The Way of the World
By Nicolas Bouvier. Translated from the French by Robyn Marsack. Introduction by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Drawings by Thierry Vernet. Originally self-published in Geneva, Switzerland in 1963 as L’Usage du Monde. New York Review Classics, 1992, 318 pp.
It’s tempting to gush over The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier. The two blurbs on my paperback edition, both from respectable reviews, call the work a masterpiece, as does the great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor in his introduction—high praise indeed! I’ve always avoided the word masterpiece, but let me say at the start: this is truly a wonderful book.
Bouvier’s journey begins in 1953, when he sets out from Geneva to meet his artist friend, Thierry Vernet, in Belgrade and fulfill a childhood dream of traveling to the East. Their destination is the Khyber Pass, but their plans are vague: they have two free years to travel, money for four months, a beat-up Fiat, and a vast amount of youthful energy.
That energy infuses their journey, as they move through Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. They sleep in inns, in huts, at one point as “guests” in a prison. They scrape together what money they can—Bouvier by selling his articles, Vernet by selling paintings, together by performing musically in a former British soldier's bar in Quetta. They travel slowly: the roads are bad and their car is forever stalling or breaking down. And why rush? They are only in the twenties, they are curious, interested, eager, and they want to experience everything.
Bouvier is a superb travel narrator: engaged, reflective, nonjudgmental, and detached enough to maintain the distance necessary to observe. Landscapes, scenes, and people come alive: the terrible heat of the Lut desert, which nearly destroys them; the delight of the gypsies when they hear their music, which the young men have recorded, played back; the awful search through the garbage dump in Quetta for Bouvier's journals, accidentally discarded with the rubbish—his “whole winter’s work…disappeared”; a “valley planted with willows,” where they see “ashy herons, spoonbills, foxes, red pheasants, and occasionally a man whose leisurely pace was that of someone who called his time his own.”
Bouvier is a self-aware narrator, and I found his comments on travel perceptive. I suspect that some of that self-awareness emerged during the long time it took him to write the book. The journey itself lasted a year and a half, but it was many years before he finished The Way of the World. Toward the end of the book, in a section written six years later, he touches briefly on his struggle with “this ghostly narrative which devours me without getting fatter.” It wasn’t until 1963 that he published it, having finally achieved the transformation of his journey into this splendid book.
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Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.
The Way of the World