Recently I asked Crowley about what he was reading. His reply:
I write history but read a lot of travel literature for pleasure. Three books in particular have stood out for me in the past year, all of them I guess little known, all about worlds that are not remote to us in distance, but are now either vanished or largely unvisitable.Visit Roger Crowley's website.
A book that has obsessed me so much that I read it twice, almost back to back in translation, is The Way of the World by Nicholas Bouvier. Two young French Swiss, Bouvier and his friend Thierry Vernet, set out from Belgrade in 1953 in a tiny Fiat on a road trip to Afghanistan. They have an accordion and a guitar and they play music with the gypsies; they paint and write and see the world afresh, as if for the first time. Bouvier is a philosopher of journeying and he travels slowly, savouring those intensely special moments that travel brings. Here’s a brief sample: the Turkish plateau at night on the edge of autumn:
East of Erzurum the road is very lonely. Vast distances separate the villages. For one reason or another we occasionally stop the car, and spend the rest of the night outdoors. Warm in big felt jackets and fur hats with ear-flaps, we listened to the water as it boiled on a primus in the lee of the wheel. Leaning against a mound, we gazed at the stars, the ground undulating towards the Caucasus, the phosphorescent eyes of the foxes.In 1938-9 the Australian Alan Villiers, a master mariner in the last days of sail, spent six months on an Arab dhow, sailing from Kuwait, down the coast of East Africa and back again. Sons of Sindbad records the voyage. He lives on deck with the crew, helps with the hard, enduring life of the sea and learns Arabic. Villiers does not romanticise the voyage but he was enthralled by the experience. He appreciated the extraordinary skill, fortitude and dignity of the crew and their captain, their handling of the ship and the timeless rhythm of the voyage that cost almost nothing beyond the labour of the men and a Spartan diet. Villiers was observing the end of a maritime life stretching far back into antiquity. The ancient cosmopolitan trading patterns were slowly being extinguished by steel ships with diesel engines and the oil boom in the Gulf States that would take men away from the seafaring life.
Time passes in brewing tea, the odd remark, cigarettes, the dawn came up. The widening light caught the plumage of quails and partridges...and quickly I dropped this wonderful moment to the bottom of my memory, like a sheet anchor that one day I could draw up again. You stretch, pace to and fro feeling weightless, and the word ‘happiness’ seems too thin and limited to describe what happened.
In the end the bedrock of existence is not made up by the family or work or what others say or think about you, but of moments like this when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love. Life dispenses them parsimoniously; our feeble hearts could not stand more.
Lastly more recent travels: Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker. In 1989 Blacker gets in a car just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and goes to Romania. He ends up in the region of Maramureș, a remote, unchanged peasant world on the edge of the Carpathian mountains, where bears and wolves are a constant threat, people till tiny fields by hand and weave magic spells into their Christian faith. A childless village couple invite him to stay as long as he likes: ‘In the end I stayed four years’, entering into the cycle of peasant life, planting and harvesting, the round of village festivals, courting rituals, births and funerals. Along the way he falls in love with the gypsies, with serious consequences. It’s an intensely human story of transcendent beauty and terrible tragedies. It made me laugh and cry by turns.