July 2011

Greer Mansfield


Paths Through the World: Notes on Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Bruce Chatwin

Travel writing is a hazily defined genre, if you can call it a "genre" at all. Can poetry like Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Kenneth Rexroth's The Dragon and the Unicorn be considered "travel writing"? Are Lawrence Durrell's books about the Greek islands travel writing, or should we heed Durrell and call them "foreign residence books"? A friend recently told me that his favorite travel writing is in the novels of Graham Greene, not in Greene's official travel books. Even some of the form's finest practitioners protest being stuffed into the "travel writing" category.   

One could define travel writing as any literary account, however embellished or colored with fiction, of a journey the writer has actually made. Some examples: Montaigne's Travel Diary, Goethe's Italian Journey, Byron's poems and letters, Kinglake's Eothen, Gerard de Nerval's Voyage en Orient, C.M. Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta. Then, in the twentieth century, the flowering of an enthralling sub-genre: high-spirited, usually (not always) young English adventurers with learned enthusiasms, stylish prose, and a lust for the distant and exotic. One thinks of writers like Rebecca West, Peter Fleming, Freya Stark, Eric Newby, J.R. Ackerley, Jan Morris, Wilfred Thesiger, and Sybille Bedford, not to mention the travel books of D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and W. Somerset Maugham. 

If this region of twentieth century travel writing could be mapped, you could draw a line linking three of its greatest masters: Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Bruce Chatwin. It would be anything but a straight line, of course. It would loop back on itself a few times, branch out into quirky arabesques, and gradually reveal odd parallels and symmetries.

Lately, there have been a few good reasons to trace at least some of this line. Under the Sun, a collection of Bruce Chatwin's letters edited by his widow Elizabeth and his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare (a novelist and travel writer himself), was published in the US last February (it had been available in the UK for about a year beforehand). There was also the re-publication of two travel classics last January: Robert Byron's somewhat neglected First Russia, Then Tibet and, in a handsome NYRB Classics edition, Patrick Leigh Fermor's first book The Traveler's Tree.  

Then the recent news that Patrick Leigh Fermor died at the age of ninety-six after a life that leaves one reaching for the grandest adjectives: "glorious," "magnificent," even "heroic." However inflated these words have become through overuse in cheap contexts, they seem appropriate for a character like Leigh Fermor. And while none of these books captures its author at his best, all of them are delightful and absorbing and worth reading.  

Byron's 1932 journey through Russia and Tibet offers plenty of the Byron-esque (the term "Byronic" should probably be reserved for his lordly ancestor) touches familiar from The Station and The Road to Oxiana: magical descriptions of scenery and architecture, colorful local characters, endearingly inept bureaucrats from various consulates and embassies, sharp political observations, and an eye for the comedy in the way authoritarian regimes conduct business. That last quality is especially interesting in a book about a journey through the Soviet Union in its bloody adolescence, just as Stalin was beginning to cement his dictatorship.  

Byron is repulsed by communism ("even less attractive than the political systems of other countries"), but he is fascinated by Russia itself, its people and landscapes and cities.  

The tourist goes to Spain to see Spain, or to Italy to see Italy; but to Russia he goes to see Bolshevism. I went to Russia to see Russia. When I say this, people find it obscure and want to know whether the Five-Year Plan will succeed, as though I were an engineer or an economist to tell them. The true intellectual, I know, is equal to such questions. Having never so much as glanced at a factory in his life, he commits himself to the Intourist Travel Agency, spends three weeks gaping at belt-conveyors in Detroit, and returns to proclaim the dawn of human happiness... Behind this fog of enthusiasm and prejudice, the Russia that was, is, and shall be has disappeared from the world's view. Landscape, people, habits of mind and behavior, buildings, works of art, the new with the old, but seen always in relation to one another -- it is these, rather than the arid spectacle of Socialist construction, that should provide the traveller's entertainment. 

