuse some readers, his earlier books are direct, vivid, and powerful, often with political themes (I recommend especially The Young Assassins and Children of Chaos). Island of Women (1962) is a satire of the decadent rich, sunning themselves in Torremolinos on the (then) newly-developed Costa del Sol. It is a Spain of foreign tourists vying to infiltrate the locals, of idle women on holiday quite bored with their husbands. Put this way, the novel sounds trapped in its era, but Goytisolo’s eye and ear are so acute, his touch so deft, that an entire society seems to be on the operating table. “Time went fast and the erosion continued.” And thus Spain’s mid-century.
Every writer has his creative homeland of recurring themes and recurring loves. For the magnificent Czech writer Josef Skvorecky (b. 1924), who has lived in Canada since 1968, the glory of jazz has coursed like a deep ceaseless Mississippi through all his books, set against the frustrations of being a teenage boy encircled by desirable young women. In The Swell Season (1975), a series of linked long tales, his narrator Danny is consumed by a passion for jazz and an inability to penetrate the traps and teasings of his fellow village schoolgirls, all under the eye of the Nazis. Skvorecky’s gift is an ability to construct a novel out of seemingly inconsequential parries between characters, yet you soon find yourself in the presence of something deeply humane and deeply wise. “When a girl says she has to think something over, she’s thought it over already. . . A star that would not be blacked out hung over the castle tower and I was blissfully happy. It looked like a swell season was about to begin.”
Paul Theroux (b. 1941) has always been fascinated by outsiders—from the inventor Allie Fox building an ice machine in the jungles of The Mosquito Coast to Theroux’s own presence on foot or on train throughout the world from The Great Railway Bazaar on. (Looked at after close to forty books, his career most resembles Mark Twain’s in its scope and energy.) His point is that outsiders often see the most: like the American consul stationed for two years in a dusty Malaysian town for the short-story collection The Consul’s File (1977). Here are the locals, with their superstitions, their fevers, their ghosts, their intrigues; the Chinese and Indians running shops and coffee-houses; the white expatriates who see themselves as characters out of Maugham and are the more real for that; and the interlopers passing through, from the Yankee tourist or travel-writer to a Japanese businessman or a Malay maharajah, afloat on his own whimsy. Theroux, one of our most candid travelers, is showing us an alternative Asia on the heels of Viet Nam. The question, as always with Americans, is what we are or are not prepared to know.