Looking Back In Ignorance: On Travel Writing’s Flaws

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The freedom to step outside and walk, released from the normal constraints of jobs and plans, is intoxicating in its allure. So, it is no wonder that writers who have done so are praised almost to the point of obsession. It helps if they are writing in retrospect, and so can colour their accounts with that hint of oxymoronic nostalgia for the glamour of travel. Yet this retrospective look is also used to sidestep the inherent complexities of travel writing.

It is not hard to write of the beauty of the world as you travel through it, and writers such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, Laurie Lee, and Lawrence Durrell excel at it—note that I am treating some of Durrell’s memoirs as travel writing based on his peripatetic nature. However, these writers frequently stray from fact. Sometimes it is just an elision of details, which could generously be put down to youthful ignorance. Yet most were writing well after their travels had ended.

An easy example is Leigh Fermor’s A Time Of Gifts, which recounts the first third of his walk from Holland to Istanbul. The events took place in the ‘30s and the book was published in 1977. As such, it is rather odd that there is so little mention of Nazism, and instead focuses on the hospitality of those who hosted him. This spills into some delicious descriptions of drinking priceless wine and walking through sublime landscapes. And so, it is all too easy to read such well-crafted prose, and bathe vicariously in the pleasure and beauty described, but it does the world a disservice to not consider through whose eyes you look.

In contrast to Leigh Fermor’s lack of political detail, Durrell’s Bitter Lemons gives a clear sense of the political unrest in Cyprus in the mid-50s. Whilst this might seem more faithful, you have to consider Durrell’s position as an advisor to the British (occupying) government of the time. What is most striking is that his young daughter and sick wife, who he was so obsessed with he based the character Justine in his Alexandria Quartet on her, are only mentioned in passing. This lets him cast himself as a lone traveller, rather than the complex person, embroiled in familial issues, he was. This same elision of family is seen in his earlier book, Prospero’s Cell, which focuses on his own narrative at the expense of his siblings—although his brother Gerald Durrell did much the same in omitting Lawrence Durrell’s wife in his Corfu trilogy. 

This ignoring of either political realities or personal details, is not found in Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. I have read articles which use Leigh Fermor’s lack of political engagement to compliment Lee’s unflinching descriptions of the pain of grinding poverty and the violence of the Spanish Civil War. This is reasonably fair, but it forgets the rather rose-tinted feel of the parts before Lee reached London, which have something of the bucolic feel of Cider With Rosie to them.

It would, of course, be wrong to slate travel writing for not giving every last detail. Good travel writing works as entertainment, with a vicarious sense of travel as a secondary aspect after good prose and a sense of narrative. In fact, I cannot think of any good travel writing that does not play with reality a little. All writing will be shaped by the perceptions of the writer and exaggerating this can be an effective method to shape the narrative or focus of the book. Yet there is a fine line between giving travel writing a sense of direction and personality, by focusing on those events most vital, and ignoring events to the point of lying by omission. 

This is not to say that travel writing cannot stray into the realm of fiction at points. Indeed, quite significant fictional details can make travel writing work. Edward Thomas’s In Pursuit Of Spring includes a wholly fictional character. Without this character the book would not work, for Thomas uses him as a lens through which the reader may be better informed. 

What is important is that such distortions of reality should not lead to a false image of the time written about. This is mainly an issue with writers who look back at travels they have done and then write them up considerably later. But that sense of rose-tinted nostalgia for a time that never was can seep into more modern writers who seek to mimic such travel writing without considering its flaws. 

Words by Ed Bedford

This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.


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