For writers, international travel is generally a very good thing: even if you don’t write about your travels directly, encountering different places, cultures, and people gives you a certain perspective and insight when you come to write about your own.
There are however certain dangers, afflictions that can show up in a travelling writer’s prose, a sort of literary equivalent of 19th century Grand Tourists coming home with venereal disease. I’ve identified four of them below.
(The examples are invented, but the afflictions are all too real.)
1. A pedant writes…
This condition is particularly common among visitors to cities that have a strong and visible history, a typical example being Rome. The sufferer becomes so overwhelmed by the information they receive and research about the city that they need to pass it on to their readers, whether it belongs in the story or not.
The two new lovers arrived at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and stopped to admire the elaborate Baroque craftsmanship.
‘It was originally designed by Bernini in 1629,’ he said lovingly. ‘But not constructed until a century later. It’s 26 metres high and 20 metres wide.’
‘I notice that people are throwing coins into it,’ she said, pointing at a coin glimmering in the water and hoping that he might continue to talk about it for ages. He sounded so erudite when he spoke; just like Wikipedia. She moved a little closer to him.
‘It’s funny you should notice that,’ he said. ‘They say that up to €3,000 are thrown into the fountain every day. The money has been used in part to subsidise a supermarket for the city’s poor. People often try to steal the coins, too.’
‘That’s very interesting,’ she said. ‘Now could you recommend me three hotels in the €50-€75 bracket, and perhaps share some useful weblinks?’
2. “I am literally the only person who has ever eaten a pizza!”
Or a baguette, or a croissant, or a frankfurter actually served in Frankfurt.
I bit into the pastry: it was sweet and fresh, not at all like the croissants sold in supermarkets at home. It was still a little warm from the oven; the pastry flaked lightly away as I bit, and drifted around me in a cloud of flour-based ecstasy that nobody who hadn’t been to Paris could possibly imagine.
I lingered for a while. I may have been a space detective sent back in time to capture the evil Marspirate CheLuck, but right now I was having my croissant moment.
3. “The Henry Miller rush”
This one is most frequently found in prose coming from Paris, where idealistic young authors go in search of poverty and cheap wine, in the mistaken and perplexing belief that sleeping under a stolen urine-stained blanket will somehow make a writer of them.
The symptoms visible in the prose are an almost complete lack of story, an impressive amount of energy expended going nowhere, a hint that there’s probably a very interesting rhythm underlying the prose, if only you as a reader can consume the exact same combination of cheap French wine and narcotics as the writer. Some extreme cases will also leave the reader with the slightly uncomfortable feeling that the author was probably sat naked at a typewriter when he wrote it.
I’m walking down the streets and they’re the wet streets, the wet, the rain-soaked, the boulevards under the torrents and the thunderclouds that aren’t like the ones back home but this is something new and different and I can feel it in my veins like back home and like where I’m going. Pierre told me once that the real wine, the good wine is like another thing, not wine at all but a way forwards, into your life and into yourself and Pierre was right, damn him, damn Pierre, damn Pierre with his moustache that cried in the winter back there in Avignon where I was before my trust fund ran out.
But there are other Pierres and I have other trust funds and the sky is grey like the mercy they showed him and maybe they’ll show me; like God’s mercy and the mercy of these boulevards that they call the boulevards of dreams, the old dreams, European dreams and hopes and I have my notebook in my pocket and two old pencils with the ends chewed and the leads blunt but my wits are alive under this rain; as alive as Pierre is no longer alive; as alive as the cockroaches in my garret that costs me three thousand euros a month, money I stole – I had to steal! – from the Trevi Fountain when I was there.
Now, let me tell you about the girl.
No. Let’s not let him tell us about the girl.
4. This story sponsored by Linguaphone
More of a technical problem, this, but some writers can get terribly unstuck when it comes to dealing with foreign languages.
‘Guten tag,’ said Berthold in German. Hello.
‘Hello,’ I said, using Gerthold’s own language: Guten tag.
‘Wie geht’s?’ he asked me: how was I? ‘I hope that you had a good trip, and didn’t have too much trouble with your passport at the border. The guards have been getting more strict later, since the recent political changes.’ He said all that in German as well, but I can’t be bothered to transcribe it.
‘Nein,’ I replied in the negative. ‘Es war nicht a difficult trip, aber it could have been shorter.’
There was a pause. Somewhere in the distance, ein hund barked.
So there you go: four conditions to watch out for when travelling with your muse. The cure, sadly, is almost certainly not less travel but much, much more.