Travel: Books of the week
Sunday 24 May 1998
A citizen of an obscure island off the north-west of France traipses around European capitals in search of the heart of Europe - a country which, like it or not, is fast becoming our own. A familiar theme?
Yes, but Nicholas Fraser is not another Bill Bryson, wandering into places of which he knows nothing. He is an intellectual - almost a European, one might say. He has encounters with Austrian novelists, French philosophers, Italian journalists and British architects. He has read Sartre and Montaigne. And he sets out to explore all those fascinating generalisations about national cultures.
In Paris for example, we are reminded of the kudos that the French attach to intelligence, education and culture. In Berlin we recall how curiously bourgeois and provincial the Germans really are. In London we worry that, without hostility to the French, the British will have no identity at all.
The pity is that this book is something that Britons still need to write (and read). It shows how distant the British feel from Europe. Which shows, I suppose, how badly we need this type of writing.
Amazonian: The Penguin Book of Women's New Travel Writing (Penguin, pounds 7.99) Edited by Dea Birkett and Sara Wheeler
This excellent collection is designed to hit another nail into the coffin of the notion that travel stories have to be tales of derring-do, written if not by men then at least by eccentric women in tweeds.
Here we find writers exploring neither their powers of endurance nor the heavy (male) weight of ancient history. Instead we have people like Lesley Downer exploring the west African state of Ghana through her relationship with a Ghanaian - or Sara Wheeler coming to terms with pregnancy during the course of an intense experience of Bangladesh.
Not that the book lacks rough edges. Suzanne Moore's Miami Vice for example is scary and angst-ridden. Just as all good journeys into the human soul should be.
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