The Journey’s Echo, Freya Stark, Ecco Pres, 1988, 224 pages. Reviewed by Craig Storti.
Last month we went out on a limb in this column and reviewed a work of science fiction: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin. And the sun still came up. So, emboldened by that success, this month we dip into yet another genre that may not be on every interculturalist’s radar but which ought to be: the travel narrative.
To be sure, travel narratives are a natural place for cross-cultural reflection, but we must remember that the first job of a good travel book is to describe interesting, unusual places and their curious inhabitants. The best travel narratives manage to do this quite skilfully through a series of humorous, surprising, exciting, and sometimes even dangerous incidents. Those are what keep readers reading. If you stopped reading travel books long ago, it’s probably because you picked up one too many of the pedestrian variety, those earnest efforts which in the end amount to little more than we went here and saw this, and then we went there and saw that. They are the verbal equivalent of watching two hours of slides of the family’s trip to the game parks of Africa.
The good ones, then, are full of incident, but the best ones have something else: they describe the effects of those incidents, those encounters with unfamiliar places—and especially unfamiliar people—on the mind and sensibility of the traveler. It is precisely when writers attempt to describe how they were changed by travel that their writing becomes interesting to interculturalists. .
Or, as Norman Douglas, himself a very good travel writer, has put it:
The reader of a good travel book is entitled not only to an exterior voyage, to descriptions of scenery and so forth, but to an interior, a sentimental or temperamental voyage, which takes place side by side with that outer one…. The ideal book of this kind offers us, indeed, a triple opportunity of exploration: abroad, into the author's brain, and into our own. The writer should therefore possess a brain worth exploring, some philosophy of life, and the courage to proclaim it and put it to the test. [S]he must be naif and profound, child and sage.
Enter Freya Stark. She wrote over two dozen travel books, the best known of which are probably The Valley of the Assassins and The Southern Gates of Arabia, both dealing with largely unexplored parts of the Middle East (in the 1930s) and both featuring places where she was the first western woman to venture. For her journeys and the accounts thereof she was eventually awarded the Founder’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. Dame Freya (as she became in 1972) was Anglo-Italian and spent most of her life in northern Italy when she was not travelling abroad.
Stark was an acute observer of the environments she traveled through and the inhabitants thereof and was extraordinarily reflective and self-aware, regularly recording the effects of her experiences on her sensibility. Accordingly, her travel narratives contain an unusually high percentage of cross-cultural observations. These are sprinkled generously throughout her many books, but readers who may not be interested enough to pick up individual volumes can take a short cut and just pick up the book we are reviewing here—The Journey’s Echo—which is a selection of highlights from her many books. As such it does not read like a regular travel narrative, of course, but rather like what it is: a collection of some of the best moments and most memorable insights. If you are intrigued by The Journey’s Echo, you can always turn to the source materials and immerse yourself therein.
Here are four excerpts to give you the flavor of Stark at her cross-cultural best:
To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. For this reason your customary thoughts, all except the rarest of your friends, even most of your luggage—everything, in fact, which belongs to your everyday life, is merely a hindrance. The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail in his shell and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you. Baghdad Sketches
There are not many born travellers, though they all think they are–but they never like the dull patches, while I just sit and embroider. Letters, Vol. III
Every country has its own way of saying things. The important point is that which lies behind people's words, and the art of discovering what this is may be considered as a further step in the learning of languages, of which grammar and syntax are only the beginning. But if we listen to words merely, and give to them our own habitual values, we are bound to go astray. Baghdad Sketches
Though it may be unessential to the imagination, travel is necessary to an understanding of men. Only with long experience and the opening of his wares on many a beach where his language is not spoken, will the merchant come to know the worth of what he carries, and what is parochial and what is universal in his choice. Such delicate goods as justice, love and honour, courtesy, and indeed all the things we care for, are valid everywhere; but they are variously moulded and often differently handled, and sometimes nearly unrecognizable if you meet them in a foreign land; and the art of learning fundamental common values is perhaps the greatest gain of travel to those who wish to live at ease among their fellows. Perseus in the Wind
By all means read Freya Stark for the cross-cultural insights, but be warned that you may very well fall in love with her prose—not to mention her mind—and keep reading for the sheer pleasure of it. Her travel books are gems; The Journey’s Echo is a distillation of gems. No wonder it dazzles.
