Travel and literature have a very interesting relationship. Every avid reader’s first item to pack for a long trip is unmistakably a long and enjoyable read to make the journey seem just right. On the other hand, authors often find their inspiration, their most radical ideas and the cure to their writer’s block during their travels. It only adds to the irony that most authors often undertook such journeys to take their mind off of their struggles to put words on paper! Indeed, we owe the birth of one of the most charismatic yet mysterious spies in literature, James Bond, to Ian Fleming’s annual vacation to his Caribbean winter home. But as the saying goes, it is not the destination that matters in the end, but the journey which got one there.
The metaphorical journey that a reader undertakes when the first page of a book is flipped has much in common with its actual counterpart. While any travel is often premised on either a professional commitment or a personal reason, irrespective of the context, the literary journey does not share that characteristic with its real-world cousin. The journey through a land of mystery and intrigue, whether inspired by actual occurrences, or merely a product of the author’s most fanciful whims, is one which only needs a single turn of a page to commence. But what truly makes a work compelling, which makes the journey so memorable, makes one wish the destination didn’t exist, is how the reader connects to every single element of it. The unraveling of the plot, the depth of the characters, the way they interact with one another, the description of the surroundings, context-setting, all of these elements and many more harmonise to produce the effect that readers cherish while they sip their beverage, and let their imaginations run wild. To accomplish the same, writers often seek inspiration from their roots – their hometowns, the people they knew and interacted with the most growing up, their loved ones – to bring life to their work. It is here that the literary realm intersects with reality; where fact meets fiction, to use a more commonly seen phrase. It is evident in the most striking fashion in how authors depict the locations, the surroundings and the places where their metaphorical yarns are woven.
The works of James Joyce, for instance, reveal his deep connection with Ireland’s capital city, Dublin. His magnum opus, ‘Ulysses’, features the city in remarkable detail, giving the reader an intricate insight into Dublin’s culture and its people. Joyce himself claimed that he wanted his depiction of Dublin to be “so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book”. Joyce’s fascination with Dublin also reflected in the eponymous ‘Dubliners’, an anthology of stories having a common narrative theme – the magic of an epiphany, is another apt example of the same. Joyce teased with issues involving Ireland’s nationalist movement, its political revolts, and the impact of these on the working classes in his stories. His stories captured more than just the creative imagination of the reader, it also kindled their curiosity to know more about the background in which it was happening, and to know more about Dublin. Dublin today, fittingly, has a museum dedicated to the life and works of James Joyce, which is a tribute to a writer whose love for the city was clear for all to see.
Orhan Pamuk, like Joyce, used his hometown’s chequered yet rich political history as a canvass for him to paint on, and unlike Joyce, his works feature this history in a more direct manner, which complements the style he employs. While his description of Istanbul’s crowded streets, busy markets and pretty cafes along the banks of the Bosphorous was front and centre in ‘Istanbul: Memories and the City’, it took a less pronounced, yet still prominent place in ‘The Museum of Innocence’. Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, makes the reader fall in love with Istanbul – the Istanbul that seeks to match stride for stride with Europe’s biggest capitals in economic growth and global presence, as well as the Istanbul which is reminiscent of past glories and heritage, that is often forgotten but not completely diluted.
Joyce and Pamuk invoke the inquisitive nature of our minds to dig deeper into the cities they so vividly describe, to know more after the insightful depictions carefully embroidered in the narrative. However, there are others who appeal more to the aesthetic, and set a picturesque setting to their tale which often makes the reader plan their next trip sooner! It is one of the many reasons why Victorian and Elizabethan era classics still continue to transfix readers in their spell, whether it be the palatial setting in the Yorkshire Moors in Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, or the Isles of Scotland playing a supporting role during the power struggles in the Ramsay household in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the lighthouse’.
It is often the case in literature that the background in which a tale is placed by the author often gains a life of its own. As the visual imagery created by the author begins to work its magic, the reader is soon on a journey to places they’ve never visited, but can feel right at home in, at the same time. Perhaps that is the reason why the avid book reader is also a keen traveller, the thought of experiencing the thrill of visiting a place one imagined perfectly while flipping the pages of a book is often too irresistible for anyone. The bibliophile’s wanderlust is thus twice fulfilled – one through a metaphoric journey, and the other where life merely imitates art!
David G. Allan, Ian Fleming’s Jamaica available at https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/travel/09Jamaica.html
Orhan Pamuk, ‘Istanbul: Memories and the City’ (2003).
Orhan Pamuk, ‘The Museum of Innocence’ (2008).
James Joyce, ‘Ulysses’ (1922).
James Joyce, ‘Dubliners’ (1914).
Emily Bronte, ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847).
Virginia Woolf, ‘To the Lighthouse’ (1927).