It is Russia's buildings and works of art that most engage Byron. By this time he had already written a pioneering study of Byzantine art and architecture (The Byzantine Achievement), and in Russia's onion domes and icon paintings he sees the authentic heritage of Byzantium. It is the passages about the refreshing strangeness of Russian-Byzantine art that Byron's writing becomes most alive and engaged.  

He finds Tibet as fascinating as Russia -- Byron thinks it is immune to Western ideas, but wonders if it will be for much longer -- but the Himalayas he finds underwhelming and, worse, somehow Teutonic:  

I had hoped of the Himalayas something more than the Alps. And here, immediately, appeared that hard prussian-blue, the enemy of colour and form in landscape, which our grandmothers delighted to stipple from their Swiss hotels, which explains why the German race has never produced a single painter, and never will, and why there are so many tedious interludes in Wagner's music.

A year after Byron's Russian-Tibetan journey, he would make his most famous journey, the one that resulted in his masterpiece (and one of the greatest ever travel books) The Road to Oxiana. In 1933-34, Byron set out from Venice and traveled through Cyprus, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq into Persia and Afghanistan. His purpose was to explore the architectural treasures of Persia and Afghanistan, and see the land around the Oxus River (Oxiana), which he believed held the key to the origins of Islamic architecture. The passages where he evokes the tower of Qabus or the Mosque of Sheikh Lutf'allah or the Iranian steppe ("a dazzling open sea of greenÉ the pure essence of green, indissoluble, the colour of life itself") are revelatory; Chatwin thought them on par with John Ruskin's writing about landscape and architecture. Alongside these gorgeous descriptions are the hilarious ordeals that Byron and his friend and travel companion Christopher Sykes must endure -- the false starts, the endless delays, the nightmarish illnesses, the encounters with grotesque and cartoonish officials.

It's difficult to find a representative quotation from The Road to Oxiana, because the book's effect depends on its varying panorama of eccentric characters, zany dialogue, sumptuous description, historical and political digression, and romantic evocations of places distant in geography and time, all set down in vivid, brisk "diary entries" (actually written after the journey). 

To hazard an example of what Byron can do: during his stay in Jerusalem, Byron tours the holy sights and finds the Church of the Holy Sepulcher drab and depressing, its darkness ill-fitting among the "luminous" white walls of the Old City, its "cult more degraded" than the ones at the Wailing Wall or the Dome of the Rock. Two days later, after touring more of the city's sights, Byron goes swimming at the local YMCA, where he falls into "an acrimonious argument because I refused to scour my body with insecticide soap." In the pool, he "swam a few yards in and out of a game of water-football conducted by the Physical Director, and emerged so perfumed with antiseptic that I had to rush back and have a bath before going out to dinner." 

Later that evening, Byron and Sykes dine with the British High Commissioner of Palestine. Noting that the dining atmosphere was indistinguishable from that of an English country house (except for the Arab servants), Byron wonders, "Did Pontius Pilate remind his guests of an Italian squire?" 

After dinner they wander into a dance party at the King David Hotel, where they run into an old school chum who talks their heads off. His public school accent is rendered phonetically: "...well I mean, daffinately, never mind, I'd rather not say daffinately, you see old boy it's like this..." Then Byron writes:  

After everyone had gone to bed, I walked to the old town. The streets were shrouded in fog; it might have been London in November. In the church of the Holy Sepulcher, an Orthodox service was in progress at the Tomb, accompanied by a choir of Russian peasant women. Those Russian chants changed everything; the place grew solemn and real, as the white-bearded bishop in his bulbous diamond crown and embroidered cope emerged from the door of the shrine into the soft blaze of candles... It was half past three when I got home.  

The Road to Oxiana is full of moments like that, where epiphany breaks in on the boisterous comic distractions. In an essay introducing the book to a 1980s readership, Bruce Chatwin wrote that he had "raised it to the status of a sacred text." During his own journeys in Afghanistan, he writes, "we met travellers more high-minded than ourselves who were following the tracks of Alexander or Marco Polo: for us, it was far more fun to follow Robert Byron." 

