Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wishing for the Road

When K & I read the beginning part of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, the part where Gilbert is asked to cover a story in Bali and she goes (of course), we expressed our sense of the unfairness of it all and the desirability of a job where you are paid (even minimally) to both write and travel. K moved on with her life but this thought – to be a travel writer! - fermented in my brain.

Following Spain’s psychic-octopus-predicted World Cup Win on Sunday I put together a list of books on Spain for a bookstore blog post. I was prepared for this ever since watching Vicky Christina Barcelona several months ago and developing a one-day Spanish literature fever, running around the store putting together a list. I didn’t actually read any of these books. But when a couple asked me for Spanish literature to take with them on a trip to Spain, I knew it had all been worth it. To these novels, I added a history book and a travel book, the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom’s book on Santiago and his pilgrimage through modern-day Spain. As I picked it up, the white walls and designs on the sun-drenched front cover struck me and I had pin-wheeling visions of fountains and donkey-rides and guitar music. Touché, jacket artist.

I imagine Mr. Nooteboom (whose full name I’m delighted to share is Cornelis Johannes Jacobus Maria Nooteboom) traveling through Spain with his practical Dutch temperament, his wry leathery face with the slightly eagle-ish nose and no small resemblance to Inspector Morse. I’m sure novelists make the best travel writers. They already do character sketches. And good novelists are practiced watchers: they keep a sharp eye out for incident and occupy themselves with accurate and telling descriptions.

I imagine Mr. Nooteboom in a khaki hat somewhere in the bowels of a medieval church, or in the Moorish courtyards of Granada listening to someone recite Lorca. That sounds fun, I say licking my lips. Somebody send me to Spain. However, I do know from experience that international travel is more often than not sleeping through a guide’s informative answer to an interesting question, becoming irascible from hunger, and never feeling at the right temperature.

With my new passion for travel writing and my fresh desire to practice it, I must find a model. Luckily, Everyman’s Library has just published The Skeptical Romancer, selected travel writing by W. Somerset Maugham.

(The first time I heard of Somerset Maugham, at Oxford, when reading the exquisite Painted Veil, I had no earthly idea how to pronounce his last name, absolutely unsure of which vowels and which consonants to leave out. When someone asked me who I was reading I had to mutter M-(cough)-mhmmm-ham to their utter mystification. I later learned the name has a disadvantage to the American who can’t pronounce it as “Mohm” as the British do, but must content himself with “Mawm.”)

The Skeptical Romancer’s selections begin with – what else – Somerset Maugham’s writings on Spain.

In Pico Iyer’s introduction to the book (Iyer is also a well known travel-writer), Iyer ponders the perfect traveling companion: “The ideal companion should be open to every person and encounter that comes his way, perhaps – but not too ready to be taken in by them. She should be worldly, shrewd, her feet firmly on the ground; and yet she should be ready to surrender, if only for a moment, to the magic and excitement of what she could never do or see at home.”

This description, I believe, fits the travel writer. Only several abilities must be added:

a) friends and contacts in high places
b) years of previous writing experience/ a steady readership
c) an independent fortune
d) a well-developed voice
e) a preternatural attention to commonly overlooked details
f) a pervading curiosity in local landscape and society
g) becoming a geographer, historian, and anthropologist
h) the ability to make friends with anybody

I’m not stupid enough to believe that this is an easy market to break into. There are thousands of eager youngsters who want to travel the world and make their name writing about it. And as Mary McCarthy says in Venice Observed, anyone who thinks he will come to Venice and parade about a small forgotten church, an ignored fresco, or a jewel of a café he discovered is much mistaken. It has all been done.

And yet, travel writing is often more about the writer than the subject. It allows for a uniqueness of vision, for the writer’s personal history and voice to filter place through the self. And that cannot stop interesting me.

I am dying to sink my teeth into foreign travel. It’s been a year and a half since I’ve been on an international flight and my legs are starting to fidget. I have my October ticket, so for now I’ll content myself with C’s stories of his brief young romance in Italy and E’s adventures at the Biennale in Venice and A’s trip to Athens.

Image of pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago care of IndigoGuide. Many thanks to Javier who told me about this pilgrimage. I hope you do it, J.

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