Americas Archive

A western with a difference

On the Twitter feed of The Paris Review, I found mention of a new novel of the American West in which it seems that setting plays a large part. It sounds like the kind of novel that might make a contender for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, for “a work which evokes the spirit of a place” — except that the writer, not being British or Irish or a UK resident, probably wouldn’t be eligible. It was partly his own rootlessness, indeed, that prompted him to write the book. The novel, In the Distance, is by Hernán Diaz, and published in the United States by Coffee House. Publishers Weekly, which includes it in a roundup of new fiction, says:

The novel is the set in the 19th century and concerns a young Swedish immigrant to California, Håkan Söderström, who travels eastward across the United States in the hope of finding his brother. His journey, a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse, leads him to encounter a range of characters—to quote the publisher, “naturalists, criminals, religious fanatics, swindlers, Indians, and lawmen”—who call to mind myriad American myths and stereotypes.

Diaz is 43 and lives in New York, where he is the associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University and the managing editor of the scholarly journal Revista Hispánica Moderna. He says he began to think about writing In the Distance while reading “desert” books (works set in “desolate expanses”—not only deserts but also steppes, plains, the Pampas) and asking himself questions about the relationship between foreignness and physical isolation. “Does nationality matter if one is stranded in a void?” he wondered. “I’ve been a foreigner all my life,” he says. “I was born in Argentina, left for Sweden when I was two, went back to Argentina briefly, then moved to London, and now I’ve been in New York for the last 20 years. So it’s something I care a lot about.”

Diaz may have staked out his desert landscape in the American West, but he isn’t particularly interested in the western per se. “There are no gunslingers or saloon brawls or stagecoaches being chased in the book,” he says. For him, the desertlike atmosphere of the West carries its own truth about life in America. “The vaster the desert, the more claustrophobic the confinement,” he says.

Murphy, McPhee, and the art of loading a truck

Finn Murphy is a “bedbugger”, as the long-distance removal man is known to his fellow truck drivers. He is also an admirer of the work of John McPhee (recently the subject of an excellent profile by Sam Anderson in The New York Times Magazine). In Murphy’s  new book about his own trade, The Long Haul, much of the fascination lies in the McPhee-like attention he pays to what the rest of us overlook. On the website Longreads, there’s an extract in which he manages to make even loading the truck sound interesting.

Chatwin, in Patagonia and down under

Susannah Clapp is currently theatre critic of The Observer. Forty years ago, she was Bruce Chatwin’s editor, so, with an anniversary edition of In Patagonia on the way, she can offer a singular perspective on the man and the work:

I had written the reader’s report on the book. It had dazzled and worried me. It was exceptional – but it was enormous and it didn’t flow. I became his editor, with the task of making the book speed along. Over the next few weeks, we went through every line of the manuscript, reading it aloud in the Regent’s Park flat of the art dealer John Kasmin. Every night, the author went home merrily to hack away his stuff: he loved chucking out adjectives and anything that looked like a moody reaction shot. Every morning, he arrived having cut – but often having also added another episode; stories kept spilling out of him. 

In Australia, the 30th anniversary of Chatwin’s The Songlines — inspired by the way in which Indigenous Australians map geography and preserve history and culture — is of greater interest. In a fascinating piece in the Monthly, Richard Cooke writes: 

It is an imperfect book, and the fete surrounding its publication has moved on, but The Songlines did force the white world to gauge the depth of Indigenous culture. And it is partly imperfect because Chatwin too was overwhelmed by his subject. As he tried to make sense of what he had seen in Alice Springs and its surrounds over a total of nine weeks in the early 1980s, he wrote that songlines were on “such a colossal scale, intellectually, that they make the Pyramids seem like sand castles. But how to write about them – without spending 20 years here?”

Scaling these intellectual monuments, even tracing their outlines, is almost impossible. Songlines are not just sung poems. They are also legal documents, genealogical records, maps and the legends of maps, documentations of flora and fauna, systems of navigation, religious rites, spells, history books, memory palaces, and endless other combinations of ceremony, knowledge and philosophy that cannot be readily analogised into another culture. Anthropologists have dedicated their lives to obtaining only the most peripheral glimpses of them. Some have resisted further insights, knowing they are bought through a system of law, obligation and initiation that is not entered into lightly. Compared to the accumulation and expanse of millennia of living traditions, writing itself can seem like an almost futile explanatory tool. And Chatwin had only a few weeks.

Slouching towards Biloxi

South and West (4th Estate), comprising two excerpts from notebooks written in the 1970s by Joan Didion, one of America’s greatest essayists, has just been published in Britain. When it appeared in the United States in March, Michiko Kakutani, reviewing it for The New York Times, said that it “shed light on the current political moment. At a remove of more than four decades, [Didion] maps the divisions splintering America today, and uncannily anticipates some of the dynamics that led to the election of Donald J Trump and caught so many political and media insiders unawares.”

