Tag Archives: William Dalrymple

What’s To Become of Travel Writing?

William Dalrymple cuts loose on the subject of travel writing in the Guardian

There I was wondering what on earth I could write about for my 200th POST, when my Blackberry blinked and buzzed and delivered up this article from last Friday’s [September 4, 2009] Guardian newspaper.  William Dalrymple’s thoughts on travel literature deserve a reading because he is one of the greats of travel writing himself. But what he wrote in the Guardian also deserves a lot of discussion.

Here are some of the statements in his piece.

It wasn’t just that publishers were not as receptive as they had once been to the genre, nor that the big bookshops had contracted their literary travel writing sections from prominent shelves at the front to little annexes at the back, usually lost under a great phalanx of Lonely Planet guidebooks. More seriously, and certainly more irreversibly, most of the great travel writers were either dead or dying.

Oh, please. Of course the travel writers of a former age are dying, but new writers constantly appear to take their place. And as for mediocre travel writing, from Victorian times through the 1940’s just about everyone who graduated college in England traveled and wrote about it. Early bloggers?

He does acknowledge some fine newer writers, but does not believe they are in the same league as Eric Newby, William Thesiger, and Norman Lewis, who passed away in the last few years. I also lament the loss of these writers, and know that my own personal favorite, Patrick Leigh Fermor is in his nineties and feeble, but that does not mean travel writing is dead.

First he sympathizes with the academic view that travel writers from the West have patronized the East.

But the attitudes of today’s travel writers are hardly those of the Brideshead generation, and as Colin Thubron has pointed out, it is ridiculously simplistic to see all attempts at studying, observing and empathising with another culture necessarily “as an act of domination”.

Then he says it isn’t so.

Also, travellers tend by their very natures to be rebels and outcasts and misfits: far from being an act of cultural imperialism, setting out alone and vulnerable on the road is often an expression of rejection of home and an embrace of the other.

Is this true? or a sweeping generalization?

…is there really any point to the genre in the age of the internet, when you can instantly gather reliable knowledge about anywhere in the globe?

Ahh, all writers of any genre better hang it up, then because Wikipedia and Google can do it for us.

Dalrymple has lived in India for some time (gone native, as they would have said during the Raj) and so, surprise, surprise, he finds a batch of writers with ties to India to be among the best travel writers today. AND, more surprise, he thinks that settling in to live in one foreign culture for an extended period will yield the best writing.

He ends on a much more upbeat note with a quote from William Thubron

A good travel writer can give you the warp and weft of everyday life, the generalities of people’s existence that are rarely reflected in journalism, and hardly touched on by any other discipline. Despite the internet and the revolution in communications, there is still no substitute.

This article contains fascinating details from Dalrymple’s life in India and recollections of some of the late travel writers.  I look forward to reading his new book, to be published next month, and would not even mind if the Bloomsbury publisher sent me an ARC [Advanced Review Copy] (hint!), but I have very mixed feelings about the contradictory and self-serving arguments used in this article. (And according to the comment section in the Guardian, one of the new writers he praised is his niece. Is that playing fair?)

[This article stimulated many comments and a rousing conversation about the health of travel writing.  Travel writing, by the way, is a form that is still alive as I write this note nine years later!]

Travel Literature for Visiting Delhi, India

Tomb Window, by Sue Dickman
Tomb Window, by Sue Dickman

Note: This is guest post day amongst the Every-Day-in-May Bloggers. I was fortunate to swap with Sue Dickman and you kind find me over at A Life Divided, talking about Greece and a cookbook.

Destination: Delhi, India

Book: City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple

I’m usually to be found over at A Life Divided, where I write mostly about food and gardening and travel to India.  But I’m delighted to be here today, thinking about books and travel (two of my favorite things).  There are many books about India I can recommend, but when I was thinking about books and place, I automatically thought of William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns (1993), the book I tell everyone spending any time at all in Delhi to read.

Delhi is not an easy city to love.  It’s huge and sprawling, crowded, polluted, intense.  Most travelers to India get out of Delhi as quickly as possible.  I didn’t, though. The first time I was in India in 1989-90, I stayed on and off for six months, and when I returned a few years later on a Fulbright, Delhi was my base.  Even then, when I was settled into an apartment in a residential neighborhood of south Delhi, I still couldn’t say I liked it.  I was worn down by the crowds, the haggling, the leers, the crazy traffic, the dirt.  By the time I left, though, the city had grown on me, and now whenever I return, I’m happy to be there.  It’s partly that my knowledge of the city is hard earned—I still remember the triumph I felt the day I realized that I’d forgotten my map, and it was okay—and partly that the city’s charms have revealed themselves to me over the years.

Lodi Gardens, India by Sue Dickman
Lodi Gardens, India by Sue Dickman

Delhi is a layered city, if nothing else, and these layers—of history, of people, of empires—are ever present.  There are the obvious tourist monuments—the Red Fort in Old Delhi, Humayun’s Tomb in Nizamuddin, Lodi Gardens, which, in addition to being the site of a number of the tombs of the Lodi dynasty’s rulers, is one of Delhi’s premier picnic spots.  (I wrote more about that in an article for the Christian Science Monitor. But  there are also many less obvious monuments to be stumbled across, signs that the city has a long history and that each new wave of occupants has left things behind.  Delhi remains the only place I’ve lived where I’ve found myself at a historical monument while getting lost en route to the dry cleaners.

William Dalrymple knows this better than many, and writes about it better than almost anyone else.  Dalrymple has lived in Delhi on and off for years, working as a correspondent for various British newspapers and researching his numerous books.   (He’s written six in all, the first published when he was 22, with a seventh out this year.)  City of Djinns, Dalrymple’s second book, emerged from his stay in Delhi in the late 1980s, and it’s a combined travelogue and history, with  memoir binding it all together.

Dalrymple is a fluid and funny writer, and what I love about this book is that the Delhi that was familiar to me—his conversations with his landlord, the everyday of getting around—was woven in with a Delhi that was unfamiliar.  The book circles back to the city and its people over hundreds of years, starting with recent history—the massacres of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984—and moving back in time—to partition in 1947, to the height of the British Raj, and back even further to the Mughal era and beyond.  He unpacks the past in such a way that the city’s history becomes alive and tangible.  With Dalrymple’s guidance, Delhi becomes a city you don’t want to leave quickly anymore, one where you want to stay and learn what else might be revealed.  On his first visit, Dalrymple describes Delhi as “full of riches and horrors: it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices.”  By the end of his book, it is all that and much, much more, a city of living history, rebuilt over and over, a city ever evolving while still holding on to its past.

Humayun's Tomb, Delhi India by Sue Dickman
Humayun's Tomb, Delhi India by Sue Dickman

On behalf of the readers of A Traveler’s Library, I thank Sue Dickman for this lovely piece about Delhi India and her beautiful photographs.   Sue will check back in and answer any questions you may have about India, and particularly about Delhi and Dalyrmple’s tempting book.