Travel

For some of us, love for a work of literature brings with it a desire to learn about the work’s gestation. All the literary theory in the world can insist that a piece of writing is not a question to which the author holds the answer, but whenever a book or poem or essay catches our interest, we want to know more about the person behind it. 

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‘The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this, and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you.’ Thus, in 1928, British writer Freya Stark, an intrepid traveller, described the distinction between a traveller and a tourist. British historian Peter Furtado’s new anthology, Great Cities Through Travellers’ Eyes, is squarely aimed at the former. In it he collects the writings of a diverse group of writers about thirty-eight different cities, over a period dating from ancient times to the 1980s (more on that later). Some writers, such as Marco Polo, Hans Christian Anderson, and Simone de Beauvoir, are well known, others less so.

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At seventy-six, Paul Theroux drove from his home in Cape Cod to Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican road trip is his account of this adventure, at times misinformed, on occasions tedious, with moments of entertaining, well-researched discussions about the scintillating complexity of Mexico.

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Meredith McKinney, our pre-eminent translator of Japanese classics – among them Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, the poetry of Saigyō Hōshi, the memoirs Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenkō, and Kamo no Chōmei’s Hōjōki (Record of the Ten Foot Square Hut) – has delivered another marvel of absorbing, elegant scholarship. Travels with a Writing Brush crosses the country of old Japan, from north to south and from east to west, and is a quintessential travel book. It goes to places, and shows them – except that the latter is not quite true; you would not go to this book to see things objectively so much as to cue to them imaginatively.

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Before his first Brazilian sojourn in 1936, Stefan Zweig – the Viennese author who enjoyed fame as the most widely translated writer in the world between the two world wars – deemed the South American country 'terra incognita in the cultural sense'. Once it had also been unknown in the geographical sense, this 'land that one should hardly call a country ...

The streets of New Orleans double as scented gardens for the blind. Round any corner in the Vieux Carré – known to most as the French Quarter – and experience the assault of sensory details. It might start with a spicy tang of boiling seafood, crawfish, or shrimp or crabs plucked from the amphibious Louisiana land. Maybe it's frying beignets or praline mixture ...

The traveller, as V.S. Naipaul describes that role in A Turn in the South (1989), 'is a man defining himself against a foreign background'. Over the past forty years, Paul Theroux has built his career writing books, nearly fifty novels and travelogues, to become an exemplar of that definition. He seeks always to go farther and deeper, often journeying, to b ...

Behind Omonoia Square I check into a cheap hotel, one that mainly sleeps prostitutes and their customers. The receptionist is worn – nicotine fingers, few teeth, sharp cheekbones, gaunt features. His flesh is as green as old tattoos. Leading me down the dank hallway, he lifts up his G-Star Raw T-shirt and scratches a large tattoo of a skull heaving angels from its ...

‘We are the children of death and it is death that rescues us from the deceptions of life.’
Sadeq Hedayat

Smoke fills the car as my friend Amir and I share a cigarette and hurtle down the highway from Tehran airport to the north of the gargantuan metropolis. Thin crowns of sunlight emerge from the shadowy horizon. The urban sprawl starts to ...

Percy Grainger walked to avoid self-flagellation. David Sedaris walked to placate his Fitbit. Virginia Woolf walked the streets of London, and later the South Downs, endlessly: because she loved it, because she was walking her dogs, because she needed to think clearly. For Henry Thoreau, every walk was a sort of ‘crusade’ ...

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