The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘travel writing’

Got Those Travel-writing Blues, and Other News

July 23, 2015 | by


From a poster for the 1913 World Esperanto Congress.

  • Explaining the Internet’s Joan Didion obsession is a tricky thing: “In the crossover of feminism, fashion, and literary interests, there is a whole swathe of the internet where Didion is a staple reference. Her borscht recipe can be found on the website Brain Pickings, and her list of items to pack for reporting trips periodically crops up on style blogs … In 1989, she appeared in GAP ads with her twenty-three-year-old daughter, wearing black turtlenecks, and staring defiantly into the camera with only the barest suggestion of a smile. Last year, she wore huge black shades in ads for the French luxury goods brand Céline, which inspired devotion in unexpected places and in-depth analysis from the already devoted.” And yet this obsession seldom seems to extend to her political writing, which accounts for the bulk of her output—they only want her to write about herself. And what of that self? “To be so glamorously sensitive and beautiful that you have to be taken care of,” Pauline Kael once wrote, was the “ultimate princess fantasy.”
  • This is peak road-trip season. If you’re not in a car right now, lighting out for the territories and exuding manifest destiny—well, it’s not too late. But don’t be all Fleetwood Mac about it. You cannot, in fact, go your own way. You can instead follow in the footsteps (tire tracks?) of writers past: Kerouac, Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Wolfe …
  • On second thought, stay home. It’s more or less impossible to be a good travel writer anyway. You risk falling into two camps: the Elizabeth Gilbert, interior psychodrama, “obnoxious white lady in brown places” camp, or the Bruce Chatwin, indomitable male, “colonialist’s baggage stuffed full with preconceived assumptions” camp. If you’re looking for role models, try Freya Stark and Dervla Murphy: “Stark was in the world with her writing, not above it, not in herself … Her writing restores humanity to people who have otherwise been stripped down to news reports, reduced to death tolls and photos of open-mouthed weeping. The secret to her success was listening to the people she visited and letting them tell the story. This shouldn’t be any secret. It should be what every travel writer does.”
  • A man who speaks hardly a lick of French has triumphed in the Francophone Scrabble Championship having apparently memorized the entire French Scrabble Dictionary in just a few days. Nigel Richards, “the Tiger Woods of Scrabble,” regards words as “just combinations of letters,” like numbers: “He has learned no language logic, just a succession of letter sequences giving rise to words. In his head it’s binary: what draw (of letters) can make a scrabble, what draw can’t.”
  • On James Purdy, who wanted to write stories that “bristled with impossibilities”: “In his novels and short fiction, possibility and potential are always compromised. There is neither transcendence nor transformation. His characters do not grow or develop; they dwindle and unravel … It’s hard to think of a contemporary writer whose work shares this sensibility, a cool elegance laid over extreme emotion. The most apt comparison may be Wes Anderson, whose films similarly feature casts of eccentrics, dialogue full of non sequiturs, deadpan humor, and unabashed farce.”


The Skiing Life

June 25, 2015 | by

In memory of James Salter, who died last week, the Daily is republishing a series of essays from 2011, when Salter received The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. In today’s piece, Louisa Thomas examines Salter’s essay “The Skiing Life.”

To learn more about Salter, read his 1993 Art of Fiction interview or one of his stories from the magazine: “Sundays” (1966), “Am Strande von Tanger” (1968), “Via Negativa” (1972), and “Bangkok” (2003) are available in full online.

I read There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter for the parts about skiing the way one reads A Sport and a Pastime for the sex. In fact Salter writes about skiing the way he writes about sex: as something luminous, clean, somehow moral. This was a few years ago, when I was obsessed with skiing; I thought about it all the time. In Salter I sensed a sympathetic hunger, the longing for something transcendent, pointless, permanent, and always vanishing. There aren’t many good authors who write about skiing. Hemingway does a little. Salter does it a lot, as a way of writing about something else, just as writing about sex is a way of writing about other things: beauty, courage, obsession, mastery—mostly, someone else’s mastery.

When I skied, or when I thought about skiing, a beautiful skier would stop me in my tracks. He would slide over a lip into a bowl or glade, or drop into a little chute out of bounds. His solid body would become liquid, slipping through the snow, as he found the fall line. I would watch his back and then fly after him, tracking him, fearless and afraid. “What enables you to learn?” Salter asks. “It’s simple: desire.”

In “The Skiing Life,” Salter describes learning to ski from an instructor:

Follow me closely, he says, as if you can, turn where I turn. Trying to do what he does, forgetting some things, remembering others, somehow you follow. The trail is narrowing, you are going faster than you should and farther, beyond your endurance … One morning you awake unaware that, mysteriously, something has changed. This day it comes to you … All day, run after run, filled with an immense, unequaled happiness, and at the end into town together, down the last, easy slopes, and so weary that you fall asleep after supper in your ski clothes, the lights burning throughout the night.

