Monday, May 3, 2010

No excuses

I am presently writing a chapter on travel writing for the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. Thus my blog, as well as being a teaching tool and craft box on travel and memoir, is now also made to accommodate odds-and-ends thoughts that I have for the Companion chapter.

The first of these thoughts is on form, and the freedom in travel writing (or at least in the early development of the genre) to combine narration and description in a "blockish" way - a sort of "no excuses" approach, with little attempt to integrate story and description within unified paragraphs or as part of a broader thematic structure. Perhaps because of travel writing's formal closeness to the diary, readers seem at ease with quite radical shifts from story to setting. Or perhaps it is because jumps in the style of writing are collected and unified by a sense of place?

In any case, take this example from Lawrence Durrell's Prospero's Cell (1945), Durrell's first book on Corfu:

Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins. All the way across Italy you find yourself moving through a landscape severely domesticated—each valley laid out after the architect’s pattern, brilliantly lighted, human. But once you strike out from the flat and desolate Calabrian mainland towards the sea, you are aware of a change in the heart of things: aware of the horizon beginning to stain at the rim of the world: aware of islands coming out of the darkness to meet you.

In the morning you wake to the taste of snow on the air, and climbing the companion-ladder, suddenly enter the penumbra of shadow cast by the Albanian mountains—each wearing its cracked crown of snow—desolate and repudiating snow.

A peninsula nipped off while red hot and allowed to cool into an antarctica of lava. You are aware not so much of a landscape coming to meet you invisibly over those blue miles of water as of climate. You enter Greece as one might enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Mirages suddenly swallow islands, and wherever you look the trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceives.

Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners of lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder—the discovery of yourself.


It is a sophism to imagine that there is any strict dividing line between the waking world and the world of dreams. N. and I, for example, are confused by the sense of several contemporaneous lives being lived inside us; the sensation of being mere points of reference for space and time. We have chosen Corcyra perhaps because it is an ante-room to Aegean Greece with its smoke-grey volcanic turtle-backs lying low against the ceiling of heaven.

Incidentally, I know what he means about discovering oneself in Corfu. I went through something like the same experience when I was there, aged eighteen and working on labouring jobs in the north of the island. If only I had also learnt to write like Durrell.

The Pirate of Karoussades's Mum. It's complicated.