For reasons I will take up in due course, I’m into travel literature at present and have begun by collecting all the travel books scattered throughout my bookshelves. So far I have collected 13, including classics by Peter Matthiessen, Bruce Chatwin, Jan Morris, Lourens van der Post, Paul Theroux, VS Naipul, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others less famous, but not necessarily less meritorious, from Dan Jacobson and Keath Fraser – the latter represented by a collection entitled “Worst Journeys“, published by Picador.
What about Karen Blixen’s “Out of Africa“? Should that be classified as travel literature based on its exotic location, at least to European eyes? After all Blixen/Izak Dinesen lived in Kenya for about 16 years and it was as much of a biography as a description of the local peoples in their geographical and cultural milieu. Indeed, is Jan Morris’s “The Meaning of Nowhere“, more an extended historical-political exposition on Trieste ending with a poetic paean to the virtues of cosmopolitanism than an account of a journey, to be included in the genre.
At this point, dear reader, I can assure you it is possible to become hopelessly entangled in the semantics of travel, literature and even what constitutes the definition of a “book”. I have an urgent need, it being 6 pm, for glass of wine or something similar and have no intention of ploughing through those thickets for what, intending no offence, is after all a humble blog.
But I’m not really interested in books, per se, but in literature in the sense used by Philip Roth in this comment, “I read fiction to be freed from my own suffocatingly narrow perspective on life and to be lured into imaginative sympathy with a fully developed narrative point of view not my own.” If one substitutes “existential universe” for “fully developed narrative point of view” that more-or-less captures what I mean by travel literature.
Taking this as my launching pad an amazing number of very different books could be included in the genre of travel literature. Certainly, Out of Africa would join the fold. I would go so far as to include such subgenres as explorations of imaginary worlds as in Twenty thousand Leagues under the Sea or Homer’s The Odyssey. What about excursions into subcultures closer to home, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and works by the South African writer, Jonny Steinberg, such as Midlands and Sizwe’s Test.
The list is huge and with a smidgen of imagination many other categories could be added, such as travels in time represented by deep histories or biographies; in the biography of Samuel Pepys by Claire Tomalin the reader can almost smell and touch 17th century London and England. The great works take the reader not only into different places but, most importantly, out of our “suffocatingly narrow” cages of perception into new universes of possibility and existence. Perhaps, in that sense, all great books are simply different forms of travel literature.
Try World Hum (http://www.worldhum.com/) for further information on the world of travel.