There are of course some who don’t need to learn, some who are almost born with it. Kids who grow up on eastern mountains are at home on ice and cruddy snow, although they dream of powder days. The kids out west have no idea how lucky they are. It is thrilling to watch a child hurtle past. You can see her future: she will slip through bumps, sleep on the floor, hike up mountains to ski down them. She will be powerful and fast. Years later, you will spot her from the chairlift, graceful and unmistakable. Even on my best days, the days when I belonged to the mountains, I would look for that girl. “There is always that lone skier,” Salter writes, “oddly dressed, off to the side past the edge of the run, going down where it is steepest and the snow untouched, in absolute grace, marking each dazzling turn with a brief jab of the pole—there is always him, the skier you cannot be.”

Read More »

Take a Mental Vacation—Listen to Travel Writers

March 24, 2014 | by

Theroux on Train

Paul Theroux on a train, doing what he does.

What do Paul Theroux, Ryszard Kapuściński, Peter Matthiessen, and Jan Morris have in common? All four have advanced the art of travel writing, or writing that foregrounds a sense of place. And over the years, all four have been interviewed at 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, where The Paris Review has copresented an occasional series of live conversations with writers—many of which have formed the foundations of interviews in the quarterly. Now, 92Y and The Paris Review are making recordings of these interviews available at 92Y’s Poetry Center Online and here at The Paris Review.

As yet another cold front shunts frigid air in our direction, it’s especially nice to hear smart people talk of exotic climes and faraway places. So you can listen to Paul Theroux, who spoke to our beloved founder, George Plimpton, in December 1989:

I came from, not a small town, but basically not a very interesting place. I felt that the world was elsewhere and that nothing was every going to happen to me, or that I wouldn’t actually see anything, feel anything, any sense of romance or action, or that my imagination wouldn’t catch fire until I left home. So it was very important for me not to rebel but simply to get away, to go away …

Or a conversation with Jan Morris, who appeared at 92Y that October:

I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual. I believe in its imaginative qualities and its potential as art and literature. I must say that my campaign, which I’ve been waging for ages now, has borne some fruit because intelligent bookshops nowadays do have a stack called something like travel literature. But what word does one use? … I think of myself more as a belletrist, an old-fashioned word. Essayist would do; people understand that more or less. But the thing is, my subject has been mostly concerned with place.

Or Peter Matthiessen, another cofounder of The Paris Review, from 1997:

It’s broad daylight, good visibility, yet mountains move. You perceive that the so-called permanence of the mountains is illusory, and that all phenomena are mere wisps of the cosmos, ever changing. It is its very evanescence that makes life beautiful, isn’t that true? If we were doomed to live forever, we would scarcely be aware of the beauty around us …

Or Ryszard Kapuściński, from 1991:

If we write about human beings, in the most humanly way we are able to, I think everybody will understand us. I find humanity as one family. People really are very much the same in their reactions, in their feelings. I know the whole world. I can’t find much difference in the way men react to others’ unhappiness, disasters, tragedies, happiness. Writing for one man, you write for everybody.

These recordings are the next best thing to a vacation. Their release is made possible by a generous gift in memory of Christopher Lightfoot Walker, who worked in the art department at The Paris Review and volunteered as an archivist at 92Y’s Poetry Center.



Locker Room Freud; Travel Writing

December 2, 2011 | by

Dear Paris Review,

I have an etiquette question. Is it permissible to tell a complete stranger in a gym locker room that he looks like Sigmund Freud? And, if so, how does one tactfully go about it? The relevant details include: this man is usually naked, he has a giant shlong, and he looks exactly like Sigmund Freud! He even has some kind of foreign accent. Part of me is just curious to know if he gets this a lot, but part of me is curious to know whether he may in fact be Dr. Freud.

—Avi Steinberg

It is permissible, of course. The most tactful approach, in our view, is to just lie down and start free associating. If he is in fact Sigmund Freud (which strikes us as unlikely), your confession will be met with an icy, yet obscurely liberating, silence. You could also offer him a cigar.

What's the best way to structure a memoir or personal narrative?

Is this the sort of memoir that involves being stuck in a crevasse? If so, lead with the crevasse. If, on the other hand, this is the sort of memoir that's interesting all the way through, we suggest that you begin with your feelings about your mother and take it from there (see “etiquette question,” above).

What travel writing would you suggest for someone dealing with a recent loss and exhausted by urban living? I want to take a trip to refocus and regain a sense of daily hope. There must be something more literary and nuanced than Eat Pray Love?

While neither of us is a great aficionado of travel writing, we agree that it's a genre at which the English are particularly adept, be they heroic polymathic questers like T. E. Lawrence or Patrick Leigh Fermor, or comic bunglers along the lines of Graham Greene’s Henry Pulling, or more recently, Geoff Dyer.

Sadie says: In times of distress, while I'd like to turn to the former, I’d probably lose myself in the latter—Our Hearts Were Young and Gay: An Unforgettable Comic Chronicle of Innocents Abroad in the 1920s. I do love Leigh Fermor, however. His A Time to Keep Silence is thoughtful and inspiring without making a fuss about it. In all frankness, though, whether at home or on the road, I find nothing more soothing than a tried-and-true “comfort read,” which for me means Barbara Pym and for you might be something completely different. Lorin recommends Travels with a Donkey and Life on the Mississippi—but then, he always recommends those.