Paul Theroux on Moritz Thomsen's The Saddest Pleasure

A travel book may be many things, and Moritz Thomsen’s The Saddest Pleasure seems to be most of them – not just a report of a journey, but a memoir, an autobiography, a confession, a foray into South American topography and history, a travel narrative, with observations of books, music, and life in general; in short, what the best travel books are, a summing up.

Thomsen, the most modest of men, writes at one point, ‘though I have written a couple of books I have never thought of myself as a writer. I had written them in those predawn hours when the land still lay in darkness, or in days of heavy winter rains when the cattle huddled in the brush dumb with misery … I had always considered that all my passion was centered around farming.’ The books he refers to are Living Poor (1971), the best book I have yet read on the Peace Corps experience, and The Farm on the River of Emeralds (1978), which is a sort of sequel, and describes a maddening and exasperating series of reverses as part-owner in a farm (with an Ecuadorian) on the lush and muddy coast.

To my mind, this farmer is a writer to his fingertips, but he is an unusual man and his writing life has been anything but ordinary. Writing for him is a natural and instinctive act, like breathing. It is obvious from this book and his others that he loathes polite society and shuns the literary world (meeting João Ubaldo Ribiero in Bahia he is meeting a kindred spirit). He is no city slicker, he is not possessive or acquisitive; he mocks his physical feebleness, he jeers at his old age and his sense of failure. He wishes to write well and honestly, he is not interested in power. A great deal of foolishness or a little wickedness makes him angry. He always tells us exactly what he thinks, in his own voice. He is the least mannered of writers, and he would rather say something truthful in a clumsy way than lie elegantly.

I liked him the instant I met him, and even then, eleven or twelve years ago, he seemed rather aged, frail and gray-haired, wheezing in the thin air of Quito. I knew he was a good man and that he was tenaciously loyal and that he was a serious writer. He was in his middle sixties and had published his Peace Corps book, and he told me he was working on several others, including a memoir of his father. He hated his father, he said, and since literature is rich in such hatreds, I encouraged him in his memoir. He tantalized me with stories of his father’s odious behavior – the time he hanged his wife’s pet cat, the time he tied a dead chicken around a collie’s throat with barbed wire because the collie had been worrying the hens. I think I’ve got that right. His father was a poisonous snob and a liar, and he made poor Moritz’s life a misery. And clearly it went on for some time. We read in his travel book of how, at the age of forty-eight, Moritz was still being berated by this paranoid maniac for joining the ‘communistic’ Peace Corps. The only other person I have met in my life who hated his father as much was a German who told me that his father had been a member of the precursor of the SS, the SA – Sturmabteilung – and, long after the war was over, was still ranting. Indeed, Thomsen Senior and this Nazi would have got along like a house on fire.

I am happy to see this monster in the narrative. Whatever else travel is, it is also an occasion to dream and remember. You sit in an alien landscape and you remember all the people who have been awful to you. You have nightmares in strange beds. You remember episodes that you have not thought of for years and but for that noise from the street or that powerful odor of jasmine you might have forgotten. Details of Thomsen’s life emerge as he travels out of Ecuador, through Bogotà and around Brazil – his childhood dreams, his shaming memory of a shocking incident one long-ago Halloween, his years in the war (twenty-seven combat missions flown in a B-17 in 1943 alone), his father’s death and funeral, his disastrous farming ventures, and the outrages he witnessed in various coastal villages in Ecuador …

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The Art of Travel Writing on the Slightly Foxed podcast

Listen to Barnaby Rogerson and Sara Wheeler on the latest Slightly Foxed podcast - ‘Leaving that place called home’ - Hazel, Jennie and host Philippa explore the art of travel writing with the acclaimed author, Sara Wheeler and Barnaby Rogerson - Eland’s publisher and editor. Buckle-up and join us on an audio adventure that takes in a coach trip around England, an Arctic sojourn, a hairy incident involving a Victorian lady and her trusty tweed skirt and a journey across Russia in the footprints of its literary greats, with nods to Bruce Chatwin, Isabella Bird, Norman Lewis, Martha Gellhorn and Patrick Leigh Fermor along the way. And to bring us back down to earth, there’s the usual round-up of news from the Slightly Foxed office and plenty of recommendations for reading off the beaten track.

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Gavin Maxwell by Douglas Botting

Douglas Botting was a  trusted friend of Gavin Maxwell in the last 12 years of his life and a fellow explorer-traveller-writer, so was uniquely equipped to understand both the creative and destructive demons that drove him.  He has written an empathetic study of a man, which reads like the most bizarre and eccentric adventure story.  Here he relates encountering Maxwell for the first time.

The first time I met Gavin Maxwell – poet, painter, shark-hunter, naturalist, traveller, secret agent and aristocratic opter-out – was a shock. ‘Come round for a drink,’ he had said over the phone. ‘Say, about tea time? Take the bus up the King’s Road. Get off just before the World’s End and double back. The square is on your left, between the road and the river. Paultons Square. Number 9.’

