Miles Kington Remembered: Where does fiction begin and travel writing end?

25 October 1999
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The Independent Online

Like many people, I have too many books. Well, it's almost impossible to have too many books, but I do have more books than I have storage space for, so, like many people with lots of books, I swap them round from time to time, hoping that if I get them sorted out on fresh shelves, their numbers will magically diminish. I will spot duplicates and throw one out. I will spot books I know I will never read again and throw them out. I will spot books belonging to other people and vow to send them back.

What I find, of course, is that magically nothing of the sort happens and I end up with more books (or less storage space) than I had before. I am at the moment in the throes of putting biography where fiction used to be and fiction where biography used to be, hoping to find lots of duplicate Austens and Dickenses to put in the reject pile. Actually, the reject pile isn't a pile at all, it's a single copy of Arnold Schoenberg's book on harmony, which is so incomprehensible to me that when I first discovered I had it, I converted it into a reject pile. It's mildly worrying not only that I still have it, but also that it hasn't been joined by any other book.

The biggest problem I have had this time round, however, is that when I scrutinise a pile of books to see how badly I need any of them, I very often end up wondering whether the book in question is even in the right category. Where does fiction begin and travel end? Do volumes of letters and diaries go in literature or biography or even, occasionally, in my small corner of journalism? You could have seen me the other day wandering round the house with a copy of George Borrow's The Bible in Spain in my hand, looking for guidance as to where to put it, or waiting for a voice from heaven to say: "Put it in travel, my son, and get on with it!"

Well, I suppose it's travel of a sort. George Borrow, the wonderfully odd Victorian writer who loved languages, walking, boxing and the gypsies, got a job selling Bibles in the vernacular in Spain, in the 1840s. He didn't sell a lot of Bibles but he had a lot of adventures and wrote them up in this rollicking, unclassifiable book. Nowadays, people write travel books for much sillier reasons – I suppose Tony Hawk's account of hitching round Ireland with a fridge is the market leader – but things were much less maverick in those days, and I guess the Victorians were baffled by George Borrow's production, especially by Lavengro, which reads like either an autobiography or a book about the gypsies, but is actually a novel. I think.

Well, life is short, so I have put The Bible in Spain on the travel shelves. But where do you put the Bible itself? In fiction? History? Journalism? Comparative religions? Israeli politics? And where do you put Y Beibl? This is a Welsh copy of the Bible which I acquired in my teens when I was trying to teach myself Welsh, with much less success than George Borrow, the man from Norwich who learnt Welsh well enough to walk the length of Wales, converse with the natives and write Wild Wales, still a wonderful travel book, unless it's a wonderful something else, such as an autobiography.

I was listening to another linguistic man from Norwich the other day at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, WG Sebald, author of Rings of Saturn. This beguiling book is as unclassifiable as a Borrow book. Sebald set out from Norwich, where he teaches, on a walking tour of East Anglia during which his mind wandered extensively over his German origins, his previous travels and many other things, even incorporating old photographs to explain his memories. Travel? Autobiography? Topography? Or, as it was originally written in German, foreign literature?

At Cheltenham, Boyd Tonkin, the Literary Editor of The Independent, asked him if he had ever thought of writing fiction, and Sebald took the safe way out by saying that he wanted to write a crime novel, but that he never would, as he found characterisation difficult, didn't see the point of plots and couldn't manage dialogue. What seemed plain is that, like many writers, he was impatient of categories, and couldn't see the point.

Well, I'll tell you the point. It's so that people who buy books know where to put them on their shelves.

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