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Home From Home: Writers Abroad

Home from home: writers abroad

January 17, 2014

Mathilde Frot


In ‘A Moveable Feast’ Hemingway describes his experiences as a young American writer living in Paris. But is there a link between expatriation and creativity?


Often seen as the last golden years of travel, the interwar years witnessed a boom in travel writing. The end of the war meant restrictions on tourism were lifted. The realms of the axis were no longer cut off from the rest of Europe and America, and though the border passports introduced during the great war remained, a generation of bright young bay deckers emerged during the twenties and thirties. After the second world war, however, things changed. Having a lot more to do with economic migration and political exile than tourism, travel lost its innocence. DH Lawrence, Mina Loy, Man Ray, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway. These are just some of the many modernist writers and artists who attempted to record their expatriation in some form or another.

Generally shelved with the cross-stitch manuals and cookbooks by literary critics and English departments, travel writing is often less respected than other literary genres. (And frankly, I can see why.) Lawrence, however, saw his travel-writings as a platform to discuss ideas such as the condition of urban life and modernity. Keep in mind; this is not quite so strange for Lawrence, considering he also saw Lady Chatterley as an opportunity to make a case against industrialization.

DH Lawrence in Mexico

DH Lawrence in Mexico

Lawrence’s hatred of war and his dislike of American democracy pushed him off the beaten-track, but still relatively close to home: Italy. This was in order to explore the “autochthons” and their non-industrial, sensual ways. Sea and Sardinia, for instance, recounts a journey from Sicily to Sardinia Lawrence undertook with his wife, Frieda, strangely referred to in the text as “Queen Bee”.

Written in the present tense, the book attempts to convey a sense of immediacy and spontaneity. Lawrence also uses ellipses to evoke the passage of time and engages in a few modernist stylistic techniques. Very much à la Gertrude Stein, Lawrence also, more problematically, persistently attempts to capture the “essence” of the places he visits —i.e. the Sardinians are such and such, and the Sicilians this and that.

With his travel books, Lawrence unconsciously raises one important aspect of expatriation: the difference between being there and being there. The traveller who is there, so to speak, is the ideal traveller in that she will allow the country she visits to influence her in unsuspected ways. By contrast, the traveller who is there merely displaces herself and her neuroses, anxieties, commitment issues, narcissism, alcoholism, ahem – you get the point. If like Lawrence, you have already set yourself up with a typewriter and a pack of Lucky Strikes a few hours upon your arrival in Sensual Non-Industrial Sicily, it is safe to say to that you belong to the second category.

The travelogues of the thirties, written by the likes of George Orwell and Christopher Isherwood, were perhaps more successful at conveying the destinations in question. Goodbye to Berlin, for instance, semi-autobiographical, semi-documentaire, depicts the fall of Weimar Cabaret Germany with fierce detachment. With his mythical “I am a camera”, Isherwood attempts to emulate the impartiality of a camera. Written during the dawn of war-reportage, Goodbye to Berlin is bent upon recording the facts and only the facts. Of course, removing the ‘I’ is an impossible task, just as a camera can never be truly impartial. You always need an angle to take a picture (or write an article). Moreover, as a gay writer recording the rise of Nazism, Isherwood could never truly detach himself from the content of his text.

Though travel writing as a genre may not have been terribly successful (yes, including its eighties revival), expatriation itself has had a definite impact on inter-war writers both in terms of their style and their subject matter. Flung together after the war in various cosmopolitan locations, from Milan to Bloomsbury to Montparnasse, the modernist greats met and shared ideas, intent on developing new art forms and undermining the 19th century novel.

The twenties and early thirties saw the formation of a great many literary salons and movements. Think Gertrude Stein. Think cubism, futurism, Dadaism. Though we do tend to forget, TS Eliot was originally from St. Louis, and did entertain a slight mid-western accent until the end of his days. Eliot immigrated to London in his youth and became associated with the Bloomsbury Group. Ceremoniously worshipped once more by today’s English undergraduates, The Waste Land is a meditation on solitude, the experience of modernity, the conditions of urban life, and the nature of interior consciousness.

Mina Loy

The Modernist giant and world traveller Mina Loy is a perfect example of a poet whose body of work significantly evolved through her expatriations. In Paris, Loy frequented Stein’s mythical salon, where she was exposed to the likes of Picasso, Ezra Pound, Joyce, and Djuna Barnes. In Florence, Loy underwent a short futurist spell. On intimate terms with the Italian poet Marinetti, founder and leader of the futurist movement, Loy incorporated many of the futurist techniques into her own poetry.

Growing increasingly uncomfortable however with Marinetti’s misogyny and inclination towards fascism, Loy moved to New York where she met the Greenwich Village crowd. Her several expatriations meant Loy was able to meet many of the key vanguards of her time. Much admired by Pound who described Loy as one of the very few American writers “who [could] write anything of interest in verse”, Loy was pushed by her friends and romantic affiliations towards literary experimentation.

Travel also meant that Loy was familiar with the condition of dislocation. Her collection of poems, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, is a kind of Modernist metaphysical travelogue. (The Baedekers were the travel guides of the 19th century intended for young men and women on their Grand Tour.)

Meant to disorientate the reader, Loy’s poems were logopoeic. The “dance of the intellect among words and ideas”, logopoeia is a poetry on language, which concentrates on the words rather than the context. Loy’s work, as a kind of poetic embodiment of metropolitan life, looks and reads differently from most of the other poems of her generation. Particularly concerned with layout, Loy plays with and challenges typography and spatial arrangement. Her poetry has breaks and spaces where there shouldn’t be, lines cut off in the middle of words, and absolutely no regular use of punctuation and capitalization.

Forget story telling. Loy writes about modern life, and modern life is confusing. Loy also uses unfamiliar words and specialist jargon, as well as puns.  Difficult to navigate through, Loy’s poetry is like travelling, in the sense that nothing is familiar and expectations are persistently undermined.

Towards the end of her life, Loy underwent a different kind of dislocation. Settled in Manhattan, Loy visited the Bowery, an impoverished quarter of New York, and focused on writing about her homeless neighbors. ‘Hot Cross Bum’, whilst retaining the key modernist techniques she acquired through the course of her travels, envisages alcoholism and complete destitution. The dislocation became, as she wrote about the Bowery bums, economic rather than geographic and propelled Loy to compose some of her best work.

The twentieth century democratized travel. Improvements in transportation, communication, and the end of the war meant movement was the order of the day, and Europe the new mecca. Perhaps except for Virginia Woolf, firmly fixed in West London (frankly, where she belonged), writers would travel and assemble in various cultural centers. Eclectic communities would form; literary movements bloom; and Hemingway would go on about drinking absinthe and writing about marine biology.

When done right, expatriation can turn a person’s world upside down. In addition to opening up the way for new things, ideas, and people, expatriation forces you to brave and accept the unfamiliar. Travel is ultimately a disruption, and as we know, disruption and literature mix well. Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad both composed in a language which was not their own, and authored some of the best works of English literature.  Expats know distance because they are detached from both their birth country and their place of residence. They have more room for creativity because they are not one with a single culture. Originally a Londoner, Loy passed away in Aspen, Colorado, rootless, perhaps, but a damn good writer too.



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