How Bruce Chatwin ‘Saved Travel Writing’

Travel Blog  •  Eva Holland  •  03.07.12 | 8:39 AM ET

I was catching up on some back issues of Harper’s a few weeks back, and this quotation about the author of “In Patagonia” and “The Songlines” caught my eye:

He saved travel writing by changing its mandate: After Chatwin, the challenge was to find not originality of destination but originality of form.

Among those who have followed Chatwin, the most interesting have forged new forms specific to their chosen subjects: thus Pico Iyer’s sparkily hyperconnective studies of globalized culture and William Least Heat-Moon’s “deep maps” of America’s lost regions. Perhaps most important were W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic “prose fictions”—particularly “Rings Of Saturn”—that likewise hover between genres, make play with unreliability, and fold in on other forms: traveler’s tale, antiquarian digression, and memoir. What Sebald, like so many of us, learned from Chatwin was that the travelogue could voyage deeply in time rather than widely in space, and that the interior it explored need not be the heart of a place but the mind of the traveler.

(It’s from “Voyagers: The restless genius of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin,” by Robert Macfarlane, in the November 2011 issue. It’s available online to subscribers only.)

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

6 Comments for How Bruce Chatwin ‘Saved Travel Writing’

Rory Moulton 03.07.12 | 1:03 PM ET

That last sentence sums it all up for me: “...the travelogue could voyage deeply in time rather than widely in space, and that the interior it explored need not be the heart of a place but the mind of the traveler.”
I’ve always had a hard time articulating why Chatwin’s In Patagonia made such an impact on me. Previously, I’d never read any travel writing quite like it. I think that line captures it beautifully.
Thanks for sharing.

Eva Holland 03.07.12 | 2:03 PM ET

Agreed, Rory. That line really gets at the transition in the genre.

(I also really like the phrase “sparkily hyperconnective,” but that’s another story.)

Frank Izaguirre 03.08.12 | 1:53 PM ET

I disagree with the basic premise. My interpretation of what’s being said is that because essentially every destination had already been written about, it became necessary for travel writers to use flashy gimmicks (“new forms”) to justify their existence. And that saved the genre.

But that’s absurd for at least two reasons.

1) Any place will not be the same in a year, especially in today’s world.

2) The writer will not be the same in a year.

The world and the people who write about it are constantly changing, which by itself justifies the existence of the travel writer. New forms aren’t explicitly necessary, although they can of course be completely wonderful.

Think of writers like VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux who wrote sequels to their travelogues about India and China. Their return trips didn’t have to be written in any shiny new style to be successful. The fact that the places and the writer had changed was enough. I don’t think travel writing is just a scramble to come up with a trendy new way of telling a story no one else has thought up yet.

Eva Holland 03.09.12 | 1:00 PM ET

Frank, I seriously doubt that the writer intended to imply that the likes of Pico Iyer or W.G. Sebald rely on “flashy gimmicks” in their work.

And I think you may be more in agreement with him than you realize. “The writer will not be the same in a year” - exactly. I think the article is arguing that Chatwin brought the writer’s internal journey to the fore in a way that hadn’t been done before.

Frank Izaguirre 03.09.12 | 5:14 PM ET

Eva, I admit I was being proactively contrarian to try and get a response from you or others. I read the rest of the article so I could get a fuller sense of what MacFarlane was saying, but the part you excerpted is the very end of the piece and I was sad he doesnít elaborate his point.

Totally, youíre right that Iyer and Sebald haven’t become the travel writing titans they are just by using gimmickry Ė theyíre simply great writers. What I donít like is the implication that travel writing needs to be continually producing new forms to justify itself, which I do think is part of what heís saying.

That turns the genre into a literary landgrab (No oneís come up with something quite like that before? Let me plant my flag first!). I think the future of travel writing is on much firmer ground if itís justified by the simple fact that people and places are never really the same and therefore always worth writing about, which I think is absolutely true. 

I hope itís OK if I link this conversation on my blog!

Chris 03.12.12 | 6:44 AM ET

I agree with the first commentator—that last sentence really says it all.  There is so much bad travel writing out there that when you come across really engaging pieces you find that they tend to share a similar quality.  And that quality seems to be just what this quote is talking about.  It’s easy to get lost in landscapes but if a writer can get lost in their imagination and the history of a place and share that with their readers, then there is more of an emotional connection to the place even if you haven’t been there.

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