The Books Interview: Robyn Davidson - Landmarks of an Accursed Art ; Robyn Davidson, a Great Travel Writer, Hates to Be Called One. Dea Birkett - Who Did Just That - Asks Her Why She Detests the Label
Birkett, Dea, The Independent (London, England)
Robyn Davidson is shattered. She has just returned from the Slade School of Fine Art, where she signed up for a 10-week course in painting and sculpture. It's five years since her last book, Desert Places, and 20 years since Tracks, the account of an epic journey across her native Australia with four camels. She hopes the Slade course will "break through the concrete" covering her work-in- progress: a memoir of her mother, who killed herself when Robyn was 11 years old. She's been working on the memoir for over five years now, and, sadly, the end is not in sight. The problem is, Davidson confesses, the art course itself is as good excuse as any for not writing.
She has found many others. She has written extensively about the problems of writing memoir ("What do we owe to the living? And what to the dead? What is the morality of memoir?") to avoid writing the memoir itself. Tired, her hair smothered in a tight headband, she admits that her new book was a bit of a diversion from writing, too.
The Picador Book of Journeys (Picador, pounds 16.99) is an anthology of fine travel writing, as full of wonder as such a collection could be. As editor, Davidson has gathered together a startling, fresh, and enjoyable collection of excerpts, from Ibn Battuta to Joan Didion. During two years in the British Library, she tried to re-discover scenes that she had half-remembered reading years before. She recalled having seen Joanna Greenfield's remarkable "Hyena" in the New Yorker, at some time, so began hunting through back issues, enjoying the pursuit.
"You apply the skills you use to produce your own book to make an anthology. Shaping. Rhythm," she explains. Except, of course, you don't have to write it. In fact, apart from a brief introduction which tackles the major themes of travel writing, Journeys contains none of Davidson's own words - no editorial notes, no scene-setting paragraphs, no brief contributors' biographies. This spareness works fabulously well. Utterly unaided, nearly every piece shines.
Davidson calls it "an alternative travel anthology". She expands: "The point of this book is that no one would ever think of Doris Lessing, Kafka, Van Gogh, and so on... Rousseau? A travel writer? Whoever heard of such a thing!" She says travel writing now is "very much tied up with tourism. The genre has moved into this commercial aspect of itself, and ignored this extraordinarily rich literature that's filed everywhere else except under travel."
I try to think of a single title of modern travel literature "very much tied up with tourism". Anything by Colin Thubron? Norman Lewis? Philip Marsden?
And I'm also unsure who exactly is doing the ignoring. Who is ignoring Kafka? Lessing? Van Gogh? Certainly not those who have been writing, and writing about, travel literature for the past decade. All these unexpected writers appear in Anderson's Travel Companion, which was compiled by the founder of Britain's first travel bookshop over 20 years ago.
More interesting, perhaps, is those whom Davidson has chosen to ignore. Journeys is more an anti- than alternative travel anthology. You won't find Jonathan Raban or Paul Theroux or Eric Newby on her contents page, although you will find Captain James Cook and Mary Kingsley. It's only contemporary travel writers who have been shunned, as if historical distance alone can confer a certain literary respectability on their literature.
"I do believe that the genre reached its peak before the First World War," she says. "The world started to change radically. Its highest point was The Worst Journey in the World. [At 38 pages, Apsley Cherry-Garrard's account of Scott in the Antarctic is the longest extract in the anthology.] Then you see this decline, and this harking back, using the 19th-century form when we're not in the 19th century. That way of writing a book about the world out …
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Publication information: Article title: The Books Interview: Robyn Davidson - Landmarks of an Accursed Art ; Robyn Davidson, a Great Travel Writer, Hates to Be Called One. Dea Birkett - Who Did Just That - Asks Her Why She Detests the Label. Contributors: Birkett, Dea - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: August 4, 2001. Page number: 9. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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