Byron was also one of Patrick Leigh Fermor's heroes. These two Hellenophiles (perhaps it's more precise to call Byron a Byzantinophile) once ran into each other in a smoky London jazz club sometime in the early 1930s, shortly before they set off down their respective paths to Oxiana and Constantinople. Decades later, Leigh Fermor would write about the effect The Station (Byron's chronicle of Mount Athos) had on him: "Its impact and effect on one reader remain vivid. When I was about to set off on European travels, the sudden discovery altered my whole itinerary and, one thing leading to another, perhaps the course of a lifetime." 

Robert Byron might have been related to Lord Byron, but Patrick Leigh Fermor was actually Byronic. By now, his feats and adventures are familiar to most readers: taking part in a cavalry charge, falling in love with a Romanian princess and living on her Moldavian estate, leading one of the most daring operations of World War II (abducting a German general on Crete), swimming the Hellespont at age seventy. It was this combination of real life heroics and literary brilliance that led Bruce Chatwin to worship Leigh Fermor. Chatwin found his combination of identities -- the dashing man of action, the self-taught wandering scholar, the writer of splendid books -- irresistible.  

Leigh Fermor's prose is often baroque and luxuriant, a style perhaps picked up from Sir Thomas Browne (a writer he refers to often). This style isn't to everyone's taste (what style is?), but for those with ears to hear, his sentences and paragraphs are like magic incantations that transport the reader to French monasteries, Carpathian uplands, and villages on the Aegean.  

It's impossible, baffling even, to try to choose a favorite Patrick Leigh Fermor book. His twin Greek travelogues (Mani and Roumeli); his walk through a vanished Europe, beautifully and longingly evoked (A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water); his short book about his stays in two French monasteries (A Time to Keep Silence), in which he finds himself at first bewildered and repulsed, then enthusiastic and intrigued, and then at the end left in a kind of speechless, silent wonder -- all of his books are proof that Patrick Leigh Fermor possessed the wand of the enchanter like few other writers. It's tempting but probably futile to pull "representative" quotations from his books; his spell is cast by the flow of his exuberant but steady voice over long distances, keeping time with his footsteps through fields, forests, and cities.  

He began his famous walking journey in 1933, the same year Byron travelled the Levant and Central Asia. Byron would publish The Road to Oxiana in 1937; Leigh Fermor wouldn't publish the first account of his walk until 1977, the same year a wayward journalist and former Sotheby's director named Bruce Chatwin published his first book, In Patagonia.  

Writing from Siena in the fall of 1977, Bruce Chatwin complained to his friend Cary Welch (an American collector of Indian art) about the reviews of his strange new book:   

So far the critics have been very complimentary, but the FORM of the book seems to have puzzled them (as I suspect it did the publisher). There's a lot of talk of "unclassifiable prose," "a mosaic," "a tapestry," a "jigsaw," a "collage: etc. but no one has seen that it is a modern WONDER VOYAGE... Patagonia, as the farthest place to which Man walked from his origins on foot, is a symbol as well as a country. 

Chatwin was delighted, however, that Welch compared his moody, elliptical masterpiece to Mughal painting. "I hadn't thought of In Patagonia in terms of Mughal Art but the connection exists. The Babur-Nama has influenced me greatly in what I write..." 

It seems a quintessential Chatwin reaction: irritated by narrow perceptions, he leaps into exotic realms (in this case, Mughal miniatures and the Baburnama) for validation and even kinship. His tone in this letter, like so much of his writing, seems like the literary equivalent of his escape from Sotheby's into the Sudan. The story goes that Chatwin had developed an inexplicable squint, and decided he needed a journey among long horizons to learn how to see again.  

