The Countries We Think We See
January 8, 2016 | by Tara Isabella Burton
For Lesley Blanch, travel writing offered a chance to explore her preconceptions about a place as much as the place itself.
Every travel writer is a character in her own narrative, no less a part of the story than the “foreigners” that story depicts. In my own travels, I’ve found that women in countries that discourage mixed-gender interactions often speak to me more openly about culturally illuminating subjects—sex, love, motherhood—than they might to a male writer. My femaleness, it seemed, wasn’t simply a question of perspective; it was a question of action.
When I raised this subject in a lecture last year, someone in the audience broke in with a question. Why did I feel the need to “insert” myself into my narratives at all? She brought up the travel writer Colin Thubron, whom she cited as the paradigmatic example of the quiet, objective observer. “He doesn’t insert himself into his writing at all!” she exclaimed.
Except, of course, he does. What we call “objectivity” in Thubron—powerful and affecting though his works are—is what we recognize as normative: whether he’s writing from Siberia or Syria, and whether that narrative I has a prominent role in his prose, his work is no less grounded in his gender, his class, his Western-ness, than mine. Indeed, I once discussed this with the man himself—telling him about the sheer self-consciousness that comes with being a woman in a traditionally male public space. He considered this for a while. “Of course, I went to Eton,” was his dry response. “It wouldn’t occur to me to feel out of place anywhere.”
Yet for the female traveler—the female travel writer most of all—the question of bodily rootedness, of subjectivity, feels more paramount. In a searching piece last year for the Boston Review playfully titled “How Not to Be Elizabeth Gilbert,” Jessa Crispin writes about the fine line female travel writers must walk. We push back against the seeming disengagement of what she calls the “iconic travel writer”—Richard Francis Burton, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux—“an essentially masculine force, driven by the need to conquer, to experience life at its extremes, but most of all to explain,” who “not only goes off to see what he can see but also becomes a kind of expert witness who explains the natives to interested parties at home.” We find ourselves pulled into what Crispin sees as a narrative overcorrection: the idea that we are “experts only on [our] own selves.”
At first glance, few writers embody this intense solipsism like Lesley Blanch (1904–2007): travel writer, novelist, painter, Vogue editor, socialite, and unashamed orientalist. Blanch’s writing—be it travel narrative, history or biography—was always a form of autobiography. And the women she profiled in her most famous work, 1954’s The Wilder Shores of Love, were Westerners who found themselves drawn to a lushly, if vaguely, drawn East; they always had something of the self-portrait in them.
But Blanch’s brilliance lies in her honesty about the subjectivity of her work. For her, travel carries none of Crispin’s “masculine force”: it’s neither an act of discovery nor an explication by an “expert witness,” but the endless attempt to bridge that vast land of otherness with the worlds we’ve created in our own minds, the interior place where our experiences, from the books we’ve read to the people we’ve loved, came to reside long before we first set foot there.
Thus Blanch’s 1958 memoir, Journey into the Mind’s Eye, a love story devoted in equal parts to Russia and to the idea of Russia, as personified by the unnamed Traveler, a family friend of Russian extraction who is in turn Blanch’s mentor, lover, and muse. The Russia Blanch falls for is a half-imagined place. It’s rooted in memories of her Edwardian childhood nursery, where, in thrall to the Traveler’s bedtime stories, a young Blanch pleads with her nanny to allow her to attach a sheep’s stomach, in the manner of Genghis Khan’s armies, to her tricycle. Later, on a Dijon night train, the seventeen-year-old Blanch and her forty-something Traveler at last consummate their romance while playing the “Run-Away Game.” They imagine Russia—his past, her dreamed-for future—all around them.
Does Blanch love Russia because it is the Traveler’s, or does she love the Traveler because of the Russia he represents? (The question is muddied further by the liberties Blanch seems to have taken with the Traveler’s role in her life—no frequent nursery visitor is known to have existed.) Russia is, for much of her narrative, both an unvisited place and a beloved memory. “Gradually,” she writes, “I became possessed by love of a horizon and a train which would take me there; of a fabled engine and an imagined landscape, seen through a pair of narrowed eyes set slant-wise in a yellow Mongol face.” She loves what the idea of Russia evokes in her: a sense of otherness, a sense of exoticism (that so often in Blanche does spill over into the outright orientalist), a love for one man who in turn represents the wideness of the whole world beyond a London nursery’s walls. She conjures the Traveler’s homeland through his trinkets—“a chunk of malachite … a Kazazh fox-skin cap (which smelled rather rank), and once, a bunchuk, or standard, decorated with the dangling horsetails of a Mongol chieftain.”
