The not-so-small literature of rivers

Claudio Magris’s Danube, a journey from headwaters to delta originally published 30 years ago at the end of the Cold War, has been reissued under the Vintage Classics imprint. In a foreword — reproduced in The Guardian review section today — Richard Flanagan writes: “In an age when razor wire is once more being run across the borders of Europe, Danube seems not only an important but a strangely timely book.”

I’ll take his word for that, as Danube is one of those books I haven’t quite got round to reading yet, and he makes me feel it’s time I put that right. What I can’t accept, though, is his assertion, early on in his essay, that “the literature of rivers is small” and, after mention only of Huckleberry Finn and Danube, that the list of great river books is equally small.

Off the top of my head, I thought of five riparian journeys that have figured recently on the short list for the Dolman Travel Book Award. There were two on the short list for 2013: Meander: East to West Along a Turkish River by Jeremy Seal, and The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia by Michael Jacobs. Earlier contenders for the Dolman included To The River,  in which Olivia Laing, walking the length of the Ouse in Sussex,  is haunted by the shade of Virginia Woolf, short-listed in 2012; Empire of the Indus, by Alice Albinia, which won the  prize in 2009; and Blood River, for which Tim Butcher braved the Congo, and which was short-listed in 2008.

From a bit further back, I thought of other river books. There’s River Horse (1999), by William Least Heat-Moon, which may not be up to the standards of his road trip in Blue Highways, but still gets the measure of America at the turn of the millennium. There’s Old Serpent Nile (1991), the first travel book from Stanley Stewart and one already exhibiting the warmth, wit and economy (just 250 pages) that would win him a succession of prizes. And, on the Mississippi, there’s Jonathan Raban’s wonderful Old Glory (1981), which won him the now-defunct Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.

As for fiction, the classics range from haunting (Heart of Darkness) to cosy (The Wind in the Willows). And what about A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean’s novella about flyfishing, family ties and the Big Blackfoot? Or The Towpath by the Catalan writer Jesús Moncada, a marvellous choral account of the history of a  town on the River Ebro? It doesn’t seem like a small literature to me.

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