Gustave Flaubert on travel books

Only, travel writing as a genre is per se almost impossible.  To eliminate all repetitions you would have had to refrain from telling what you saw.  This is not the case in books devoted to descriptions of discoveries, where the author’s personality is the focus of interest.  But in the present instance the attentive reader may well find that there are too many ideas and insufficient facts, or too many facts and not enough ideas.

That is from his November 1866 letter to Hippolyte Taine, reproduced in the Francis Steegmuller collection.  Here is my recent post on why most travel books are not good enough.  Here is a 2006 MR post on which are the best travel books.


Some interesting travelogues would be by Pedro Teixeira (first European and possibly the first man--who else would try and do this?-- to traverse the entire Amazon), Bernal Díaz del Castillo (Conquistador in central America) and the Anabasis by Xenophon.

Ray, did you know Emmanuel Flores?

Emmanuel was a retired judge and his wife was a justice on the court of appeals. Their son was captain of the 1990 tennis team that won the national championship.

An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman is unusually good, perhaps because it's mostly a memoir that happens to be set in Soviet Armenia, and the travel writing is about a place which is no longer possible to visit.

Typo in the title. Gustav*e* Flaubert was French, not German...

An overlooked value of travel books, and one I didn't appreciate until I grew older, is that they capture not just a place but also a particular time. Given the pace of change especially in the developing world in recent decades I find I treasure books which were written about a place I once visited and roughly around the period that I was there. If written by a sensitive, descriptive author they are almost like an extension of your own memory as well as functioning as a historical document of lost phase in the country's history.

Even if the overall percentage of great travel books compared to the totals that are published is small, there are many great ones out there.

I’m addition to my recommendation of The Inland Sea in the last post, Henry Miller’s The Collossus of Maroussi is very enjoyable with lots of insight into Greece. I stumbled upon this one a while back having had almost no prior interest in Greece and it kept me captivated.

I’m sure there are many others gems out there even if the top sellers are often dull.

I dont think it’s any different than contemporary fiction.

Okay, so here's my theory on why women feel as though traveling gives them status-points: They're imitating male status-competitors who compete to Get Things Done Out In the World -- only, the imitation is lovably incomplete, for these women go Out In the World without Getting Things Done.

That's why memoirs, and some novels, are better travel books, such as Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence: Mayle describes his experience not what he saw.

interesting critique to come from the author of Bouvard & Pechuet

My first thought on reading your first post on travel writing was to recommend Flaubert as a counter example! His travel writing, in particular Voyages en Italie, is excellent. It's a combo of observation and introspection in clipped sentences verging on poetry, which speeds through the mundane procedural parts of travel and gets right to seeing things with fresh eyes/foreignness. To me that's what makes travel interesting in the first place! Here's an excerpt with my amateur translation:

Flaubert – Voyage en Italie

Saint-Mandrier. L’économe–le prévôt–jardin ; citerne avec son écho. Promenade dans la rade–la mer était bien bleue, le vent gonflait la voile et l’eau murmurait aux flancs du canot–l’eau de la même mer, avec le même bruit qui murmurait à la proue de la galère de Cléopâtre ou de Néron. L’immobilité de la Méditerranée semble la rendre éternelle et toujours jeune–si Homère revenait, il reverrait le soleil aussi chaud sur les golfes aussi doux.–L’Océan est plus dans notre nature : il y a la différence du romantique au classique, plus large, mais moins beau peut-être.–Lamalgue – habitation de poète. Les roses dans le jardin–le petit singe. Je ne sais jamais si c’est moi qui regarde le singe ou si c’est me singe qui me regarde.–Les singes sont mes aïeux. J’ai rêvé (il y a environ trois semaines) que j’étais dans une grande forêt toute remplie de singes. Me mère se promenait avec moi. Plus nous avancions, plus il en venait–il y en avait dans les branches qui riaient et sautaient. Il en venait beaucoup dans notre chemin, et de plus en plus grands, de plus en plus nombreux–ils me regardaient tous–j’ai fini par avoir peur. Ils nous entouraient comme dans un cercle–un a voulu me caresser et m’a pris la main, je lui ai tiré un coup de fusil à l’épaule et je l’ai fait saigner : il a poussé des hurlements affreux. Ma mère m’a dit alors : « Pourquoi le blesses-tu, ton ami, qu’est-ce qu’il t’a fait ? Ne vois-tu pas qu’il t’aime ? Comme il te ressemble ! » Et le singe me regardait ; cela m’a déchiré l’âme et je me suis réveillé… me sentant de la même nature que les animaux et fraternisant avec eux d’une communion toute panthéistique et tendre.

Flaubert – Travels in Italy

Saint Mandrier. The steward–the provost–garden; the cistern and its echo. Sailing in the harbor–the sea was quite blue, the wind filling the sail and the water murmuring at the sides of the launch–water of the same sea, making the same noise that babbled at the prows of galleys carrying Cleopatra and Nero. The stillness of the Mediterranean makes it seem eternal and everyoung–If Homer returned, he’d see the sun just as hot on bays just as mild.–The ocean is more to our nature: it’s the difference between romantic and classic, wider, but perhaps less beautiful.–Lamalgue–home of poets. Roses in the garden. The little monkey. I’m never sure if I’m watching the monkey of if he’s watching me.–Monkeys are my forebears. I dreamed (about three weeks ago) that I was in a great forest full of monkeys. My mother was walking with me. The further we went in, the more monkeys came.–They were in the branches laughing and jumping. Many came into our path, bigger and bigger, more and more–they were all looking at me–I became frightened. They encircled us–one wanted to caress me and took my hand, I shot him in the shoulder and he started to bleed: he howled awfully. My mother said “why would you hurt your friend, what did he do to you? Can’t you see that he loves you? How he looks like you!” The monkey was watching me; it broke my heart and I woke up… feeling that I was of the same nature as all animals and in fraternity with them in a pantheistic and tender communion.

More interestingly, dearieme was commenting in 2006, whereas marie has come and gone.

Indeed. I'd suggested Herodotus and de Tocqueville in response to Tyler's latest post about travel writing but I see that he already had thought of them in this 2006 post.

I don't remember when I started reading MR but I think it was well after 2006.

Tyler, what are your thoughts on Goethe's Italian Journey?

Comments for this post are closed