Most of all, she finds Russia in and on his person:
With a turn of the shoulder, a movement of his hands—the supple hands of a magician—he could conjure up the gliding grace of the Lezghinka, evoking the Georgian noblewomen as they advanced or retreated, promising, denying, each step a stately ritual. Or, with another change of pace, or magic, crashing his foot down with that fury only Slavs and Spaniards know, he would summon up the dark fur-capped warriors of Elbruz leaping across steel in the dagger dance, or performing other strange, almost imperceptible steps, vibrations of passion.
Throughout all this, Blanch does not pretend that her Russia is more than a fantasy. By the time she finally visits the country—years after the Traveler, during their impetuous engagement, has abruptly performed a midcentury version of ghosting—she’s keenly aware that the Russia she sees both is and is not the country she has longed for. “In the shadow of Elbruz,” Blanch writes, “I was to watch these same fiery dances, the Dance of the Eagles or of the Partisans, and knew that I was seeing them for the second time; for their reality was in no way sharper, more true, than his sorcery.” Only when she embarks on the last of the many journeys they’d planned together—the Trans-Siberian Express, with love letters replaced by Soviet visas and the Traveler’s revenant swapped for an exasperated Intourist guide—does Blanch at last experience a Russia that is not colored by her unlived memory of it.
One might dismiss Blanch as a hack travel writer, a solipsist of the sort Crispin had criticized. But Blanch’s self-awareness shields her from some of these reproaches. She knows full well that she’s in thrall to the exotic—but her ardor for “foreignness,” she writes, is no different from, say, that of the Russian aristocrat Marie Bashkirtseff, who, “being Russian, saw romance in Anglo-Saxon terms, and invoked Heaven for an English nobleman.” This is at the heart of what it means to travel: a wanderlust for something wildly outside oneself.
Blanch can’t be too different, then, from the acknowledged master of twentieth-century travel writing, perhaps the ultimate “masculine” travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor. His A Time of Gifts casts his fascination with the Europe of the thirties in no less subjective, if far less self-conscious, terms. “Imaginary interiors!” he writes, perfectly unsurprised to find that the Holland through which he is traveling exactly resembles the Brueghels he’d grown accustomed to seeing on weekends in friends’ country estates:
A three-dimensional Holland had been springing up all round me and expanding into the distance in conformity with another Holland which was already in existence and in every detail complete … So compelling is the identity of picture and reality that all along my path numberless dawdling afternoons in museums were being summoned back to life and set in motion. Every pace confirmed them. Each scene conjured up its echo. The masts and quays and gables of a river port, the backyard with a besom leaning against a brick wall, the checquer-board floors of churches—there they all were, the entire range of Dutch themes, ending in taverns where I expected to find boors carousing and found them, and in every case, like magic, the painter’s name would simultaneously impinge.
For Fermor, no less than Blanch, what he sees “confirms” what his imagination expects to find. He, too, is playing a version of Blanch’s Run-Away Game. Just as Blanch and the Traveler create a half-fictitious Russia to overlay their Parisian affair—“Shall we take a boat down the Volga? Shall we go and dine in one of the little Armenian restaurants overlooking the river, in Tiflis? … Let’s pretend the Black Sea is out there (it can be terribly rough) and those lights bobbing about are the boats of Tartar fishermen”—Fermor composes a Holland of all the things he’s loved, Brueghel boors and checkboard churches.
For Fermor, for Blanch, for all of us who travel, there are always two cities: the one we see in front of us, take notes on, and file copy for, and the one that exists in our mind’s eye, populated with childhood associations and memories of lost love, paved with streets whose names we whispered to ourselves as children. If Blanch’s Journey isn’t a traditional travelogue, it’s not because she can’t write about the Russia in front of her. It’s because that Russia, like any city, can never be the only one she sees.
Tara Isabella Burton’s work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Al Jazeera America, the BBC, The Atlantic, and more. She is working on a doctorate in theology and literature at Trinity College, Oxford, and has recently completed a novel.