Book: Foreign Faces by V.S. Pritchett

Foreign Faces
by V.S. Pritchett

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.

Foreign Faces is currently available on Amazon for Kindle for only £3.99.

Article: Ostrava – steel heart of the Czech Republic

And that’s Ostrava, the Czech Republic’s ‘third city’. A strange mixture of ambition, history, culture, militarism, and industrial wasteland, sitting at the heart of Europe, not hiding from its troubled past, but embracing it and using it as a means to draw you in.

From Geographical magazine, an article about Ostrava, the Czech Republic’s third largest city, only a few kilometres from the Polish border and about 50km from Krakow.

Ostrava is a former industrial town where its location at the confluence of four rivers and vast deposits of anthracite under the ground made it a perfect iron smelting location.

With iron smelting now part of Ostrava’s past, the city is making the most of its heritage and showcases its industrial architecture along with social realist buildings from the Soviet era to draw tourists.  The former blast furnace in the Lower Vítkovice area of the city centre is now a viewing platform and cafe, the former gasometer now converted to an auditorium and every year the protected former ironworks, mine and steelworks plays host to the annual multi genre Colours of Ostrava music festival.

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Meanwhile, the city embraces its proximity to Poland and Russia with its annual NATO days airshow showing off all aspects of security and military.  Free for the public, the event’s motto is “Our security is not given and there is no prosperity without security.

With the Janáček May International Music Festival (classical and jazz), a fine art museum as well as ethnographical and a science museum, With two universities a brewery and a lively pub and club scene on Stodolní Street, Ostrava definitely seems worth a visit.   

 

 

Book: A Few Perfect Hours, Josh Neufeld

A Few Perfect Hours
by Josh Neufeld (Alternative Comics, 2004)

Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits…
I rather would entreat thy company
To see the wonders of he world abroad
Than, living dully sluggardized at home
Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness

Heeding Shakespeare’s words, Josh Neufeld and his girlfriend Sari, left the United States and went travelling together.  Over the course of a year and half they backpacked from Hong Kong, through South East Asia and the Balkans before stopping in Prague.

As Sari explains in her foreward:

The challenge of the backpacking odyssey is unique. Stripped of the normal scaffolding of life, we must narrate our own adventures to die them weight and to give ourselves form.  When we travel, we become both actor and storyteller, hero and scribe.

Neufeld narrates their story (with additional words from Sari) in the form of the graphic novel.  While A Few Perfect Hours covers some well trodden backpacker countries and experiences, Neufeld does so with warmth, originality and honesty.  

Along the way, the pair work as extras in a Singapore soap opera, confront their fears in a Thai cave, visit an off the beaten track organic farm, get an unexpected religious experience at a Buddhist festival, have an, almost, encounter with an ice cream salesman in Serbia and travel by train through Belgrade during 1993.

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While Neufeld may be the hero of his tales, he is not afraid to lay bare and share his own fears, misgivings and reactions which bring the stories to life, tinge them with reality and bring the personal to the insights he gains from his travelling experiences.  Part of A Few Perfect Hours‘ charm lies in the insights gained from the ‘small’ or everyday in the stories and also the travellers’ tips interspersed among them.  Meanwhile, the illustrations keep the tales fresh, bringing humour and immediacy to the scenes and adding detail and elements of fantasy.

Comics or graphic novels are not everyone but this is a nice collection, well complemented by Sari’s foreward.  A Few Perfect Hours is part of a growing body of graphic travel writing, a form which lends itself well to the genre.  As Eddie Campbell (author of From Hell) sums it up on the back cover:

The travel book has a tradition both grand and frivolous.  It’s a literary form that continues to welcome the embellishment of illustration long after fiction has expunged them, whether through photographs or the author’s own sketches of the sights seen. It has always looks to me, therefore, like a waiting challenge for the so-called comic book.   

A Few Perfect Hours was self-published with a grant from the Xeric Foundation.   Learn more about Neufeld and his work at www.joshcomix.com.