Many of the greats have laid down their pens. But Rory MacLean keeps the travel writing torch aflameby William Dalrymple / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Literary travel writing, usually associated with the drumbeat of hooves across some distant steppe, seems at the moment to be echoing instead with the slow tread of the undertaker’s muffled footfall. Within the last few years Ryszard Kapuscinski, Eric Newby, Norman Lewis and Wilfred Thesiger have followed Bruce Chatwin on their last journey. Others—notably Jan Morris and Patrick Leigh Fermor—have put down their pens or busied themselves with a final bout of anthologising.
At the same time, many of the most talented of the younger generation have turned their pens in new directions: Philip Marsden and Amitav Ghosh to the novel; Nick Crane and Sara Wheeler to biography; Anthony Sattin and Katie Hickman to social history. There are few new stars coming up to replace the old guard; of those who have written debut travel books within the last decade, only Suketu Mehta, Rory Stewart, William Fiennes and Jason Elliott can compare with the departing masters.
British travel writing is as commercially successful as it has ever been, but the books that are selling are not literary so much as frivolous “funnies”—comedians pulling fridges through Estonia and so on. Travel writing is still popular, but it is no longer the powerful literary force it once was. Even some travel writers themselves have doubted the status of the travel book as a serious work of literature. Paul Theroux, whose The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) helped kickstart the travel writing boom of the 1980s, selling over 1.5m copies in 20 languages, was one of the first to express his dislike of the publishing leviathan he had helped create: “Fiction is the only thing that interests me now,” he told one interviewer. “The travel book as autobiography, as the new form of the novel—it’s all bullshit. When people say that now, I just laugh.”
All of which makes Rory MacLean an especially important figure. For MacLean is possibly the only major travel writer of his generation who is still exclusively, and self-consciously, a literary writer about travel. He is also one of the best around. From the opening pages of his 1992 debut, Stalin’s Nose, with its pig falling from a tree and breaking his uncle’s neck, it was clear that here was an unusual new talent: one who, driven by his passionate love of travel, was serious about his journeys and who was also a fine writer—engaging in his interests, observant, sensitive, an amiable and interesting companion; but also unpredictable and experimental, brazenly mixing fact and fiction, the darkly humorous and the grimly serious, the real and the surreal, and all with a mischievous glee. As Colin Thubron writes in his introduction to a new edition of Stalin’s Nose, “MacLean’s first book crashed through the norms of the genre to create a surreal masterpiece. And for this burlesque tour de force the author travelled a region… of bizarre human tragedy, as if reminding the reader that laughter arises less from happiness than from the detonations of the unexpected.”