Taken as a whole, Chatwin's work -- In Patagonia, The Viceroy of Ouidah, On the Black Hill, The Songlines, Utz, the wonderful collection of short pieces What Am I Doing Here -- adds up to an exhilarating Wonder Voyage, a journey through exotic places full of strange stories and intriguing characters: the exiles and descendants of exiles telling him their tales in Patagonia, itself a mysterious land with a haunting past. Brazilian slave traders at work in the windless heat of West Africa. His beautiful book about Aboriginal "song-lines," which expands into a stunning meditation on humankind's urge to roam. Welsh sheep-farmers; a porcelain collector in Soviet-dominated Prague, finding both freedom and subjection in his treasures; an elderly Albanian nobleman with an infallible eye for Greek artifacts who's nostalgic both for his home country (which he's never seen) and the Ottoman Empire; the eerie lore on the rainy island of Chiloe, where mythic creatures like ghosts, mermaids, and the Boatman who ferries souls to the underworld just might be part of everyday reality.  

Chatwin never wrote the same book twice. Each book is different from the others, though they are all marked with his vivid, cinematic style of brief, but somehow full, glimpses of places and people (directly influenced, in part, by Byron's imagined diary entries in The Road to Oxiana). His forms were the travelogue, the novel of ideas, the adventure story, the philosophical essay, the historical fantasia, and the tale of the marvelous. The final sentence of Chatwin's short tale "The Albatross" could be a coda to all of his works: "I too am mystified by this story."  

That "I" is always deliberately mysterious in the books Chatwin published during his lifetime. The "Bruce Chatwin" of The Songlines or his short story "A Coup" is a laconic character who never reveals much about himself and never says much. The focus of Chatwin's books is always on the places and people he's writing about, never himself. This didn't stop a mythic aura from forming around Chatwin: his colorful life, his many wealthy and famous friends, his early death and his own subtle self-mythologizing guaranteed that.  

But in Under the Sun the reader finds Bruce Chatwin speaking off the cuff, spontaneously and directly. The Chatwin that emerges in these letters is funny, curious, enthusiastic, gossipy, easily star-struck, exasperated by certain bęte noires (most journalists, writing colonies, the tedium of London dinner parties) and seemingly kind. There are a few endearing temper tantrums. Writing from Afghanistan: "I am fed to the back teeth by the happy hippie hashishish culture, (jail is the answer) and the art world (finally) and the little Bo-Peeps Corps." 

There are some classic Chatwin sentences in these letters. Writing to Elizabeth about a chandelier he's just bought in Stockholm to celebrate his selling the movie rights of The Viceroy of Ouidah (Werner Herzog would make it into a film called Cobra Verde): "...my fantasies about Sweden are somehow connected with a lit chandelier and a crayfish party on a half-dark summer night." Or this, from India, in a letter to Patrick Leigh Fermor: "There was an old rogue who arrived a few days ago, in saffron, with a hennaed beard down to his ankles: a scion apparently of a great Rajput house who had quarreled irrevocably with his wife and taken to the road." 

Like Isaac Babel (one of his favorite writers), Chatwin could tell a story in one sentence. Chatwin being Chatwin, the story would usually be about restlessness and travel.  

In some letters to Leigh Fermor, Chatwin nearly takes on his hero's headlong, overflowing style:  

We've managed to install ourselves in in the wing of a Rajput Fort about 30 miles from Jodhpur, belonging to one of the old zamindar families: the grandfather, who is still omnipresent in the memory of the retainers, was Colonel of the Jodhpur Lancers and one of the best polo players in the world. The suite of rooms we occupy is where he'd entertain his English friends. The walls are blue; there are punkah hooks; old dhurry carpets; chintz curtains; prints of the Quorn or Pytchley, others of Norwegian fjords and wolves; 18th century miniatures of the family, enthroned or on shikar [hunting] and replaced, gradually, by the same subjects taken by the Rajputana Photo studio. My study leads out onto a terrace along the battlements, about the size of Montaigne's, from which there is a view of the lake, a Shiva temple on an island, the family memorials (in the Mughal style) onshore and a rest house for visiting sadhus.  

