Cerebral Decanting

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by Jason Gubbels

Wandering With Purpose: How Bruce Chatwin Rose Above The Travel Writing Industry

1. “[Chatwin’s] The Songlines begins as a novel before fraying into a commonplace book, in which a ragbag of quotations from two decades of reading about restlessness are deployed in lieu of an argument…..”I’ve never seen anything like it in modern literature, a complete hybrid between fiction and philosophy,” he modestly remarked to Elizabeth Chatwin in 1983, having reached the second chapter. “It takes the form of about six excursions into the outback with a semi-imaginary character…during which the narrator and He have long conversations…Needless to say the models for such an enterprise are Plato’s Symposium and the Apology….”

2.  ”Really, though, Chatwin was right: there had been nothing like it, and his patent was so strong that there has been nothing like it since. He wrote in his lifetime five books that were not only entirely different from anything that had come before but - much harder, this - entirely different from each other. He saved travel writing by changing its mandate: after Chatwin, the challenge was to find not originality of destination, but originality of form.”

3.  ”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 The Rings Of Saturn - that likewise hover between genres, make play with unreliability, and fold in 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.”

- Robert Macfarlane, Voyagers: The Restless Genius of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin, Harper’s, November 2011




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