It’s best to avoid books marketed as “Travel.” Most are written by non-writers for non-travelers, and often turn out to be non-books. And yet, some of the best writers, usually those better known for other sorts of writing, have written the best books of travel. Among them are Herodotus, James Boswell, Alfred Russel Wallace, Anton Chekhov, Evelyn Waugh, Rebecca West, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Zbigniew Herbert, V.S. Naipaul and Marius Kociejowski. With the exception of Fermor (whose travel books, in fact, are a heightened species of memoir), none is known principally as a travel writer but rather as a historian, biographer, biologist, short-story writer, playwright, novelist or poet. This may be significant. Perhaps it’s important to know something about the world other than the name of the maitre d’ at Harry’s.
The best-known living travel writer is probably Paul Theroux, author of some fifty books almost evenly split between travel and fiction. I had never read even one of them until I picked up, despite the silly title, The Tao of Travel (2010), which has an even sillier sub-title: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road. Sophisticates might call it a meta-travel book, as Theroux doesn’t give us a sequential narrative but rather a grab bag that combines elements of commonplace book, literary criticism and bull session. The best parts consist of other writers’ words, as when he quotes a favorite passage from the epilogue to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941):
“Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright nature fights in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves and will not let either part be destroyed.”
Like some of the other writers cited above, West here is about as far from conventional travel writing as can be imagined, and that is perfectly appropriate. Travel itself is an uneasy compromise between itinerary and contingency, so a satisfying travel book ought to have a form elastic enough to contain almost anything, except dull writing. In his preface, with the Larkin-esque title “The Importance of Elsewhere,” Theroux describes a readable travel book as “anecdotal, amusing, instructional, farcical, boastful, mock-heroic, occasionally hair-raising, warnings to the curious, or else they ring bells like mad and seem familiar. At their best, they are examples of what is most human in travel.”
Though Theroux speaks well of the odious Paul Bowles, and too often quotes his own books, he gathers enough good writers and writing to make his book worthy of a concerted browse. He quotes with approval Boswell quoting Johnson: “. . . in travelling, a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge.” And he says that Evelyn Waugh “knew better than most people that there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from a travel book in which the traveler is having a bad time.” To prove his point he quotes from Waugh’s first travel book, Labels (1930):
“I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountains almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting.”