Both Leigh Fermor and Chatwin could light up a sentence with startling allusions to Taoist sages or Carolingian scribes or other colorful references. Tantalizing names of places and people suddenly appear in surprising combinations, and the connections they make inspire one (me, at least) to take off on one's own journey of reading and research to discover what lies beneath these intoxicating connections.   

Byron, Leigh Fermor, and Chatwin have all been criticized for their exuberant erudition. The complaints are usually resentment of perceived intellectual snobbery, of showing off and pointless name-dropping. This misses the point. Chatwin and Leigh Fermor and Byron constantly invoked books, writers, artworks, distant historical figures and epochs, and exotic places because they were lustily curious beings; all three loved to explore libraries as much as the lands that fascinated them. They were intellectual travelers as much as geographical travelers.  

Byron and Chatwin even expounded serious original theses beneath the fireworks: Byron on the history of art and architecture, Chatwin on the very nature of human beings. All three were amateur scholars in a literal sense, lovers of learning through traveling and reading. And they were all autodidacts: Byron was expelled from Oxford, due to his never bothering much about examinations and essays. Instead, he found out all he could about Byzantine art and architecture at a time when the style and its history were neglected by scholars. His self-directed architectural studies, of course, culminated in his quest for origins in The Road to Oxiana.  

Patrick Leigh Fermor left school early: kicked out of the King's School in Canterbury for holding hands with a local grocer's daughter, never suitable for the regimentation of classrooms or the military (his later heroics on Crete were hardly conventional), he decided to skip Sandhurst and walk across Europe instead. Except for a brief, aborted spell at Edinburgh after he fled Sotheby's, Bruce Chatwin never went to university. None of this stopped the streams of thrilling allusion that run through the work of all three.  

What Chatwin wrote about Byron could apply to all three: "Now, the 'experts' will carp that, while Byron may have had lyrical powers of description, he was not a scholar -- and, of course, in their sense he wasn't. Yet, time and again, he scores over sound scholarship with his uncanny ability to gauge the morale of a civilization from its architecture, and to treat ancient buildings and modern people as two facets of a continuing story." 

Two of them died young: Chatwin of AIDS (or as he claimed, a Chinese fungus previously found only in a whale washed up on an Arabian beach), and Byron in the sea off Scotland after his ship (en route to Cairo) was torpedoed by a German U-boat. It is tantalizing and maddening to think about their unwritten books.  Leigh Fermor lived a much longer life, but his output was relatively small due to his obsessive re-writing and perfectionist standards.  

All three had curious connections to the Eastern Orthodox Church: Leigh Fermor simply through his residence in his beloved Greece, Robert Byron for its paintings and architecture and ceremony. Chatwin went a step further and actually converted, saying that the Byzantine Church and the Anglican Church were one and the same. As he was dying of AIDS, he claimed he saw a vision of Christ -- Christ as pictured in Byzantine mosaics.  

What makes these three worth reading, remembering and rereading? Their luminous writing, of course, and the peculiar ways each of them sees the world and evokes what he sees. But also the sheer joy they convey in writing about their paths through the world, their enthusiasm for the life they find elsewhere, even when they're ill or frightened or caught up in a coup d'etat; reading them is an experience that crushes stale book-chat chestnuts like "happiness writes white." As they pull themselves out of the familiar and mundane and encounter the marvels of the world, they take the reader out of himself and into other realms: geographic, historic, and imaginative. Reading them I'm reminded that the most exciting places and adventures aren't in fantasy, but right here on this earth. The reader of the great travelogues wakes from the book much like the traveler returns from his journey: refreshed, senses sharpened, and soul reawakened.

The best travel writers are ecstatic writers.