Perhaps I have not read widely enough amongst the travel writing genre, or exposed myself to a wide enough variety of travel authors, but for my money, Nicolas Bouvier is one of the top travel writers of the twentieth century. At his best he surpasses Paddy, for he brings a rare sense of humour to his writing, something that Paddy, for all his marvellously detailed prose, is not noted for.
Some of you may have come across Bouvier by reading his best known work, The Way of the World, or perhaps you might recall a few mentions on this site, including, Armenia, Nicolas Bouvier and Paddy. It’s been over twenty-five years since a new work by Switzerland’s master travel writer has been translated and published in English. It would appear that Rose Baring at that lovely publishing house, Eland, has made it her personal mission to get this collection of shorter travel stories published. I have enjoyed everything I have read so far, and I think you will too. Buy a copy for someone for Christmas. At 180 pages it is manageable for all. Don’t just take my word for it.
‘Nicolas Bouvier was a writer of rare grace and subtlety. Every essay here shimmers with imaginative insight and wry humour. He has long been known to cognoscenti. Now, perhaps, his stature will be more widely recognised: one of the most brilliant, penetrating and individual travel writers of his time.’ Colin Thubron
‘Bouvier writes with such verve and style and carries his erudition so lightly. This is the perfect literary travel companion for the Aran islands, Xian and point in between. The Japanese Chronicles are next on my list. Bravo Eland and Robyn Marsack for this brilliant translation.’ Natania Jansz, publisher of Sort of Books
‘Passionate curiosity, appropriate seriousness and a comic sense are kept in balance by a wide, tolerant and most unusual cast of mind. He has the intuitive gift of capturing landscapes, atmospheres and personalities in a flash, and he finds himself totally at home in the heart of heterodoxy and strangeness […] he catches scenes and atmospheres with a painter’s eye and a poet’s ear.’ Patrick Leigh Fermor in his introduction to the first English edition of L’Usage du Monde.
Rose Baring, in her publisher’s foreword to So It Goes, explains what drove her to get this lovely collection translated into English by Robyn Marsack, the final part of Eland’s homage to Bouvier:
Only twice have I read a travel book and immediately wanted to speak to the author. The first time it was Ogier de Busbecq’s Turkish Letters, and I was well aware that I would never get through to the sixteenth-century Habsburg ambassador to the court of Suleyman the Magnificent. The second time was when I finished The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier in 2006. It didn’t take long to discover that Bouvier had died in 1998, and I entered a period of mourning for this man I had never met.
Despite his brilliance, Bouvier had largely slipped back beneath the Anglophone waves. Tracking down and publishing the works which had been translated – The Way of the World, The Japanese Chronicles and The Scorpion-Fish – allowed me to spend time with his words if nothing else. I tried, and largely failed, to trace the field recordings he had made of music from Zagreb to Tokyo. I looked at the images he had collected from around the world, the photographs he began to take in Japan in the 1960s, the poetry he wrote. I watched, much more than once, the film made about him in 1993, Le hibou et la baleine, and other snippets on the internet. I still long to have met him, and feel quite envious of the translator of these stories, who did.
So It Goes is the final element of Eland’s homage to this exceptional chronicler of the world – a selection of his shorter pieces of travel writing, and an essay on the childhood which catapulted him into the world equipped with such fertile curiosity. It contains all the hallmarks of his particular genius: an acute, painterly eye for the details which escape many others, an ear attuned as much to the qualities of a wind or the soft exhalation of a carthorse as to the nuances of conversation, and a willingness to open himself totally to the experience of a place, even when it threatens to unhinge him.
The title, So It Goes, is a phrase which crops up like a mantra throughout the book. Bouvier borrowed it from Kurt Vonnegut, whose writing he hugely admired. In Slaughterhouse Five (1969), the phrase implies that even faced with the horrific destruction of war, no good will come of shirking the truth. Bouvier is as good as his word.
Extract from So It Goes
Scotland: Travels in the Lowlands
‘I ate some mussels with French fries in the dimly lit saloon bar, back turned on a huge pool-table where three couples were playing, their laughter high-pitched and loud, as though the inn belonged to them. The women, absurdly made-up for such an out-of-the-way place, pocketed their balls, fags in their mouths. The owner and his wife, who seemed to know them well, greeted each win with smarmy compliments. After a bit they came to my table with a bottle and three goblets. They seemed more fragile than the glass. I said, ‘A nice place you have here,’ meaning, ‘The natural surroundings are enchanting.’ She leaned towards me and whispered in my ear, ‘They kill me – this whole damn business is killing, simply killing,’ and disappeared into the kitchen, dabbing her eyes with her white apron. He remained. He told me he’d been trying to put the place back on its feet for several months, without success, and that his wife couldn’t stand it any more. Then, I don’t know why, he talked about the death of the poet Robert Burns (that colossal genius whose eyes shone with drink) in the doll’s house that the Customs administration, by whom he was employed, had offered him in Dumfries as a mark of their esteem. As he spoke, big tears rolled down his cheeks. I know that Burns makes the whole of Scotland cry, but there was something more going on here. I instinctively touched the back of his hand with my fingertip; he clasped mine and held it between his enormous paws for the time it took to swallow back something rising in his throat. What was he struggling against? I remembered the unexpected scene from several hours earlier: those two lost and frantic girls, their hair crested with red, opposite the unsightly woman calmly making an effort to set them back on their feet. Precarious, flawed little lives beneath the sky, a glittering sky tonight: theirs, hers, mine too. All looking, with what help we could find, for an honourable way out. So it goes.’
To celebrate the publication of Nicolas Bouvier’s So It Goes Eland will be hosting a seasonal pop-up shop from 5pm on the 28th November, to be followed by the return of the Travellers’ Film Club at 7pm. They will be showing a film which they feel honours the spirit of Bouvier, The Lovers’ Wind by Albert Lamorisse, an extraordinary film, shot entirely from the air in Iran in 1970. Join them at The Holy Redeemer Church Hall, 24 Exmouth Market, EC1R.
Watch Bouvier talk about his favourite books in 1993.