Friday, December 21, 2012

Why We Travel - Lesley Blanch - Journey Into the Mind's Eye

"I must have been about four years old when Russia took hold of me with giant hands. That grip has never lessened. For me, the love of my heart, the fulfilment of the senses and the kingdom of the mind all met here. This book is the story of my obsession."
This isn't a review - at least, not a proper one. It's a post that I feel ought to be made, because today I started crying in public, and it's been a good few years since the ending of a book made me do that. But Lesley Blanch's Journey into the Mind's Eye - equal parts travel narrative and elegy for lost love - had me bawling. It's ostensibly about Blanch (who is in many ways my Career Idol, possibly one of the best prose stylists of the twentieth century, and all too often dismissed as a "great life" when, indeed, her writing is easily as good or better than that of Paddy Leigh Fermor) and her search for the "imaginary" Russia - the idealized version of a country she learned about from her much-older Russian lover, known only as the Traveller.

But it's about so much more than that. It's about seeking a lost love, and coming to terms with loss, and about that imaginary city that we look for when we travel, which is never the place we come to, and which is always nevertheless what draws us from the places we leave behind. It's about the "journey into the mind's eye" we take when we travel, when we find that our journey takes us nowhere new, but only deeper into ourselves. It's about how love can shape us, infect us, and make everything that comes after us about that love.

For me, at least, as for Blanch - love and wandering are inseparable. The perfect place and the perfect Other - they're all part of that endless process of homecoming, of finding that place where we can set down our household gods, where we can belong. That's the theme that's been running through the collection of short stories I've been working on this autumn - that's how Blanch sees her travels: at once an encounter with the profound otherness of her love and a realisation that her experience is ultimately her story, imprinted upon that otherness.

It's a relief, too, to read a female travel writer (although, full disclosure, I can't get through Freya Stark). The Great Men of the business - PLF as the greatest offender, though Philip Glazebook much less so - often ignore this subjectivity. They're privileged enough to barrel through mountain passes without fear of rape or abduction; often, there's a wilful blindness about how much of what they see is of their own creation. Lesley, like the also-marvelous Bettina Selby, like I try to be (I'd be the first to admit that my article in the Spectator is as much about me as it is about Tbilisi itself), is utterly open and unapologetic about that constant dialectic between traveler and place, between storyteller and story-subject, that happens when we travel. About that relationship between the place we see in our mind's eye, loaded down with cultural baggage and emotional resonance and easy orientalizing (because we want, after all, otherness, or we wouldn't be traveling at all), and the place as it is, which perhaps is no more home to us than the places we're running from.

So there you go. Go read Lesley Blanch. 
Because she made me cry.

2 comments:

Mzuri said...

Compelling review ... I immediately looked to see if my library has the book; alas, no.

Maya Topadze Griggs said...

I still have not read her The Sabres of Paradise... It was recommended to me by several people including you :)
Also, I want to look like her when I'm 100 :)