I found the house without difficulty, a tall, narrow-fronted terrace house in a large, tree-filled square on the furthest frontier of fashionable Chelsea. There were two bell pushes by the front door: the lower one was labelled ‘G. Maxwell’, the upper one ‘K. Raine’. I pushed the lower one and waited. Nobody came, and after a minute or two I went back to the pavement and leaned over the railings to try and peer through the front window. Behind the net curtain I could make out nothing but a brightly lit glass fishtank standing waterless and fishless on the windowsill. Inside the tank I could see the outline of what I took to be a large stuffed lizard, a sort of dragon in miniature, about a foot and a half long, with a tawny coloured, scaly skin. As I stared transfixed at this Jurassic apparition I saw that it was not stuffed after all but very much alive, for suddenly a long tongue like a snake’s flickered out of its mouth, snatched at an insect that looked like a grasshopper, then just as suddenly retracted. My attention was instantly distracted from this startling reptile by a flash of iridescent wings and a frantic fluttering of brilliant electric-blue and green feathers in the upper window pane. Some kind of tropical bird, wings beating furiously like a humming bird, hovered momentarily behind the glass, then swooped away and was lost from view in the darkness of the room’s interior.

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The People of Providence

I was first introduced to The People of Providence as I sat bewildered and exhausted, nursing my six-day-old first-born. A friend appeared with a birthing present, a 370-page book which I was told would enrich and change my life. Actually, quite a lot seemed to be altering in my life at that time, and I added it to the list. I had just made the decision to change my career from hospital doctor to GP and was open to new ideas about people and their lives. Once my baby allowed me to do anything for more than 15 minutes at a time, I began to dip into the book and was immediately hooked. Here was such a diversity of people talking openly about so many parts of their lives lived on an ordinary inner city housing estate. It was a complete revelation to me, coming from a hospital background with a rich and honourable tradition of trying to ‘Get it right for bed 17, a case of …’. Now I was being invited to think about how the person in bed 17 might have a whole other life.

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Peter Goullart's Forgotten Kingdom

Peter Goullart spent nine years in the all but forgotten, ancient Nakhi Kingdom of South West China.    He had a job entirely suited to his inquiring, gossipy temperament, for it was his mission to get to know all the local traders, merchants, inn-keepers and artisans so that he could report on which characters should be backed by a loan from the Co-Operative movement. In his company we get to hear about the the love affairs and the social rivalries of his neighbours, attend magnificent banquets, meet ancient dowagers and handsome warriors as well as catching the sound of the swiftly running mountain streams, the coarse ribaldry of the market ladies and the happy laughter emerging from out of the wineshops. For he remained fascinated by this complex society which believed simultaneously and sincerely in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, in addition to their ancient religion of Animism and Shamanism.  

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Raban Revisited

When you think of Hampshire, you think of chalk streams and downland, military and naval enterprise, sailing and King Alfred, and Winchester Cathedral. But its literary heritage does not leap to mind. And yet Hampshire has played a surprisingly important role in nurturing the book. For the English novel reached its earliest flowering through the genius of Jane Austen, who was born and lived most of her life here. The world that she depicts in her exquisite novels, and her scintillating and detailed understanding of the human psyche, were born of the county and of her observation of her Hampshire neighbours and friends. But her Hampshire is only part of the story . . . 

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Viva Mexico by Charles Flandrau

Taken from Nicholas Shakespeare’s epilogue to Viva Mexico by Charles Flandrau

THE echoed sob of history. Coming to the final paragraph of Viva Mexico! one reader – a commuter from Pittsburgh – was stung to his own tears. “It was just so good that I had to have a good cry about it.” He was crying for pleasure, but the life of the author can also provoke a lachrymose response.

For most of it Charles Flandrau sought the same obscurity that his reputation has received since. If there was anything foppish about him, it was located in his fear of failure. “America’s most reprehensible loafer,” was the verdict of the New York Times when contemplating the modesty of Flandrau’s output. “His greatest book was the one he never wrote,” was the judgement of the Saint Paul Daily News. Flandrau’s view of himself was as stringent. “I always think that everything I have written is rotten.” Once, at New York’s Harvard Club – named after the university which had so unfit him for life – he was accosted by a tipsy alumni.

“Are you the Flandrau who wrote a lousy book?”

“I am a Flandrau who wrote five lousy books.”

About one of them, Viva Mexico!, he was wrong. Over eighty years on, despite numerous challenges, it remains where the critic Alexander Woollcott placed it when he applied the words “the best travel book written by an American”.

Charles Macomb Flandrau was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1871, in a house which became the bar of the Metropolitan Hotel. His father was a wealthy lawyer whose happiest eleven years had been spent as an Indian agent. In New Ulm’s Main Street, Colonel Flandrau situated a barrel of whisky laced with strychnine. He had marked it poison in several languages – except Dakotan. He meant the barrel for the Indians, but worrying that illiterate soldiers might get there first, he dumped it. He didn’t get on with his son.

