FEBRUARY 14, 2015
“A DEAD PERSON is always more agreeable than a living one,” Valeria Luiselli says as she searches for the grave of poet Joseph Brodsky in Venice, Italy. “If, on standing before him, we realize that, in fact, we have nothing to do there, that the amusement lay in looking for, rather than finding the grave — what are the stones of Venice going to say to you unless you’re Ruskin?”
Luiselli is referring to art historian John Ruskin and his three-volume treatise on Venetian art and architecture, The Stones of Venice. But to her point: what, exactly, do we expect to find when we seek out the homes and graves of our literary heroes?
That’s the motivating question in Sidewalks, her book of fragmented essays, and in others, such as Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer (about trying to write a book about D. H. Lawrence) and My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead’s ode to the seminal novel of her youth. Literary tourism has become the amalgam of memoir and literary criticism; a way to seek out the inexplicable nature of words, and the authors who inspire them in us, by traveling to the places they lived and wrote about. Or, like Luiselli, the forgotten funeral plots that contain them now.
Luiselli tracks her itinerant travels to Venice, to Mexico City (where she was born), and to New York City, where she resides today. The essays contain, between paragraphs, the text of city signs (“Manifesto à velo,” “Stuttering Cities”), directions (“Alternative Routes”), or lists of expat writers and artists who once lived in the places she writes about (“Permanent Residence”). These subtexts become almost a guide — asides we might hear from the city itself, whispering to us as we walk or bicycle through it, speaking of its secrets.
So it is with the best travel books and memoirs, those that go beyond simply recounting a journey. They allow the reader to wander with the writer; to tap into her voice and imagination. It should come as no surprise, then, that writers look to other writers — search out their pasts, their inspiration, the settings they created, the worlds they transcribed — in order to explain their influence.
In one essay of Luiselli’s, “Relingos,” the author recounts the experience of walking into the abandoned Miguel Cervantes Library of Mexico City, empty of its rows of shelves and volumes, being used at the time by an art restorer who is working on a mural, The History of Writing by Ramón Alva de Canal. The Spanish word “Relingos,” the author tells us, she imagines comes from the term “Realenga,” which, in old Castilian, referred to land not belonging to the Crown. The relingos in this case — created by the extension of “the Paseo de la Reforma, that grand avenue that simulating the entrance to an Imperial Mexico City” — small, trapezoidal or triangular empty spaces, now inhabited by itinerant vendors and the homeless, take on heightened significance for Luiselli. And as she wanders into the library, we understand why. “They [books] exist as long as we keep thinking of them,” she writes, “imagining in them; as long as we remember them, remember ourselves there, and, above all, as long as we remember what we imagined in them.”
Over the summer I traveled through Ecuador searching for the ghost of my own literary hero, a now-forgotten writer by the name of Moritz Thomsen. Thomsen went to Ecuador in the mid-1960s as one of the first Peace Corps volunteers: I first read his work nearly fifty years later, as a volunteer myself in the same coastal province. His subject was poverty among the Afro-Ecuadorians of Esmeraldas, and his attempts to bridge it by living and farming among them. Though Thomsen grew up in privilege, his words display a profound understanding of human suffering. His masterpiece, The Farm on the River of Emeralds, is a brutally honest account of his failures at farming in the depths of Ecuador’s coastal jungle with his best friend, a young native named Ramón Prado.
A year or so before Thomsen’s death in 1991, ten years after its initial publishing, The Farm on the River of Emeralds was brought back into print. In the postscript to the new edition, Thomsen wrote:
Once more I find my ears swiveling around like the disk antennae on the tops of tall buildings and searching through space for the voice of my perfect reader […] and yes, perhaps it can be heard, the voice one waited for so long — that dear voice, but too young, too innocent, too romantic. “And then what happened?”
