The Journey is the Plot: A Reading List for Traveling Beyond the Home
Mary Morris on Thomas Mann, Willa Cather, and More
Many years ago, I heard a teacher of mine, the late John Gardener, once say that there are only two plots in all of literature: you go on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Or, as Stanley Elkin put it even more succinctly (in reference to science fiction), you go there or they come here.
In 2009 I began a blog called “The Writer and the Wanderer” in which I reflected on my travels, which is where many of my own stories came from. At some point, I began making a list of novels and stories that happened during journeys. It included such stories as “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton and “A Distant Episode” by Paul Bowles as well as many novels, from Don Quixote to such contemporary novels as The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux and Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood.
The previous year, in 2008 I had a sabbatical and I’d intended to use my time traveling and writing. But on the first day of that sabbatical, I fell while ice skating and spent three months at home, unable to walk. It was during that time that I read Death in Venice and came upon the sentence on Easter Sunday when I was home alone, quite miserable, and feeling sorry for myself: “He would go on a journey. Not far. Not all the way to the tigers.” That passage made me decide that when I was able to walk again, I would try and go “all the way to the tigers.”
Given that we are in a time of lockdown and pandemic, I’ve picked five books that each embrace the journey as its main plot point. After all, we can still travel through stories, can’t we?
Elizabeth Von Arnim, The Enchanted April
Elizabeth Von Arnim was already a literary sensation long before she published the novel that would become a classic, The Enchanted April. In 1891 she married a German widower, Count von Arnim, a man many years her senior, and moved to a remote and beautiful house—a 17th century schloss, where she grew a garden and authored Elizabeth and Her German Garden. No one actually knew her real identity—though many guessed at it—but she wrote “The garden is the place I go to for refuge and shelter. Not the house.” In The Enchanted April, an enchanted novel that is in many ways a retelling of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream four women—all strangers to one another—set out to get away and rent for a month’s vacation a castle in Portofino. Each woman has her own reasons for embarking upon this journey. “Lady Caroline came to the club and appeared to be wholly taken up by one great longing, a longing to get away from everybody she had ever known.” Each of these is recovering from the loss of love, the neglect of a husband, a lover’s lack of commitment. This journey enables four strangers to become friends and to learn not only about one another, but about long dormant parts of themselves.
Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
On a spring morning, as Gustave Aschenbach, a very successful writer, sets out on his morning stroll in Munich, he feels a tug. He wants something more from his life—“a youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes.” When he finds himself overwhelmed with some portentous signs, he decides to go on a journey. “Not far—not all the way to the tigers.” Just far enough to enjoy some warm weather and, again as Mann writes, “three or four weeks of lotus-eating at some one of the gay world’s playgrounds in the lovely south.” It all sounds like a good idea, but a different fate awaits Aschenbach in this haunting tale of destiny. In Venice Aschenbach encounters a family with a 14-year old boy who becomes the object of an obsession, a mad passion. At the same time there are indications that there is some real sickness in Venice, which soon turns into a cholera epidemic. Perhaps the journey here was ill considered, or perhaps the outcome is inevitable. In the Sufi tale, “Appointment at Samara,” a servant tries to escape death by fleeing to another city—only to find death waiting for him there. Thomas Mann has captured this same theme in this novel of destiny and doom.
E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
E. M. Forster understood the power that place can have in a life. Several of his finest novels evoke that theme, whether it’s Florence in Room with a View, in which a young woman learns the value of leaving your guidebook at home, or Howard’s End, in which a house impacts on the lives of its visitors or here in A Passage to India. Forster’s belief that places have power and journeys can transform us—both for good and at times ill—is never so strongly asserted as in A Passage to India. The novel opens with the auspicious lines, “Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.” It soon becomes obvious to the reader that nothing ordinary happens in this novel or in the lives of these characters especially that of poor Dr. Aziz, a Moslem doctor who seeks to befriend and impress some English tourists with disastrous results. This is a novel in which the adage “no good deed goes unpunished” is proven true. It is a powerful story of what it means to confront the other and what it means when, in doing so, we forfeit a part of ourselves. Forster’s most famous aphorism is “Only connect,” but he also understands what happens when we fail to connect.
Willa Cather, Lucy Gayheart
When Willa Cather was nine years old, her parents moved from their home in Virginia to Nebraska, where Willa would live for the next 12 years until she graduated from the University of Nebraska. At which point she moved back East, determined to become a writer. But her formative years were spent in Nebraska. When Cather arrived in the Midwest, she was struck, as her character Jim Burden would later be struck in her masterpiece, My Antonia, by the land and the sky. She saw the Nebraska prairie as “a place where there was nothing but land…between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out.” There is something in Cather’s sentences that seem to breathe, that feel open and expansive. Nothing is cluttered. Two of Cather’s best known works—My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop—happen during journeys and the writing is gorgeous. But in some ways it is in her extraordinary novellas that her storytelling powers excel. Lucy Gayheart, the character for whom this novella is named (such a perfect name for her character) is just that—a gay hearted young woman who also has ambition to become a musician. She leaves behind the Nebraska town where she was raised and the young man who loves her to seek her fame and fortune in the big city of Chicago. As the train carries her away, Lucy gets into her berth, where she “could give herself up to the vibration of the train—a rhythm that had to do with escape, change, chance, with life hurrying forward.” Cather understands the tension between the rural and the urban, the innocent and the depraved, and as she launches dear Lucy into the big city, the tragic events are set in exquisite, lyrical motion on that takes us inevitably to one of the most poignant conclusions ever written.
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
In 1947 Paul Bowles and his wife, Jane, left New York and moved to Tangiers. Bowles would live there for the next 52 years until his death. Bowles understood the dangers of travel—of what it means when you move naively past your comfort zone—and he mines this theme of innocents abroad in an unfamiliar land in his harrowing short story, “A Distant Episode,” (not for the faint hearted), and in his best-selling novel. Set in post-WWII North Africa, the novel focuses on three American travelers: Port and Kit Moresby and their traveling companion, George Tunner. Port and Kit have a troubled marriage, fraught with discord and infidelity, and they think that traveling deeper into the heart of North Africa will improve things. Their journey takes them farther into the heart of darkness than any of them could have imagined. Bowles writes, “Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times…And yet it all seems limitless.” But for neither Port nor Kit will it be limitless, nor end well for these tourists who fancy themselves real travelers.
All the Way to the Tigers by Mary Morris is available via Doubleday.