Why is travel literature so interesting?


Hello everyone and welcome. My name is
Matilda Poizat-Amar and I’m a lecturer in French in the School of European Culture
and Languages at the University of Kent. My research interests focuses on
travel literature in the 20th and 21st century. Today, I’m going to talk to
you about travel literature and more specifically I would like to explore a
few aspects of a question that has been bothering me for a couple of years
now, which is why does travel literature still exist? Why do we bother writing
about our own travels? Why do we bother reading about them? Why
do we bother reading about travels of other people when we could actually just
take a plane and experience the world ourselves, when we could just more
easily actually scroll down Google maps to find a decent idea of what the
St Basil’s Cathedral looks like in Moscow or the Eiffel Tower looks like in Paris for
instance. Why does travel literature still exist is a wide and an important question.
So let’s break it down a bit and let’s start by the beginning. Why do I mean, what do I
mean by travel literature exactly? In English this term is often used
interchangeably with another one, travel writing. Travel writing is often used
interchangeably with travel literature. This is for a good reason, the meaning of
these two terms is indeed very very close. They both describe a text in
which the overarching plot focuses on the movement of at least one protagonist
to a foreign land or across a foreign land or land or space that is unfamiliar
to them. However, I wouldn’t say that travel writing and travel
literature are exactly synonymous. On the one hand, travel writing encompasses all texts focusing on the trajectory of one protagonist,
whether or not these texts are part of literature or not. It includes not only
travelogues, novels, and so on but also exploration reports, scientific theory
reports, some go as far as including travel guides into this category. On the
other hand, travel literature is a bit more restrictive in the sense that it
only includes texts that belong to literature. Texts that can be fictional,
such as Kerouac’s On the Road for instance, or non-fictional such as
The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara. However, it excludes non-literary texts, text that don’t belong to literature, it excludes exploration reports, it excludes scientific reports and it excludes travel guides. So, today
we are going to focus on travel literature and more specifically French
travel in literature. Why focus on French travel literature? Well
French travel literature holds a long-standing tradition of publishing travel and
narratives across centuries and gives us a clear idea of the evolution of travel
literature as a whole. By longstanding tradition I mean that it
goes back at least, at least to the 13th century with the travels of Marco Polo
that were actually written for the first time in Old French by an Italian writer.
Moving on to the Enlightenment and the 18th century, we find texts such as
Voltaire’s Candide published in 1759 that also focus on the travel of a
protagonist to be able to mock the French society. In the 19th century
travel literature still exists and sometimes take a more personal take
or stance with romantics writing about their own journeys. Here we
have, for instance, Chateaubriand’s Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem
published in 1811. In the 20th century writers still published travel
narratives in France of course, sometimes reflecting and redefining notions that
are traditionally associated with travel such as exoticism, here we see Segalen’s essay on exoticism. However, despite this very long solid tradition
of publishing travel narrative in France, the 20th century is a bit of a
crisis for French travel literature. France travel literature experiences a
bit of a crisis because academics and writers alike question the relevance
and the future of such narratives. These crises it has been so important
that a conference was organised in 2005 on French travel literature to discuss
whether or not the 20th century would be, would have been, the last century of
travel literature. That’s quite a pessimistic view on the question here.
But actually this important claim was supported by a web of relevant arguments.
Some of these arguments had to do with the changes that were happening in the
world such as for instance the lack of unexplored spaces, the fact that the map
of the world was pretty much definite at that stage and that perhaps
reading about travels was less of a necessity to be able to understand the
world. These arguments are so focused on the
importance of globalisation which rendered the experience of travel a bit
less exceptional, a bit more banal and maybe less worthy of being written
about. The access of Internet. of google maps
for instance also was problematic perhaps threatening to the existence of
travel writing. All the arguments also focus not so much on the changes
that were happening in the world but also changes that were happening in
French literature at the time. Michel Le Bris in 2002 for instance expresses
with a serious concern about the fact that in the second half of the 20th
century French literature was on the whole more concerned with questions of
the self, subjective types of writing such as the autobiography or to fiction. For instance, they were very popular in the 80s, much more so than
questions of the world and travel writing. Finally, writers themselves were a bit
dubious and expressed some concerns about whether or not travel
literature was still an appropriate platform for them to express their views
on the world and this actually goes back to at least the 20th century. As early as
1927 a Belgian-born writer Henri Michaux right at the beginning of a travelogue
that he wrote ‘Un homme qui ne sait ni voyager ni tenir un journal a compose ce voyage’
the man who wrote this travelogue knows neither how to travel nor how to keep a
journal, which is a bit concerning. A few years later in ’55 another famous writer
called Claude Levi-Strauss writes at the beginning of a travelogue, ‘Je hais les voyages et les explorateurs’ which is I hate travel and explorers. These strong statements
actually exemplify a conflicting relationships the writers held
with travel literature throughout the 20th century and suggests that perhaps
the traditional form of travel narratives was no longer able to provide
these writers with an appropriate platform to express their views on the
world. Fast forward a few years, nowadays in 2018, can we say that travel
literature is dead. Of course not, and actually not only does it still exist
which is actually grown stronger both in terms of popularity and critical
importance. The rise of popularity in travel literature can
first be noticed in the emergence of new publishing houses that were created in
the last twenty years only and specialised in travel literature alone.
