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Travel Writing
by Emily Perkins
 

Experiences that occur when we're travelling mark us in different ways from the way they would in our day-to-day lives. Even poolside, a no-brainer paperback in our hands, we're keyed for the unusual; we are more attentive, more charged, in this foreign environment. The traveller is an individual out of context, beyond safety, far from the usual talismans and rituals, with one skin less than creatures in their own habitat. Many writers feel like this all of the time; like the Asperger's sufferer in Oliver Sacks' book, we are anthropologists on Mars.

The best and most varied travel fiction – and let's take Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1768) as very different examples of the best – broadens, and even satirises, the genre to expose extraordinary truths about life. Swift's pen attacks our institutions, Sterne's the interior matters of the heart – read in tandem they show us life as it is lived from both the outside and the inside – the big, bad bureaucracies as well as the slippery little emotions. Both of these eighteenth century classics, published forty years apart, still occupy major positions in literature. (Descartes, writing a few decades before Swift, said ‘Travelling is almost like talking with men of other centuries'; the same could be said of reading.) These books expose the lie in the adage ‘You can't take it with you' – on the contrary, you can't get away from it (‘it' could be contemporary culture or your own personality) wherever you go.

Most of us, when we travel, whether home from work or on a long-haul flight, make sure we have something to read. Whether, like Wilde, we take our journal to be sure of entertaining subject matter, or a trashy bubblegum novel or perhaps something improving that we've ‘always meant to finish', depends on our expectations of the trip. Reading travel writing (or better still, novels in which the characters travel) while you're on the road yourself is always an unnerving experience. I once went to Ravenna with Brideshead Revisited under my arm, the parallel world unrolling on the page for Charles Ryder as it did, in real time and in a very different light, for me. Or try Spain with Hemingway. Or Greece with John Fowles. The possibilities are endless.

You can't, of course, take a layover in Lilliput while reading Gulliver's Travels. In one sense, you're already there. The novel is still breathtakingly relevant to our times, as interpretable for life in 2001 as it has been for generations since 1726. Like the mountain of literature that it is, Jonathan Swift's satire looms over the landscape, casting its shadow down the centuries and revealing different faces as the decades change. The temptation when reading it now, in the early 21st century, is to apply a sort of tracing paper of modern life across the text, and marvel at the similarities: the Academy of Laputa could be engaged in genetic engineering; the Brobdingnagians might be part of a recent survey ‘proving' that bigger babies have higher IQs.

In some ways recent experience throws an unexpected new light on Lemuel Gulliver's transformation. The Houyhnhnms, as well as appearing rather dour in their perfection (the contrast between their world and that of the Yahoos makes me think of the fantasy sequence in the film It's a Wonderful Life – yes, they win hands (hooves?) down on moral probity, but the amoral, reckless, anarchistic world seems a little more fun) and unable to tell a lie, disapprove of miscegenation and procreate in rather bloodless fashion to ‘preserve the race from degenerating'. Worse, they seem fully prepared to contemplate what we would now call ethnic cleansing. They actually propose, as a fair and gentle method of extermination of the species, the castration of all male Yahoos. What is this sort of state-justified brutality if not fascist eugenics?

Few readers now believe that Swift intended us to mistake the Houyhnhnms as the paradigms of creation that Gulliver describes. For all their purity they, comparing themselves with the Yahoos, feel superiority and pride, and his contact with them renders Gulliver proud, even as he denounces this vice in his fellow man back in England. The first offshore ‘Yahoo' he encounters is the Portuguese ship's captain Pedro de Mendez, described as ‘courteous and generous,' and later on as ‘wise'; still Gulliver is unbending in his treatment of him as unenlightened, base and craven, alongside his crew. We are not, it seems, intended to go along with Gulliver on this psychological journey. Somewhere in his profound feelings of abasement in the land of the Houyhnhnms he has left us behind. We can only assume the detachment we now feel is a sort of pre-Brechtian anti-cathartic mechanism, designed to make us think coolly, rationally if possible, about all that we've just read – and even to take action.

If Gulliver's Travels occasionally feels like a trip to a health spa– hugely enjoyable, but harsh, and you're aware most of the time how good it is for you – Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey is like an evening, full of diversions and charms, spent in the bar of a clean but quirky old hotel. Recently I went up the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel with transparent capsules, or pods, from which the visitor gazes down at the gradually shrinking city. Swift, one imagines, would have made much of this symbol – an ever-revolving circle that goes nowhere, that shows us the sites of our major institutions reduced to toy-town scale and back to life-size again, that exposes just how much land the royals still occupy in the centre of our capital, and yet is used purely as a stationary pleasure-craft for tourists, to encourage admiration for the architecture of a confused culture. If the big wheel didn't exist, a twenty-first century Swift would probably have invented it. But I found myself doing something Sterne's narrator, Parson Yorick, might have done: that is, engaging in conversation with a most interesting stranger, and becoming so engrossed that, except for a cursory glance about me at the high point of the circle, I completely forgot to look down.

When Sterne touches on an issue such as slavery, he is referring to a slavery of the heart. Where Gulliver, in a forceful challenge to our vanity, is revolted by the magnified versions of womanhood he finds in Brobdingnag, Yorick delights in, revels in, and abandons himself to the glories of femininity. Is travel writing ever about the place or always about getting there? A Sentimental Journey begins as an account of one man's Grand Tour of France and Italy, but what Yorick encounters are not monuments or cathedrals or frescoes or ruins but people, whom on the whole he might have met at home, travelling between his house and the corner shop. And the book is about these meetings, not even about the other participants but about Yorick's relationship with his own exquisite feelings, his ability to parse and itemise every nuance, every shade of sentiment, and happily move on to whichever thing distracts him next. It sounds, it should be, solipsistic, but such is Sterne's delicate, powerful control of irony, that the reader is drawn in, enraptured and amused by turn, made to think about the nature of incidence and coincidence, of digression and delusion, and about art and artlessness.

He makes us realise that all fiction, essentially, is travel writing. We may read to know we are not alone, but we also read to escape ourselves, to be transported into a world beyond the familiar. Few writers have achieved such strides of imagination as Swift – fuelled, one imagines, by the sustaining anger necessary to comedy, in Gulliver's Travels he propels the reader through a series of fun-fair mirrors, laughing at grotesqueries while leaving him with the abiding, discomfiting feeling that he is alone in the room. The satire has paved the way for science fiction (also often used as metaphorical commentary on our own times), a genre that has in turn pushed travel writing towards and beyond the ‘final frontier'. And A Sentimental Journey is, among many things, about the circuitous routes of the very blood in our veins, the twin, relentless pulses of intimacy and incident that govern our days. It is about the importance of the individual response to shifting circumstance, who the man is that travels, not where he goes or where he comes from.

The globe, we are often told nowadays, has shrunk: not in Lilliputian terms but in the time it takes to reach a destination, in the absence of unexplored corners. There may be no ‘remote nations of the world' to travel to any more, but there are certainly the murky, filmy depths of the human psyche, in all its personal and public manifestations. Like Gulliver or like the notary in Yorick's translated fragment of Rabelaisian writing, we might feel ourselves to be ‘the sport of hurricanes' all our days, ‘at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of accidents' – and, like the notary's, the story will probably break off just before we reach a revelation about how to live. But we could do worse than to become travellers in our own neighbourhoods, with novels like these, both gloriously funny and acutely, blindingly intelligent, as our companions and guides.

Gulliver's Travels
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A Sentimental Journey
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