We typically end the Bookmarks column with an author interview, but this month (and last month, too) the featured author is no longer with us. This time around, to replace the interview we thought we might provide readers with a list of first-class travel narratives laced with intercultural content. As luck would have it, your humble book review editor happens to have just such a list at hand, having compiled one for his latest book Why Travel Matters. If you like Freya, chances are you will also like these folks:
Paul Bowles was a famous American expatriate in Morocco, and from his perch there he observed and dissected the emotional and psychological impact of the foreign, publishing his conclusions in numerous short stories, several dark novels (The Sheltering Sky, Spider’s House), and in numerous travel writings. Many of the latter are anthologized in Travels: Collected Writings 1950-1993, and then there is his masterpiece: Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World.
Robert Byron’s acknowledged masterpiece is The Road To Oxiana, but two other works—First Russia, Then Tibet and The Station: Travels to the Holy Mountain of Greece—are in the same exclusive league.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote one classic: Wind Sand, and Stars. Two other works—Night Flight and Flight to Arras—would be classics if they had been written by anyone else and did not have to be compared to Wind, Sand, and Stars. All three are collected in Airman’s Odyssey. (He also wrote and is best known for The Little Prince, but it is not a travel book.)
Norman Douglas wrote the best novel that has ever been confused for a travel book: South Wind. While it disappoints fans of fiction, it thrills fans of the travel narrative. Three other equally satisfying titles are Old Calabria, Fountains in the Sand: Rambles Among the Oases of Tunisia, and A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China.
Patrick Leigh Fermor makes everyone’s list, largely on the strength of his unfinished trilogy, beginning with A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople and followed up by Between the Woods and the Water: From The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates. He is a beautiful stylist and a sensitive observer.
Paul Fussell was not a travel writer, but his book Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars is a brilliant analysis of the travel narrative and a short history of travel. It will also introduce you to some of the great British travel writers including Robert Byron, Norman Douglas, Lawrence Durrell, Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, and Evelyn Waugh.
Aldous Huxley is most famous for his novel Brave New World, but he was a beautiful essayist and an inveterate traveller. If you read only one of his travel narratives, make it Jesting Pilate. If that pleases you, then move on to Along the Road and Beyond the Mexique Bay.
A. W. Kinglake’s Eothen, about a visit to the Holy Land in the 1840s, is a classic, but it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Many readers find it bold and amusing, and many others think it’s smug and offensive. In the latter camp is none other than Edward Said who, in his landmark Orientalism, calls it “a pathetic catalogue of pompous ethnocentrisms” (193). Don’t say you haven't been warned.
The name of Ursula Le Guin, a master of science fiction, has only appeared once in these pages. But it might well have appeared more often, for what are the best works of science fiction if not novelized travel narratives, albeit with rather remote destinations? Le Guin is probably most famous for her Earthsea trilogy, but the two books the serious traveller should read are The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. They are unparalleled evocations of what it feels like to be an alien in an alien culture.
Freya Stark has been with us throughout these pages. She was prolific, with more than 20 titles to her name; the best known are probably The Valley of the Assassins and The Southern Gates of Arabia, but all of her books have the same qualities, making it difficult to recommend one over the other. Readers might start with an anthology of her work, The Journey’s Echo, which includes excerpts from 15 different titles.
Paul Theroux has written 14 travel books (not including The Tao of Travel, see below) and more than 25 novels. He is a master of the “incident,” encounters with the locals and colorful fellow travellers, and a keen and reflective observer. The Great Railway Bazaar launched his career; Fresh Air Fiend collects numerous other travel pieces.
Another way to decide who to read would be to dip into any of several excellent anthologies of travel writing. If you read an excerpt you like, you can always track down the source.
A Book of Traveller’s Tales, Eric Newby
A Taste for Travel, John Julius Norwich
The Englishman Abroad, Hugh and Pauline Massingham
The Norton Book of Travel, Paul Fussell
The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road, Paul Theroux
The Traveler’s Daybook: A Tour of the World in 366 Quotations, Fergus Fleming.
Excerpted from WhyTravel Matters: A Guide to the Life-Changing Effects of Travel, by Craig Storti. Nicholas Brealey International, 2018.