I’m speaking for instance of a few French publishing houses that were created for
instance, Elytis in 2000 or in 2002 Anacharsis or bigger one even
Transboréal created in 2005, which focused almost exclusively
on travel narratives, demonstrating that not only writers still write about
their travels but that people are still willing to engage with these texts and read them. Travel narratives have actually gained
critical attention in literary prizes and I’m speaking here of a text published
in 2015 called ‘Boussole’ by Mathias Enard, which
received a prestigious prize the Prix Goncourt, the Goncourt prize for a piece of
writing that was very much inspired by this long-standing tradition of travel
writing and travel literature and more importantly, perhaps,
the amount of academic works including publications, colloquiums, conferences,
research centres on travel literature has blossomed in which
unprecedented lvels in the last 20 years, which means that not only travel
literature sells well but it’s also interesting to look at for scholars that
are interested in literature. So what is it? What is it that allowed for travel
literature to survive despite these crises that it experienced and what is
it that makes it so fascinating for scholars interested in literature. The
first reason that comes to mind to explain the survival of travel
literature has to do, of course, with the nature of these texts. All these texts in
one way or another can be read as an invitation to cross boundaries, to
overcome obstacles. They tend to prefer flexibility, resilience to rigidity and
stillness. Likewise all these travel narratives as a whole tend to navigate
the broader map of literature with a similar sense of playful flexibility and
they tend to push the boundaries further and every obstacle that could have
threatened the existence becomes a new strength. Think about the access of the
internet which we mentioned earlier on as a possible threat to the existence of
travel literature, actually not only has it not stopped
travel literature from existing but it has also provided a practical source of
inspiration for so many of these writers. We can for instance take the example of
this text a Eclats D’Amerique (Fragments of America) published by a French writer,
Olivier Hodasava, in 2014. This text, apparently offers quite a traditional
narrative structure and quite a traditional narrative plot. It is the
story of a Frenchman who embarks into a road trip in the
United States so far nothing exceptionally new. However, there was a twist to that
plot, there is noticeable from the structure of the text itself, we follow
the protagonist state by state as he progresses through the
United States. However, we do not follow his movements, we follow him state by
state by alphabetical order, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, and so on. This
explicitly arbitrary structure that breaks away from the traditional
narrative line of a travel text can be explained by the fact that this journey
isn’t the result of a geographical journey but actually the result of hours
and hours spent on google maps, it is the result of a virtual journey to the
United States through a computer screen. This text is illustrated not exactly by
pictures as such but rather by screenshots of google maps that the
author found on his virtual journey. By writing such a subversive piece of
literature the author of course playfully questions the boundaries
between experience and imagination, movement and immobility, the virtual
world and the real world, but in doing so he also questions the relevance of the
definitions that we give to all the components or almost all the components
of a travel narrative including space, movement and experience, which
leads to my second point about why is it so fascinating for travel for
scholars interested in travel literature to look at this text.
It is because as a whole these travel narratives have been and still are very
difficult to grasp. They’re even difficult to grasp as a genre,
they encompass so many different types of writing including novels, poetry,
diaries, pictures, writing, fiction non-fiction, that some academics have
struggled and still struggle to define it as a genre, sometimes referring to it as a
cross genre genre or as a non-genre. These debates on the generic definition of
travel literature is of course interesting, beyond this it
reveals also the fact that the critical terminology that we usually use to
describe texts does not really work when it comes to travel literature because
of this tendency for this text to misbehave, to push boundaries even further
than we’re used to. As a result also academics have to
find new ways to approach these texts, a new flexible approach to these texts, that
not only focuses on traditional questions such as the poetic, stylistics,
the genre of a text but also allows us to focus on what should actually at the
core of these texts which is of course the movement, the rhythm, which is the
accelerations the decelerations, the strolling points, the breaking points,
and in turn finding a set of tools that is flexible and allows us to describe
accurately this text, to understand what makes them breathe, what makes them
move, what makes them exist, also help us reflect on how we approach literature as
a whole and look at all the texts, not only
travel literature but all literary texts, focusing not on traditional questions
but also focusing on their own individual movement, on their own individual reason. In conclusion, why does travel literature still exist? There
are many answers to that question and I have yet to find a few of these, but
in the terms of this very short discussion we can already establish that A)
it exists because it is a flexible form of writing, which thrives on change, which thrives on the difficulty, that is open to change, B) it is difficult to grasp as a
whole and for an academic that makes it very interesting. And C) the necessity
to find new ways to approach these texts that keep moving around allow us to
reflect on our traditional approaches to literature as a whole.
Thank you very much for listening.

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