Bloomsbury 2011 (first published 1964)
Literature is made out of the misfortunes of others. A large number of travel books fail because of the monotonous good luck of their authors.
This collection of travel essays by VS Pritchett has one of the best opening lines of any travel collection.
Not many travel writers would begin by proclaiming themselves to be an offensive traveller, but Pritchett does and has a point. However, not wishing to be misunderstood he is careful to explain that he is not prejudiced, narrow-minded or someone who travels with unrealistic expectations.
His point is more elementary; that the nature of travel is in some way offensive. As if that was not enough, Pritchett confesses that he compounds this by virtue of being a writer before going on to list some of the offense he has caused.
Reading this essay, it is tempting to think that Pritchett must be talking about other travellers. After all, our own way of travel is sensitive to local cultures and respectful to the people we meet so surely could not cause deliberate offence. Besides, we know what Evelyn Waugh knew – “we are travellers and cosmopolitans; the tourist is the other fellow”, right?
Wrong. Pritchett might single out tourists as the one true source of annoyance when travelling but he makes it quite clear that we, “hypocrite lectuers”, are offensive travellers too. It is a point with which Paul Theroux seems to agree:
Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people’s privacy — being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders. The traveler is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur…
from Ghost Train to an Eastern Star
VS Pritchett may have viewed travel as offensive but that did not mean that he disapproved of it. Far from it.
Although famous as a critic and author of short stories, Pritchett was an avid traveller and wrote several travel books. His life is a classic example of the link between writing and travel on the one hand and being a writer and a traveller on the other.
Paul Theroux picked up on this when writing about Pritchett shortly after his death in 1997:
A classic way to succeed in England, if you come from the wrong class or have the wrong accent, is to leave the country and go far away. That was Pritchett’s solution — and it worked for him as it has for many other English writers…France gave him a second language and inspired his short stories. Travel in Spain came soon after.
Foreign travel was crucial to Pritchett’s literary ambitions and Theroux quotes from one of Pritchett’s short stories to illustrate the similarity between being a traveller and writer and how both inhabit a place beyond frontiers. Susan Sontag has also written about this from her own perspective in the eulogistic essay about Richard Halliburton’s travel books in the collection Where the Stress Falls.
Pritchett’s first book was in fact a travelogue, Marching Spain. In an interview with the Paris Review in 1990, Pritchett recalled that this book was accepted by the publisher only on the condition that he would also write a novel and so initially, it was travel and travel writing that drove his fiction even if fiction was the more commercially successful.
Obviously mindful that unfortunate events can be felicitous for travel writers, Pritchett recalled in the same interview how his first travelogue was not much than an account of a journey:
What I was really rather sorry about was that I had had no adventures…I always wondered how it was that Robert Stevenson always seemed to have adventures; why don’t I have adventures?
There is a parallel there with Foreign Faces in which Pritchett criss-crosses communist countries in eastern Europe, returns to Madrid and Seville and then goes farther afield to Turkey and Iran. The essays are similarly marked by an absence of ‘adventure’ even though they are no less entertaining for it.
Pritchett’s essays on eastern Europe capture those places at a crucial time in the post war period between the 1956 revolution in Hungary and protests in Poland and the Prague Spring and subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. His essays are not political but reveal the variety in the countries and the differences in society, culture and character.
Sociable and curious he brings the places to life through the characters he meets. Some of his more general comments can appear blunt or actually offensive (“Romania annoys from the beginning“), but they often serve simply to grab attention. His essays are full of sharp observation and Pritchett gets to his point with an informal but incisive and clear style. Although he may not spare them from his pen, Pritchett writes about people and places with humour and generosity and without being a snob. This is particularly evident in the essay on Madrid when it is clear that he is writing with affection rather than meanness.
The result is a charming and witty collection of essays and not at all offensive.