Enfield was nothing

P.N. Furbank

  • The Tomb in Seville by Norman Lewis
    Cape, 150 pp, £14.99, November 2003, ISBN 0 224 07120 3

‘I hate voyages and explorers,’ Lévi-Strauss writes in his Tristes Tropiques (1955). So what is he doing, he asks himself, in producing this account of his expeditions?

Must I relate so many insipid details and insignificant occurrences? Adventure has no place in the ethnographic profession: it is merely a form of servitude, it burdens effective work with the weight of weeks or months lost in travelling; idle hours in which informants disappear; hunger, fatigue, sometimes illness; and always those thousand duties which consume the days in pure loss and reduce the dangerous life in the virgin forest to an imitation of military service . . . That it calls for such efforts and vain expense to attain the object of our studies confers no value on what one should rather regard as the negative aspect of our métier. The truths which we travel so far to seek need to be stripped from such dross to have any value.

Well, one knows all too well what he means, and we need not classify his great Tristes Tropiques as ‘travel writing’. On the other hand, one should not be too dogmatic, or anyway too hasty, in arriving at a definition of ‘travel writing’. One would suppose that it must involve a journey. Henry James’s Italian Hours is neatly planned as a progress from one Italian city to another, yet the ‘journey’ aspect is given hardly any significance; instinct tells us not to class it as a ‘travel book’. By contrast, in the case of Goethe’s Italian Journey, it is the journey itself, which is by no means altogether planned and develops rather like a work of art, that counts most. One could even, metaphorically, call it an ‘explorer’ narrative, for it is partly a work of self-exploration.

It seems to help, though, if we narrow our definition of ‘travel book’ or ‘travel writing’ so as to exclude real and literal explorer narratives – such a book, shall we say, as Mungo Park’s Travels. It is a memorable book, but Park deliberately confines himself to the grave practical matters of concern to the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa. He recognised, but resisted, the temptations that Lévi-Strauss is so caustic about, telling Sir Walter Scott that he would not render his travels more marvellous by introducing ‘circumstances which, however true, were of little or no moment, as they related solely to his own personal adventures and escapes’ – the very things which, for good or evil, Evelyn Waugh and Peter Fleming and Robert Byron, not to mention Redmond O’Hanlon, assume to be the heart of travel writing.

This leads us to the reflection that travel writing, or anyway the best sort, only pretends to be informative. The author, out of self-respect, and by mugging up or other means, certainly amasses a good deal of information, but we readers are not likely to find it useful. It is improbable we will be setting off for the Gobi Desert or the Brazilian rainforest, and if we were, we would seek more reliable travel aids; while much of the appeal of reading about Tuscany or the Dordogne, regions where our faces are well known, is the provocation to disagree and know better.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in