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Through Writers’ Eyes: Hampshire

When you think of Hampshire, you think of chalk streams and downland, military and naval enterprise, sailing and King Alfred, and Winchester Cathedral. But its literary heritage does not leap to mind. And yet Hampshire has played a surprisingly important role in nurturing the book. For the English novel reached its earliest flowering through the genius of Jane Austen, who was born and lived most of her life here. The world that she depicts in her exquisite novels, and her scintillating and detailed understanding of the human psyche, were born of the county and of her observation of her Hampshire neighbours and friends. But her Hampshire is only part of the story . . . 

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Falling in Love with Books

Rose Baring and Barnaby Rogerson, the husband and wife team who run Eland were set identical questions by Georgia de Chamberet at The BookBlast® Diary - enjoy the answers!

Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself. 
ROSE: No, but there were books around. I was quite a lonely child and books were a marvellous escape and provided adventure, friends and role models – Noel Streatfield, E. Nesbit, Johanna Spyri, L. L. Montgomery, Louisa M. Alcott and Lucy M. Boston. Just remembering makes me want to get back under the sheets and counterpane with a pile of them.
BARNABY: No, I can remember them both being rather concerned that I was reading “yet another book” instead of riding a pony, or playing with the dogs.  There were many books in the tiny, dark Tudor cottage in which I was brought up, but they were mostly all inherited.  They included a vast shelf of bound Punch magazines and a full set of Jorrocks. At a young age I used my pocket money to acquire the Ladybird history books but before the age of seven I had graduated to Jackdaws – fascinating folders of facsimile historic documents and maps.

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Travels in a Dervish Cloak

Spellbound by his grandmother’s Anglo-Indian heritage and the exuberant annual visits of her friend the Begum, Isambard Wilkinson became enthralled by Pakistan as an intrepid teenager, eventually working there as a foreign correspondent during the War on Terror. Seeking the land behind the headlines, Bard sets out to discover the essence of a country convulsed by Islamist violence. What of the old, mystical Pakistan has survived and what has been destroyed? We meet charismatic tribal chieftains making their last stand, hereditary saints blessing prostitutes, gangster bosses in violent slums and ecstatic Muslim pilgrims.

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A Square of Sky

During the Second World War Janina David was smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto, hidden in a convent and raised by Catholic nuns. Recently, Janina was delighted to have succeeded in getting the nuns recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.  To commemorate this achievement, and to remind ourselves of the trauma of war and exile, we revisited this moving description of Janina’s return, alone, to her native town in Poland back in the early 1960s. Both of Janina’s parents were killed by the Nazis in the extermination camps.

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Travel Tips: Matthew Teller

Our late Spring travel tips are provided by Matthew Teller

Before my first trip to Antarctica, I got onto Twitter and was yapping about what gear to buy and how cold it might be, when the calmest piece of travel wisdom social media has ever seen came out of the blue at me. ‘Forget the cold, it’ll melt your heart'  . . . 


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Rebel in Pearls

It seemed apt that I should discover Juliet living in Russia when I was there. And apt that rather than living in Moscow like the vast majority of foreigners, she was living in Peredelkino, a retreat from the city where wooden dachas sheltered improbably but cosily, like mushrooms, in the all-encompassing forest. Like Churchill’s description of the country itself, she had always been to me something of ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’ . . .

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Travel Tips: Steppes

Our Spring travel tips are provided by Nicholas Laing of Steppes Travel

Carry a small Polaroid camera (they are back in fashion). Handing over a photograph to the individual or family you want to photograph breaks the ice and usually results in smiles all round . . 

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An Irishman in Somalia

Can a book save one’s life? I used to think so when stationed in Mogadishu, avoiding thoughts of murder or suicide in that sunburnt madness only by immersing myself in Gerald Hanley’s Warriors (1971). Day after day I would throw myself on to my bed after another utterly fruitless, pointless day in the president’s office, and lie down, sweating beneath squadrons of flies and mosquitoes, and try to forget about it all.

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Travel Tips: John Gimlette

From John Gimlette, travel writer

Carry pictures of your family.  They are a great way of communicating your harmlessness, especially where language is an issue.  If you don’t have family, take pictures of the Royal family.  They are often a source of interest.

Pack a tin of sardines in countries where foodmight become tricky.  They are good for emergencies but just sufficiently unappetising that you won’t be tempted to eat them prematurely.

Take your old work shirts (those with frayed collars etc).  Cotton is great in all climates, and you can give them awayas you go.  I often come back with an empty suitcase!

If you think you’re in an unsafepart of town, avoid eye-contact, look as if you know where you’re going and do not display a guide book.

Try and avoid Western-style food in countries that have their own distinct cuisine.  It may not have been cooked properly, and may have been sitting around for ages.  Even in big hotels, the Indian variant of the full English Breakfast can be lethal.

Autumn News

This autumn we are adding two new Martha Gellhorn titles to the Eland list, The View from the Ground: Peacetime Dispatches, 1936–87 and The Face of War, 1937–85: War Reporting as a Commitment to Humanity, Life and Peace . . . 

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