As a Peace Corps volunteer — young, innocent, romantic, and disillusioned with America — Thomsen’s words filled me with profound sadness. I often carried his book to the edge of town, where the Río Quinindé and Río Blanco drained into the Emerald River. Not much had changed in the life of the poor of Esmeraldas. Downriver, the subsistence farmers Thomsen had written about still lived in much the same squalid manner. After I returned home to America, Thomsen’s postscript became my obsession — as if he’d been speaking directly to me. What had happened to him? What had he left out of his books?
At the end of The Farm on the River of Emeralds, Thomsen is forced off the farm by Ramón. He decides to travel to Brazil to meet the novelist João Ubaldo Ribeiro (now nearly forgotten) after reading one of Ribeiro’s novels, Sergeant Getulio. The trip became Thomsen’s third memoir, The Saddest Pleasure (titled from a quote by his friend Paul Theroux — “Travel is the saddest of pleasures”). Thomsen’s travelogue through Brazil began as a search for a writer but evolved into much more — a means to understand the life he’d lived along the Emerald River, and a way to face the torments of his past life. Early on in the memoir, he writes:
In less than a day I have done my duty as a tourist and am now confronted with the problem of time. My curiosity is too easily satisfied — or rather I have learned that the fascination of a strange place is centered in its people rather than in its views and monuments.
The fascination of the people notwithstanding, when he finally meets Ribeiro and races through the streets of Bahia in the author’s sports car, he is left disappointed. They talk little of writing or of Ribeiro’s novel. Thomsen mostly watches his idol from afar, at an art gallery opening, too embarrassed to ask for more of Ribeiro’s time or attention.
Luiselli mirrors this same feeling in Sidewalks: “The outcome of a long-awaited first meeting is often disappointing,” she tells us. “The same is true of an encounter with a dead person, except that there’s no need to hide the disappointment: in that sense, a dead person is always more agreeable than a living one.”
It’s the responsibility of readers and writers to bring those long forgotten to the attention of subsequent generations. But where and how to find them? It isn’t always easy, as Luiselli notes, when searching for Brodsky’s final resting place. Still, she and we are better for her efforts, and those of a writer like Mead, who writes about the way she felt when first reading a passage of Middlemarch as a teen — that indescribable connection between author and reader as the pages of a story are turned. She ends My Life in Middlemarch sitting in a house Eliot briefly rented, staring out the window. “And I could imagine her there,” she writes.
I could conjure her more vividly than anywhere else I had pictured her in my travels. But through that window was a larger vista: a landscape changed by books, reshaped by reading, transfigured by the slow green growth.
At the end of Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer says,
One way or another we all have to write our studies of D. H. Lawrence. Even if they will never be published, even if we never complete them, even if all we are left with after years and years of effort is an unfinished, unfinishable record of how we failed to live up to our own earlier ambitions.
Out of Sheer Rage is preoccupied with Dyer’s wanderings through England and Europe, his chasing a girlfriend, his stopping by the country houses where D. H. Lawrence spent his days writing. But what Dyer truly set out to do was bridge inspiration and fact, and face the sheer impossibility of ever knowing the truth about his long-dead muse. In making a pilgrimage (a series of them), in finding a way to write about Lawrence without resorting to the stale, lifeless words of biography, Dyer animates his subject and demonstrates that authors live on in the writers they create.
What does this movement in travel writing bear for the genre as a whole? What can the graves of dead poets in Venice, a boat ride down the Amazon to the coast of Brazil, or a visit to the homes of D. H. Lawrence and George Eliot tell us about life, about living?
In searching for our literary heroes, the writers who inspire us to travel and seek out the places they lived and wrote, we embark on internal explorations as well. And in pursuit of these ghosts and the worlds they haunt, our own writerly development becomes possible. In a sense this is the point Dyer, Mead, Thomsen, and Luiselli are all making: The journey, physical and mental, to becoming a writer — the inexplicable wonders and mysteries of living — can carry us across the world. And bring us back to ourselves. As Mead reminds us early:
A book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself.