Tag Archives: The End of Longing

Magical travel in the COVID era

Though virus restrictions continue to immobilise us, or at least rule out international touring, we can still visit far-off lands quite easily. Yesterday, in perfect comfort and without risking infection or breaching flight prohibitions or incurring any expense, I spent a few pleasant hours in a foreign country. How? Magical travel.

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov (public domain)

 One of the Arabian Nights tales tells how a prince acquires a carpet with wonderful properties:

“Whoever sitteth on this carpet and willeth in thought to be taken up and set down upon another site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place near-hand or distant many a day’s journey and difficult to reach.”

This princely device is within our own reach. We all have access to imagination’s magic carpet whenever we pick up a book.

Almost any act of reading takes us metaphorically from one place to another, even if the content of what we read may not involve a sequence of actions and locations. Traversing the text brings us to a mental destination that’s different from where we began. But this imaginary journey structure is most salient when we engage with narrative forms — not only novels or short stories but also non-fictional travel literature.

Travel literature has a long history, going back to writers such as Pausanias, a peripatetic Greek cultural geographer in the 2nd century AD. The genre came into its own in the Victorian period, when steamship and rail opened up the world to large numbers of tourists whose appetite for exotic journeys was stimulated by itinerant journalists. (The restless main characters in my novel The End of Longing, set in the late 19th-century, embody this new-found transnational mobility.)

But then the first half of the 20th century, with its devastating experiences of two world wars, economic depression, fearsome pandemics and widespread poverty, pushed leisure travel out of the reach of many people. So by the 1950s the reading of travel literature had become a popular substitute for journeying in person.

 Which brings me back to my imaginary excursion yesterday: it was achieved through H.V. Morton’s  A Stranger in Spain (1955). This book has been on my shelf for many years (I acquired it as a school prize), and reading it took me not only to the particular country that is its subject but also back to the time when it was written. In my corner of the world, that was a period before TV documentaries brought remote locations into the home, and before most people had the wherewithal to afford any bodily expeditions to Europe.

So travelogue books like Morton’s were a primary source of information about unfamiliar places. In those days of cheap publication they seldom carried high-quality photographs, if any. The writer had to bring places and people and culture to life through resourceful uses of language. This was “creative non-fiction” before the term was invented.

In A Stranger in Spain the creative element isn’t a matter of elaborately depicted scenery and splashes of local colour. What Morton often does, with skilful economy, is to focus on particular individuals and their activities in a way that evokes a characteristic cultural attitude.

On the first page, recounting his arrival at the airport in Madrid, he sketches in a few well-chosen words the interaction between disembarking passengers and airport officials. A “costly-looking” woman is unlocking her luggage, “watched by two Civil Guards, who had the eyes of melancholy stags.” (Can’t you just picture them?) The passage continues:
I was impressed by the white cotton gloves which the Customs officers drew on before they probed into the luggage. I was soon to learn that white gloves are a symbol of the Spanish sense of fitness. A glove is an aristocratic symbol, and was once worn only by kings and bishops. As the world becomes more democratic one sees fewer gloves, and the clenched fist, of course, is always bare.
There’s a lot packed into those simple sentences. They evoke a distinctively stylish national sense of decorum; they gesture towards a long history of social stratification; and they allude to the country’s more recent history (the clenched fist salute originated in the Spanish Civil War, and when Morton’s book appeared Franco was only halfway through his four decades of dictatorship). The same kind of succinctness continues to characterise Morton’s prose. Straight after the passage just quoted, he observes Mexicans and Peruvians queuing at a passport window, “conquistadores in reverse,” and remarks that “Spain is one of the few places where America does not mean the USA.”
Although the best travel documentaries shown on our screens these days may bring exotic scenes to us with a vivid immediacy that seems to surpass any words on a page, they also lose something that writers like Morton can provide: the stimulus to our imagination. A Stranger in Spain, precisely because its medium cannot rival the realism of a filmed image, relies on the reader to visualise what a well-turned phrase conjures up. That’s its magic. That’s what can move us.

In memory of letters

EnvelopesFor centuries it was close to the heart of western civilisation. In the last few years it has almost vanished. I refer to letter-writing.

The word ‘letter’ contains a set of meanings that represent the quintessence of our cultural history. At its simplest a letter is an alphabetical character, a basic component of the written sign system that underpins the greatest achievements of modern civilisation. (As Walter Ong observes in Orality and Literacy, it was their invention of the first alphabet complete with vowels that gave the ancient Greeks their ascendancy over other cultures.)

‘Letters’, the plural form, came to mean more generally the body of knowledge accessible to a literate or ‘lettered’ person – literature in the broadest sense. In the Enlightenment period – late 17th century and early 18th – there emerged the concept of a Republic of Letters: an international community of philosophers, scholars and literary figures in Europe and America linked to each other by their prolific handwritten correspondence.

Most commonly, ‘letter’ signifies a particular genre of writing – an epistle or missive, which until the recent advent of electronic communications was the main means of conveying a message to someone not physically present.

In early classical antiquity, written correspondence was seen primarily as a private exchange. ‘A letter’, said the Roman rhetorician Demetrius in the second century BC, ‘is designed to be the heart’s good wishes in brief.’ Cicero, who lived in the following century and used the epistolary form extensively, regarded it as ‘a conversation between absent friends.’ But later Roman writers often used the form with an eye to publication; for instance the letters of Pliny the Younger (e.g. his vivid account of Pompeii’s doomsday), though they had specific addressees, were later released for wider consumption, while Horace and Ovid wrote carefully crafted verse epistles and Seneca’s were really sermon-like essays. Also sermonic were the hugely influential epistles that Paul the Apostle wrote to groups of early Christians.

Even for personal letters, Cicero’s conversational analogy isn’t exact. As Demetrius remarked, an extemporary spoken utterance is quite different from something we commit to writing and send ‘as a gift’. But today this kind of gift-giving is nearly extinct. Does its disappearance matter much?

A 98-year-old friend of mine, Erica Becker, has contributed an article to a local U3A newsletter in which she reflects that she is ‘becoming an antiquity’ not only because of her age but also because she belongs to a dwindling number of people ‘who still write by hand, put pen to paper (create “manu-scripts”)’ – particularly in order to compose ‘real letters.’ Erica acknowledges the convenience of electronic messaging, but laments the fact that it lacks a personal touch. As she remarks:

A letter is tactile; the choice of paper and envelope, the things enclosed, the handwriting are all a signature of the writer’s personality, mood and feelings. There is some intimacy an email can never reveal. Besides, handwritten letters embody the historical period in which they are sent, not to forget the stamps carrying a tangible sense of time and place.

She mentions the absorbing interest of something that the 21st century will seldom provide for later generations: extensive published correspondence between literary luminaries. And she goes on to describe the personal pleasure of finding in her postbox, among the bills and junk-mail, those genuine missives that can be unfolded with ‘glorious anticipation’ and enjoyed without haste.

In Ong’s words, the way literate people think differs from the way anyone in an oral culture thinks, because ‘writing restructures consciousness.’ It’s also true, I’d say, that as some kinds of writing give way to others (e.g. letters being replaced by emails), there’s a corresponding change of consciousness. This brings gains and losses. It would be foolish to deny that the advent of electronic communication has been of great practical benefit. But part of me mourns the demise of hand-written correspondence, and I’m grateful that so much of it survives from the past.

Phillips letters

My first novel, The End of Longing, wouldn’t have been written if my great-grandmother hadn’t preserved some letters written by and about her sister-in-law in the 1890s, together with a few related newspaper clippings. Handed down in the family, this correspondence gave me glimpses of two people, one from New Zealand and the other from North America, who spent time together in Australia before travelling to several other countries, where grievous things happened to them. The letters indicated an itinerary but left many questions unanswered. I began to imagine adventures, misadventures and mixed motives beyond than anything recorded in those fragmentary sources. And so, eventually, a novel emerged.

The research for another of my books, a non-fiction work, was only possible because I could make extensive research use of archived letters. In writing several of the chapters in Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies I depended heavily on handwritten correspondence by literary figures (including Wordsworth himself) and educators – correspondence that had been meticulously curated by librarians (bless them) in Britain, Australia and the US.

9732831196_7119b19fab_oThere are many fascinating anthologies of correspondence. A recent one, handsomely produced with many illustrations, is Letters of Note, edited by Shaun Usher. It has an excellent accompanying website that includes a large archive of the material that Usher has collected – well worthwhile to browse through it here.

In the past, some people certainly earned the title ‘man (or woman) of letters.’ A selection of the witty correspondence of Madame de Sévigné (late 17th century) was a set text that I studied with great enjoyment as an undergraduate – but I’m glad I wasn’t required to read all 1,120 of her surviving letters. Her output pales in comparison with that of her compatriot Voltaire, who wrote more than 20,000 – and also used the letter form as a vehicle for literary satire in Lettres sur les Anglais, 1773. He wasn’t the first to develop the fictional possibilities of the genre; Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes, a satirical proto-novel, came out in 1721. Several of the earliest novels in English, too, were cast in epistolary form, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela being the best known example.

Walker - LTTEOL

Epistolary fiction remains alive and well, of course. Perhaps its appeal may even grow as readers become more nostalgic for (or curious about) the days of written correspondence. Having just started reading a recent novel by Western Australian writer Yvette Walker, Letters to the End of Love, I’m already impressed by the skilful way it combines a range of credibly individualised styles (there are three pairs of correspondents, writing in different periods and from different places) with a unifying shapeliness of structure and texture. Incidentally, I like the fact that the cover design nicely evokes both the alphabetical signs that make written communication possible and the stamps that make our postage system possible.

I’ve kept scores of private letters from family and friends, conscious that I can’t expect to receive so many in the future as in bygone years. I look forward to re-reading them when I’m in my rocking chair on the verandah of the Eventide Home (a distant experience, I hope). Distinctively individual handwriting will summon up associated memories of this or that correspondent.

For correspondence with a potentially wider literary interest, I’ve kept posterity in mind. A collection of manuscripts that I donated some years ago to the Flinders University Library includes letters I received from many writers – mainly Australian (e.g. Patrick White, Christina Stead, Katharine Pritchard, John Morrison), New Zealand (e.g. Frank Sargeson, Lauris Edmond) and American (e.g. Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Robert Duncan).

Those letters all pre-date our present century. I’m still getting used to the fact that, after being for so long such a central part of our culture and our everyday lives, letter-writing has quite suddenly almost disappeared.

Yet some new forms of communication, while not a full substitute for handwritten messages, can partly embody that sense of being ‘sent as a gift.’ I think of my blog as like an open letter. Composing a post, I have in my mind’s eye a few friends who (along with other people unknown to me personally) will probably read it. When it pops up as an email notice for followers of the blog, I hope they’ll feel something akin to the pleasurable anticipation that used to tingle in those olden days whenever an envelope addressed in a familiar hand appeared in one’s letterbox.

Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, to regard the blogosphere as a latter-day version of the Republic of Letters?