Travel writing in an age of confinement

I am very grateful to the BCLA for their invitation to contribute to the Reflections on Culture in the Age of Confinement. Copy of my response below:

I will not be travelling to Saint Malo this coming Whitsun weekend. Étonnants Voyageurs – due to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary in early June 2020 – is yet another casualty of the coronavirus. An event now associated primarily with the quest for une littérature-monde en français, the festival was originally an annual gathering of the ‘grandchildren of Stevenson and Conrad’, seeking out what was initially dubbed une littérature voyageuse.

Étonnants Voyageurs was founded by Michel Le Bris, former Maoist turned nouveau philosophe, much of whose career has been devoted to challenging a perceived asphyxiation of contemporary French-language literature and to exploring ways of breathing new life and creativity into it. In a first movement, predating the turn to world-literature, this activity involved an engagement with travel writing, in the form of neglected earlier texts (ranging from Victor Segalen to Ella Maillart) as well as established and emerging contemporary voices (notably Nicolas Bouvier, Jacques Lacarrière, Kenneth White, Jean-Luc Coatalem…). The formation of a guild identity – male, white, European, with a tendency towards imperialist nostalgia – attracted robust critique, as did the romanticization, even fetishization of what Le Bris dubbed ‘le grand dehors’. The leading sociologist and semiologist of travel Jean-Didier Urbain countered this myth of the great outdoors, offering as it does spaces for solipsistic escapism, with alternative travel practices, more katabatic and urban, focused not on expansiveness but on confinement.

To Le Bris’s agoraphilia, Urbain responded with claustrophilia, i.e., an interest in vertical journeys, in burrowing down into the everyday, in achieving the forms of microspection that would later be analysed so eloquently by scholars such as Michael Cronin. These earlier debates have resonated in recent weeks with my own reflections on travel in our moment of generalized confinement and self-isolation. With even the most modest itineraries now discouraged (or at least strictly limited), we have witnessed radical changes to travel and mobility: a desire for apparently unfettered physical movement has been sublimated into various forms of vicarious travel. Navigating cyberspace, users of social media have re-created and re-lived past journeys, constructed present ones in virtual form, and imagined their possible future routes. Travel writing and travel documentaries have become a privileged proxy space to fulfil a seemingly irrepressible desire to be homo viator, to ‘frotter et limer sa cervelle contre celle d’aultruy’.

There is a need now to understand more clearly the cognitive function of the travelogue as a generator of what narratologists call storyworlds, constructed narrative spaces into which we are drawn as readers or viewers and where alternative modes of travel are still possible. The now burgeoning field of studies in travel writing has encouraged us, over the past three decades or so, to reflect on the extent to which the virtual or the vicarious provides access to other physical worlds, to consider how these modes might function anthropologically as windows on elsewhere or serve instead as mirrors in which we see reflections of our own flaws, taboos and desires. These are questions that take on a renewed urgency in an age of confinement, when the functions of travel narratives are intensified and increasingly applied to previously unimagined contexts.

Yet we might argue that these links between travel writing and confinement have always been apparent, and are not limited to our restricted circumstances as readers. The poetics of the journey have always depended on an interplay of spontaneous notation in the field and retrospective narration on return. It is the latter that links to the forms of sessility and necessary isolation that the travel writer often finds deeply frustrating. The Swiss traveller Ella Maillart repeatedly describes in her diaries and correspondence her loathing of being stuck at a desk while she produces the next travelogue without which she would be able to fund her future journeys. And there are cases where the account of the journey is itself a direct response to confinement. W.G. Sebald, at the opening of The Rings of Saturn, describes being ‘taken into hospitality in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility’, a year to the day after the walking journey through Suffolk he is about to recount. His contact with the outside world is limited to ‘the colourless patch of sky framed in the window’, a grainy photograph of which is included in the text and then woven into the palimpsest of memoryscapes that form the substance of his travelogue. This limitation of the world to what can be seen through a pane of glass resonates, in Sebald’s overactive imagination, with Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, waking ‘transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin’ and condemned to ‘look[ing] out the window at the dull weather’ – but also, as the author of The Rings of Saturn adds: ‘no longer remembering (so Kafka’s narrative goes) the sense of liberation that gazing out of the window had formerly given him’.

With confinement comes metamorphosis, transformations whose nature and extent cannot yet be easily predicted. But such interplay between introversion and extroversion, between seclusion and openness, is also embedded in the journey itself. The work of Nicolas Bouvier makes this amply clear. The Sri Lanka of Le Poisson-Scorpion is recounted by an exhausted, sick narrator for whom the island space is at once one of confinement and expansiveness. Observation of the microscopic detail of the everyday – not least the insects that inhabit Bouvier’s accommodation – leads to hallucinatory journeys in which the experience of geographical distance is complemented by the spectral return of figures from the past. Le Poisson-Scorpion might be read as an extreme form of vertical travel, the type of descent into the detail of place to which Urbain alluded by coining the term claustrophobia. Eschewing the journey’s customary focus on horizontality and expansiveness, the vertical traveller caresses, as Nabokov suggested all writers should, the ‘divine detail’ of the proximate and the everyday. It is perhaps no surprise that Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre has, in recent weeks, enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as, deprived of the possibility of physical travel, many have been tempted to become room travellers in our own right. The models for such practices in microscopic travel writing are well established, ranging from Georges Perec’s ludic engagement with the endotic in texts such as Espèces d’espaces to the deep topography of the ‘London Perambulator’ Nick Papadimitriou in a work such as Scarp. In ‘The Parish and the Universe’, the great poet of the Irish everyday Patrick Kavanagh suggests that: ‘To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience, it is depth that counts, not width.’ Is this the future of travel writing in an age of confinement? A narrowing of focus and accompanying expansion of possibilities that allows us to reconfigure the fundamentals of space and time?

The travelogue writing is a genre that has undergone constant reinvention, is a form that has always foretold the loss of diversity whilst recalibrating the ways we define elsewhere. I have long been wary of the ethics of metaphorizing confinement: these modes of claustrophiliac travel are, of course, nothing new to those rendered physically immobile by disability, imprisonment or other forms of confinement, reliant as a result on the imaginative possibilities of microspection in order to re-enchant or transcend the everyday. It is such practices, however, that remind us that travel writing is not only a means of compensating for our nostalgia for elsewhere, but also a way of seeking new forms of accommodation with the here and now.