Tag Archives: travel writer

Travel Classics 3: V. S. Naipaul

Caribbean storm

Caribbean storm

Destination: Caribbean and British Guiana

Book: The Middle Passage by V. S. Naipaul

Quotable Thursday quote: I’m the kind of writer that people think other people are reading. V. S. Naipaul

The question is, if a man writes well, does it matter what kind of human being he is?

I delayed reading V. S. Naipaul because although he is always listed as one of the great travel writers, excerpts indicated that he is of that school that dwells on the negative wherever he goes.  ( I learned after I read the book, that he is an abuser of women and a racist.)

How, I wondered, could Naipaul be so revered as a writer if his travel writing consistently discouraged going to the places he explored? In order to find my own answer, I would have to read his work.

I bought two books, The Middle Passage (1962), his first travel book, and An Area of Darkness (1964) which relates to his first journey to India. In an introduction to the edition I read,  he introduces The Middle Passage as his first travel book, but it was not his first published work. He had already gained a reputation as a writer of fiction by 1962. I unwittingly picked up the two books which drew the most criticism to Naipaul as non-sympathetic to third-world countries.

For those who want to know more about the man behind the writing, Paul Theroux, former friend turned caustic truth-teller,wrote Sir Vidia’s Shadow in 1998. An authorized biography by Patrick French, The World Is What It Is, was published in 2008 and is no less disturbing, according to Theroux himself in this lengthy piece .

In The Middle Passage, Naipaul writes with the observant eye of a sociologist or anthropologist, but without the scientific detachment. The title refers to the route taken by slave ships between Africa and the Caribbean, and tips off his focus in the book.  His visit to Trinidad (where he grew up), British Guiana, Suriname, Martinique and Jamaica constantly circles back to race relations. Allegedly, he is comparing the effect of colonizers from Britain, France and Holland on the West Indies and the northern edge of South America. In fact, he pretty much lumps the colonizers together and lines up with them.

Although he refers to his family history–India to Trinidad to England–he does not openly acknowledge the personal prejudice this brings to his observations.  In each society he mocks the people in power, but lives with them and complains about hardship, while he claims to be wanting to find out about those on the bottom rung and wondering aloud why they don’t feel more pride.  He seeks out connections to slavery and racial division wherever he goes.

The cynicism wears thin, and yet–a big fat “yet”–I don’t believe I have ever read anyone who could as deftly bring to life a character and a setting.  I could see the buildings, rooms, and people he described.

With his pompous air of superiority, Naipaul is not a person I would want to dwell with on a desert island . (Particularly after reading about the way he has treated the women in his life.) However, that biting intelligence and felicity of expression would make for an interesting dinner party.

And, oh, yes, I am going to read the second book.

Now please let me know if the kind of person an author is in “real life” affects your enjoyment of his or her work? Would you rather just not know? Or do you think it is important to know something of the life of the author in order to understand the work?  Let’s have some exchange of views on this. I know you have an opinion.

Photograph by Vera Marie Badertscher. All rights reserved.

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Filed under Books, Caribbean, Destinations, South America

A Leisurely Read About a Caribbean Trip

Chickens on the street

Chickens on the street

Destination: Caribbean Islands

Book: The Traveller’s Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor

When last seen in A Traveler’s Library, Patrick Leigh Fermor was hiking across the rough landscape of the Mani peninsula in Greece’s Peloponese.  His journey to the Caribbean came between his adventures in Crete during the war and the many Greek  journeys that he took in the following thirty years.

In The Traveller’s Tree, Fermor tells us about a journey by plane and boat through the islands of the lesser Antilles, Haiti, Jamaica and Cuba in 1946.  Be warned that the islands he described no longer look and sound the way they did when he was there. Life moves on.  But with his fine eye for detail and his love of learning, he brings a depth to the experience of island culture far beyond what you might glean from today’s slick advertising.

St. Lucia beach

St. Lucia beach

His is not a book full of white sands and hammocks slung from palm trees. Instead he quotes frequently from the earliest travel writer to visit the Caribbean, the French Monk, Father Labat, as he weaves a picture of the islands as they are in 1946 against their history, from native Caribs through Columbus to the Europeans who established dominion.

You can read present day guidebooks for weeks on end, and never learn about Labat, to whom Fermor says all students of the area owe a large debt. “He is a sort of monastic West Indian Pepys.  He has the same devouring curiosity and sense of humour and practical flair, and, above all, the same lucid and indefatigable garrulousness. Nothing is too important or too trivial for him to set on record in his vigorous and entertaining prose.” Continue reading

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Filed under Books, Bruges, Destinations, Greece

Books for Scotland–Suggested by A Reader

Hello, and welcome to A Traveler’s Library. If you “stumbled” in to the site, I hope you’ll stick around and find more of your favorite travel destination and the literature or movies that help enhance the traveler’s experience. Please consider subscribing by the RSS or e-mail buttons in the right-hand column. Happy Travels! Added Note: Don’t miss the comment below the post by Alisdair Pettigrew. He came back to tell us more about George Blake. Thanks, Alisdair!

Destination: Scotland

The Scottish Flower, Thistle

The Scottish Flower, Thistle

Books by: H. V. Morton, George Blake, Edwin Muir, Kathleen Jamie, and others.

When I asked for suggestions for books for travelers to ten specific destinations, I put Scotland on the list. Alasdair Pettinger, who edits the valuable Studies in Travel Writing web site, had some definite ideas about Scottish travel literature, and literature about Scotland for travelers.

“I find the most engaging travel books were written in the 1920s and 30s: H. V. Morton, In Search of Scotland (1929) and Continue reading

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Filed under Books, Destinations, Scotland