Here's Jonny Bealby, for example. In For a Pagan Song he tells a new action story about a daring journey on foot, over mountain passes and through warlord territory, into a remote corner of Afghanistan and thence to Pakistan, to consort with a non-Islamic tribe which starts its oral history with the arrival of Alexander the Great.
All this arresting performance, it turns out, is really a test of authorial manhood. Bealby proves he can face altitude and danger, armed men with "larcenous" scarred faces and endless meals of goat meat (which he hates), describe it all in vivacious, readable style - and get it published. That, as the book progressively reveals, is the deepest of his many motivations in making the journey.
And it is a fascinating matter. For here is a young man aged 21, proud never to have read a book. His girlfriend gives him one, a little nervously. He reads it, with her help, has never since been without a book in hand, and sets off with her to Kashmir. She dies there, in a manner unexplained in For a Pagan Song. Grief-stricken, he sets off round Africa on a motorbike and writes a praised volume, Running with the Moon.
Can he now do it again, he asks himself and us? Yes he has, with great enthusiasm and a naif charm. Well done, you find yourself saying in almost parental tones. But, frankly, why should we bother? Why are we lumbered with the responsibility for Bealby working himself out?
There is a theory that the inner search, the quest, as a main theme in recent travel-writing springs from the fact that so many books about place have been written that travel writers in search of a market have had to move inwards. There may possibly be some truth in this. But it cannot be the whole truth, for the inner quest through physical displacement has been with us just about for ever, from Galahad and the grail to Gurdjieff and his meetings with remarkable men.
What is new today is the very personal and often everyday nature of the search, even in the most exotic places. The writer wrestles not with the deepest destiny of mankind but with items that may seem, as in Bealby's case, of largely private concern.
The issue comes even more sharply into focus with Faithful Travellers by the North American golf writer James Dodson. He recently lugged his terminally ill father round a good many courses, producing a volume called (wait for it) Final Rounds, a prizewinner beloved among American golfers. In this new book, as Dodson's marriage collapses he takes his seven-year- old daughter on a trip from New England to the West. They enjoy six weeks and 8,000 miles of fishing and camping in what appears an increasingly banal "wild" West. He tells the tale with homely homilies, literary references (inspired by Hemingway as Bealby is by Kipling) and with sweetly sentimental family - or, in this case, non-family - jokes, all in a skilful, Reader's Digest manner.
In reply to the little girl's enquiries, he has to face the Big Questions. How much raspberryade is good for you? Does God exist? They explore the nature of miracles, her sorrow and anger at the divorce, the existence of the tooth fairy, and so on - including the reasons for, and the responses to, his own private misery as a rejected husband.
I read it swiftly with mingled interest in the relationship and the dab- handed technique. But what, you may well ask, is the inner purpose? Is Dodson really travelling for the sake of his daughter and himself, or is the intention more purely literary and commercial? Certainly, there seems to have been authorial commitment from the start. To write a book like this, you have to keep notes, as Dodson clearly has. He can tell us the content of daily radio news programmes (and does, unfortunately). He writes a letter to his daughter, supposedly on a paper bag. But, hey presto, he gives us the whole text, so presumably he has made a copy.
At one level, the journey, and the relationship, are simply raw material. If I were Maggie Dodson, Muggins to the author, I might one day protest at the way my childhood had been used. Which is partly (alas for human nature) our interest in reading it. For here is a relationship betrayed in advance and then paraded in public. It may be a kind of therapy, but surely the most exploitative kind.
Where does private end and public begin? Some of the best of Jonny Bealby's book describes, with a punishing frankness, his difficulties with his travelling companion. I should not care to read it if I were that companion. Even more personal, in terms of taking somebody else's life apart, is Mary Anne Fitzgerald's considerably longer and denser, though highly readable book My Warrior Son.
Essentially, it recounts the informal adoption - by this Kenya-based, trouble-chasing journalist, already a single mother - of a young Masai boy called Peter. She is expelled from Kenya, but some years later Peter, now in his early twenties, comes on an extended visit to England. This is followed by more encounters and journeys together in Africa, with accounts of life in African villages: a subject about which I, at least, can read indefinitely. Fitzgerald portrays a young man of uncertain identity damaged by lack of early love, a good deal less than frank (he turns out not to be the orphan he was supposed to be) and of no more than occasional charm.
While he both compels and often rejects the love that Fitzgerald offers, he is generally maddening in his dependency. Above all there is his willingness, along with that of other Africans whom she rashly thinks to be her friends, to treat her as a cash cow, as a "mobile bank". Not Peter, but at least one of the others, gives up on her when she runs out of cash.
My Warrior Son appears to be an honest, fighting book, the author's attempt to understand herself as well as the Africa of which she feels an inseparable part. In many of her anecdotes she emerges in just as poor a light as Peter. At the same time, the book illustrates in clearest terms two standard aspects of the new genre of "travelling relationships". Fitzgerald has taken command of Peter's image, at so intimate a level that the relationship often feels betrayed; and we spend a great deal of our reading time involved in the inner workings of her ego.
It is all extremely interesting, but what a relief to turn to that old master Norman Lewis, even if The Happy Ant-Heap - a collection of recent and fairly recent pieces; some published for the first time - is not exactly a heavyweight. Here is a man who is not involved in any argument about himself or his identity. The "I" is a lever for anecdote, a guarantee that his are the observing eyes; part of the classic act, balanced and humane, bringing us good reason for indignation or pleasure, laughter or simply astonishment.
He tackles subjects from India to Melanesia, by way of Europe, Africa and Central America - indeed, just about anywhere you can think of. Sometimes he is filling in the gaps left by his earlier books, sometimes he seems to be reflecting on a lifetime's travelling, starting off with the Second World War. It's wonderful stuff, a guaranteed good read; you feel secure with Norman Lewis, mainly because he is so old-fashioned. His subject is the world out there.
My Warrior Son
by Mary Anne Fitzgerald
Michael Joseph, pounds 16.99, 288pp
by James Dodson
Century, pounds 12.99, 304pp
For a Pagan Song
by Jonny Bealby
Heinemann, pounds 16.99, 246pp
The Happy Ant-Heap
by Norman Lewis
Cape, pounds 14.99, 288ppReuse content