Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Real Influences: Travel Writing

While reading Douglas Botting's 2000 bio of Gerald Durrell I came upon these lines: "Young men woke up to find that the world was once again their oyster, and not just a place you went on a troopship. At almost the same time that the Durrell brothers' two books werepublished [1953] a galaxy of talened travel writers, including Laurens van der Post, Gavin Maxwell, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Norman Lewis*, were also bringing out new books, while one- off new accounts of new worlds conquered or explored, such as Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World, Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet and John Hunt's The Conquest of Everest-- all published in this same annus mirabilis of 1953-- were in large demand."

These were my stars. Childhood influences were Kipling, and the American naturalists like William Beebe; the only nominal kids' books I read were White's The Sword and the Stone and "dog novels", about which I will post later. "Adult" influences that I read much later and still admire include Hemingway and near- contemporaries like Tom McGuane.

But those guys were my gold standard, as I suspect they were and are for, again, contemporaries like the late Bruce Chatwin and Redmond O'Hanlon (he is often dismissed as a "mere" humorist-- go read that five- star book and tell me that is so).

I still admire them; even wrote the intro for this re- issue. And while I would hesitate to compare myself to the masters of travel, one perceptive critic, John Derbyshire, has at least noted the debt correctly. From the Washington Times, on Eagle Dreams:

"This is a very striking and unusual book, sufficiently so that I imagine the people responsible for awarding it a Dewey Decimal number, in order to properly shelve it in libraries, must have engaged in some head-scratching.

"Is Eagle Dreams_sport, travel, or zoology? You will have to make up your
own mind. I have put it among my travel books, along with Paul Theroux, Eric Newby and Robert Byron; and I believe that those distinguished persons would welcome Stephen Bodio into their company as an equal. He writes as they did, of strange things in remote places, described in a plain, unaffected style, spiced with humor, recondite knowledge, and the fatalism of the seasoned traveler. Towards the peoples he encounters the author is sympathetic without ever being sentimental, and there is a hint of melancholy as he shows us, inching upwards in the distance, the waters of
modernity that will eventually engulf a way of life that has persisted for millennia."

I should add that this is the best or at least most perceptive review I have ever had, and it was from before I corresponded with John; in fact it lead to our correspondence.

Of course, though he called it "Aquila Non Capit Muscas", the editors retitled it "A Kazakh Sport's Lasting Allure". Sigh.

All of those writers are gone now but Leigh- Fermor, in his nineties, dreaming away on his isle off the coast of Greece, still working on his third volume of his "walk" trilogy like some combination of old Odysseus and Circe...

(By the way, in his Amazon review of the Durrell bio that started this thread, old friend Greg McNamee seems to think that "his work is not widely read today". As his work brings up 416 results on Amazon, many in print, and there was just a new adaptation of "My Family and Other Animals", I respectfully disagree.)

*I link to only one Norman Lewis because unlike other writers here there seems to be more than one writer of that name.


prairie mary said...

Just to run up the flag, I recently reread all of Gerald Durrell's books -- meant to give them away in the end but had so much fun, I couldn't bear to do it. Now I'm working through Lawrence's books which are slower and fancier. What about H. Rider Haggard? Except I never saw these as "travel" books. I wanted to go live there.

I read many of the dog books you mention in a later post as well as a parallel stream of horse books. I hope all this is latent in the culture and will come back.

Prairie Mary

Steve Bodio said...

I think Rider Haggard is in some way a natural predecessor to van der Post-- King Solomon's Mines to Flamingo Feather, etc.

Chas S. Clifton said...

I might finally get to finish the "walk across Europe" trilogy? There's a comforting thought.