Peter Conrad, reviewing the book yesterday in The Observer, was similarly struck by its “chilling power of prediction”, while noting that Didion showed “enough catty snobbery… to explain why Trumptards resent the coastal elites who belittle them”.  Duncan White, in The Daily Telegraph earlier this month, was less impressed: “The literary tourist [in Didion] is so busy lapping up the southern Gothic that the hard-nosed reporter in her misses the story. Everywhere she goes she notices black Americans, but not once does she speak to them about their experience living in a world that, despite being six years after the Civil Rights Act, is still ornamented by Confederate flags and KKK graffiti… South and West is ultimately a testament to failure; it shows us how a writer as formidable as Didion can get it wrong.”

Judge for yourself: the Review section of The Guardian at the weekend had an extract from the book, which is now online.

Back ‘In Patagonia’

To mark the 40th anniversary of the appearance of In Patagonia, Vintage is to publish next month an edition that contains Bruce Chatwin’s original proposal for what he was then calling “O Patagonia”. It also has a letter from Chatwin to a colleague in London, in which he declares: “I’m working on something that could be marvellous, but I’ll have to do it in my own way.” His own way turned out to be a form in which, in the words of his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, “He tells not a half-truth, but a truth-and-a-half.” 

The writer of the “NB” column in the current TLS says that the problem has dogged travel writers ever since:

The reader assumes that this is a true story; the writer sheepishly admits that it isn’t entirely. It was to cope with this sort of objection that the term “creative nonfiction” was born.

Letter from the American road

The purpose of the online magazine Terrain.org is to search “for the interface — the integration — among the built and natural environments that might be called the soul of place”. Since 2016, in a “Letter to America” series, it has  been presenting post-election responses from writers, artists, scientists and thinkers across the United States. In one of the latest, Dave Rintoul, a biology professor at Kansas State University, muses on what he saw and learned on a recent road trip.

Back to Norman Maclean’s Montana

Noah Scot Snyder, grandson of Norman Maclean, at a spot on the Big Blackfoot River where the writer taught him to fish

There was a festival in Montana last weekend dedicated to the work of Norman Maclean, author of that miniature masterpiece A River Runs through It. Reading about the event brought back fond memories of the first “Maclean Footsteps” festival in 2015, which I mentioned earlier.

You can now read my piece about that on Deskbound Traveller.

Norman Maclean’s Montana

There is writing that doesn’t need editing, just breathing on. I imagine that’s how it was when Norman Maclean handed in the manuscript of A River Runs through It and Other Stories. The title story, written in 100 unimprovable pages, was turned into a film by Robert Redford and, on its release 25 years ago, made a star of Brad Pitt. It’s a tale of fly-fishing and familial love, and of the impossibility of being your brother’s keeper when your brother is bent on self-destruction. I’ve read it four or five times since it was first published in Britain in 1990 (it came out in the US in 1976). I’ve raved about it to other readers and writers. So when I heard that there was to be a festival in Montana dedicated to Maclean and his work, I immediately booked a place.

That was two years ago. At the time, I wrote a short piece for the Review section of The Daily Telegraph. I also wrote a longer travel article, the plan being that it would run in advance of a festival the following year. There was no festival in 2016. There is one this year (September 8-10), but when I tried to sell a story to travel editors, no one was interested. (And, yes, I did mention Brad Pitt as well as Norman Maclean.) I have, however, written a piece for the TLS. You can find it in this week’s print edition or, if you’re a subscriber, read it online.

From the Outer Banks and the ‘End of the World’

For the second year, the summer issue of that excellent magazine the Oxford American has a “Southern Journeys” section — now online — with essays and reports from across the region. Among them is a haunting piece from Anne Gisleson, who, following the death of her nephew, takes a road trip with her two sons from New Orleans to “the End of the World” — the southernmost point of Louisiana. In another piece, Molly McArdle heads for the swiftly shifting sands of the Outer Banks, and traces the story of the region through the generations of one family who have called it home.

Mexico’s light and darkness

A new edition has been published recently in the United States of A Visit to Don Otavio, Sybille Bedford’s sprightly account of her travels in Mexico in 1946. It’s a book that celebrates the conviviality of local life while touching occasionally on its harsher realities, among them masked bandits and corruption. Reviewing it in The New York Review of Books, Enrique Krauze says that some of the features Bedford described are still there, 

But the Mexico that Bedford grew to love is essentially gone. The old slow pace of time has sped up. Major crime is carried out not by masked bandits but by large criminal associations, often in collusion with local governments. The violence of the drug wars has escalated to levels not seen since the revolution. The degradation of rural conditions, due in part to a lack of support by the ruling elites, has driven the peasantry into a nomadic existence among the cities of Mexico and the United States. Mexico remains poised between its dark night of violence and its daylight of joy and energy, awaiting some new resolution.

It’s “the dark night of violence” on which seven of the country’s leading writers concentrate in The Sorrows of Mexico, now out in paperback from MacLehose Press.  Their essays tell of those caught in the crossfire between drug gangs and government; of the poor and the trafficked, of the street children and “the disappeared”. In a reminder that such truth-telling is dangerous, the book has a register of 94 journalists, broadcasters and photographers killed in Mexico between 2000 and May 2016. According to a report two days ago from CBS News, at least nine journalists have been killed in the country so far this year.