Wednesday 25 March 2009

Traces of Travel

The upside of having a poor memory for books - often recalling no more than an aura, a characteristic glow - is that rereading can be as fresh a pleasure as a first reading. An instance: I know that 20 years ago or more, I read Eothen: Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East, by A.W. Kinglake, but, coming across it again recently, I realised how very little I remembered of it, so I'm reading it again(?) as a bedside book - and sure enough, it's coming up as good as new. It's an extraordinary piece of work, springy, youthful, vivid, disorganised, spontaneous - the very antithesis of everything you'd associate with the label 'Victorian travel book'. Here's the opening paragraph:
'At Semlin I still was encompassed by the scenes and the sounds of familiar life; the din of a busy world still vexed and cheered me; the unveiled faces of women still shone in the light of day. Yet, whenever I chose to look southward, I saw the Ottoman's fortress - austere, and darkly impending high over the vale of the Danube - historic Belgrade. I had come, as it were, to the end of this wheel-going Europe, and now my eyes would see the splendour and havoc of the East.'
That could almost be Patrick Leigh Fermor (whom I hadn't read when I first read Eothen). Who could fail to read on after such an opening? It soon becomes apparent that Kinglake is going to write only about what catches his interest, and through all these changing scenes is to maintain the cool, amused detachment of the English gentleman, even (or especially) when in mortal danger. Contemporary readers looking for the kind of historical, topographical and ehtnographic baggage that weigh down so much travel writing of the period would have been disappointed - or pleased; the book was very popular and sold extremely well. Here's another chapter opening:
'Beyrout on its land-side is hemmed in by mountains. There dwell the Druses. Often enough I saw the ghostly images of the women with their exalted horns stalking through the streets; and I saw, too, in travelling, the affrighted groups of mountaineers as they fled before me, under the fear that my troop might be a company of Income-tax commissioners, or a press-gang enforcing the conscription for Mehemet Ali; but nearly all my knowledge of the people, except in regard to their mere costume and outward appearance, is drawn from books and despatches. To these last I have the hounour to refer you.'
At which he takes off to make the acquaintance of the near-legendary Lady Hester Stanhope at the desert convent where she had set up her court. This is one of the most memorable (even to me) chapters of the book, and I am about to come to another, 'Cairo and The Plague', in which our hero lingers insouciantly in the city while the plague rages all around him. I'm looking forward to reading that - as if for the first time.


  1. He sounds like the sort of fellow who sports a fine set of whiskers.

  2. That sounds really interesting, and you can find the book for free at the Gutenberg library (link)!
    I just downloaded it on my iPhone, it looks perfect for reading it in short bursts while waiting.

  3. It is really interesting. Favourite bit so far:

    "But presently there issued from the postern a group of human beings - beings with immortal souls, and possibly some reasoning faculties; but to me the grand point was this, that they had real, substantial, and incontrovertible turbans."

    Good stuff.

  4. "they had real, substantial, and incontrovertible turbans."
    Was he fezed by that?

  5. Indeed he was - so much so he fell back on his ottoman.