Wednesday, 10 December 2008
Travel Writing: Good or Bad?
A year or so ago when I was doing some writing tutoring at London University under the Royal Literary Fund scheme I was pulled up sharply by a postgraduate student in the middle of a riff of praise for DH Lawrence as a travel writer. She made clear that she thought the kind of thing I was praising (that marvellous passage in one of his Italian books where he becomes aware of an old woman sharing the terrace in front of the church with him above the lake and the abandoned lemon groves and starts to imagine what she might be thinking) was a kind of offensive or neo-colonial invasion of the victimised Other. Vainly, I tried to argue that humane empathy is what makes us different from the fascists but this is the sort of argument one is always destined to lose. The self-righteous always triumph. And I gave up.
I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Morocco before which I actually managed to do what I often fail to do: viz. read a few relevant travel books in advance. Elias Canetti's brief but brilliant The Voices of Marrakech, Peter Mayne's The Alleys of Marrakech [now trading under the title of A Year in Marrakech], Edith Wharton's In Morocco, and, best of the bunch, Paul Bowles's Their Heads Were Green all helped me understand the place and its people better. Of course the 'traveller's tale' with its British variant the funny-foreigner narrative can often distort and misrepresent but these four writers, it seemed to me, had both knowledge and empathy and a real desire to understand what they saw. Obviously they generalise and make judgements about another people but the same thing happens in the opposite direction. It's called being human and I can't help feeling that when it stops and the world judders to a halt under the weight of homogenizing cultural globalisation I shall stop travelling and retreat to a hermit's cell in the desert. In the meantime real, as opposed to silly and gimmicky, travel books will always be worth doing.