As one of the travellers from Peru quarantined in a Sydney hotel since March 31 – and due to emerge into the ‘real world’ this coming Monday, I’m pleased to know that, as I write, another party of 280 Australians is on its way back home from Peru on a Qantas flight to Melbourne.
It’s taking a while, but at last the government is involved in flights being organised from several places, some as distant as Nepal, with fares reduced and loans available for those who can’t afford the fares up front.
It’s so easy in life to grumble – and so difficult at times to see the value of life in micro.
But what a wonderful discovery I’ve made here in my hotel room, to find a true soul mate! Perhaps even a great love, even though he’s quite old and dessicated. I can handle that.
In any case, aware as you must be by now of my proclivity for French culture, imagine my curiosity when a friend living in Seattle*, who read my blog recently, suggested I check out, Voyage Around My Room, written by Count Xavier de Maistre.
Sure, I’ve heard about this book, somewhere in my dark past … but to rediscover it in this setting – confined as I am to a room with a bed, a sofa and a table (plus a bathroom and kitchenette, I admit, though they’re not relevant to this matter of coincidence) – has created un resonance exquisite. Seriously. Please stay with me on a journey around my room …
I found the book on Google and was able to open it in part, to quickly develop a taste for the author’s arch yet confident style and purely optimistic tone.
Former editor of The Paris Review, Richard Howard explains in the Introduction that in 1790, de Maistre, a 27-year-old Savoyard officer stationed in Turin, was punished for fighting a duel and put under house arrest for 42 days, during which time he wrote a text ‘to beguile the languors of his solitude’.
Now I ask you, isn’t that what I’ve been trying to do, ‘beguile the languors of my solitude’? And mostly achieving it with the help of meditation, a few exercises, and my impulse to share the experience with you, dear readers. Although I do confess I stayed in bed longer than usual this morning simply because I’d woken at 3 am. That jetlag is a surprise package, isn’t it?
Howard goes on to write that four years after writing Voyage autour de ma chambre, de Maistre left the manuscript in Lausanne with his older brother Joseph, who published it the following year without his brother’s knowledge.
‘Two centuries later we are astonished by the many anomalies which these circumstances present to current notions of authorship, of intellectuality,’ Howard writes.
‘Our amazement at the oddities of the young count’s career,’ as Howard describes it, are enhanced by the discovery that he flew in a hot-air balloon made by the brothers Montgolfier. De Maistre’s brother advised against publishing a sequel, Expedition nocturne autour de ma chambre, as ‘according to the Spanish proverb, Part II is always bad’. The work remained in manuscript until 1825, four years after Joseph’s death, when it was published in Paris to considerable success.
According to Howard, ‘The texts have been accorded a certain classical, or academic, success; they are récits, a genre which has long been appreciated in France (from Constant to Camus, with brilliant illustrations by Gide and Blanchot) and exemplified as well in Russia (Notes from Underground, for example) in Italy, and of course in England, where the personal essay invariably threatens to spill over into this protean form. A récit is a sort of dramatic monologue in prose concerned with the problematics of narrative, questioning the nature of such pronouns as ‘I’, ‘he’, and ‘you’, and given … to notions of literature as process rather than as product. De Maistre’s versions are among the liveliest and the most lenient in the repertoire.’
And so we proceed to an excerpt from de Maistre's work (with my square brackets inserted without apology):
‘I will no longer keep my book in petto – here it is, gentlemen [and women]. Read it. I have just competed a forty-two-day voyage around my room. The fascinating observations I made and the endless pleasures I experienced along the way made me wish to share my travels with the public; and the certainty of having something useful to offer convinced me to do so. Words cannot describe the satisfaction I feel in my heart when I think of the infinite number of unhappy souls for whom I am providing a sure antidote to boredom and a palliative to their ills. For the pleasure of traveling around one’s room is beyond the reach of man’s restless jealousy: it depends not on one’s material circumstance. …
My room ... runs from east to west, and forms a rectangle that is thirty-six paces around, keeping well nigh to the walls. My voyage, however, will encompass a great deal more; for I shall often walk across it lengthwise and breadthwise, and diagonally too, following no rule or method. … My soul is so open to every manner of idea, taste and sentiment, it avidly takes in everything that turns up. … I too, when traveling in my room, rarely follow a straight line! I go from my table toward a painting hung in a corner, and from there I set off obliquely for the door; yet although in setting out my intention is to reach that spot, if I happen to encounter my armchair along the way, without hesitation I settle right down into it. What a splendid piece of furniture an armchair is, of utmost importance and usefulness for every contemplative man [and woman!]. During those long winter evenings, it is often sweet and always advisable to stretch out luxuriously in one, far from the din of the crowds. A good fire, a few books, a few quills – what excellent antidotes to boredom! And what a pleasure then to forget your books and quills and to poke the fire, relinquishing your thoughts to some pleasant meditation – or composing some rhymes to amuse your friends: the hours slide over you and fall silently into eternity, and you do not even feel their melancholy passing.’
Isn’t the writing and intention just so elegant, so leisured and so appreciative of the nature of the mind, and the small pleasures of life? And thrilling for me that my room too ‘runs from east to west’, I walk it ‘lengthwise and breadthwise’, my soul is ‘open to [almost] every manner of idea, taste [but not carnivorous] and sentiment [plenty of that supplied by the current coronavirus crisis], and what a ‘splendid piece of furniture’ my sofa is (in the absence of an armchair). No matter that I don't have quills - I have a mobile and the internet to hand, to create my blogs for you, reader, out of the thin air of this room. Absolument charmant is de Maistre's approach!
Absolument charmant! As in the kind of bedroom that Google gives us to demonstrate the expression, which I agree is nothing like de Maistre’s room nor my hotel room. But I did ask you to stay with me on this short journey in synchronicity. And at least I've supplied a pretty picture.
Oh, and I forgot to say that one of the two books I have with me is about prose poetry … indefinable yet so close in purpose to recit, linking personal sentiment and simplicity of materiality.
Wait! Attends, s’il te plait. Do you think it might be possible that my French poesie et culture approach is perhaps becoming just a little obsessive, getting the upper hand in this small hotel room? You can tell me. Not long to go until I escape.
* My Seattle friend Rebecca Cummins, an artist and University of Washington Professor, points out that Voyage autour de ma chambre is enjoying a resurrection in these times - as another alternative to Camus’ The Plague.
This blog has been described as one wayward traveller’s opportunity to emote via her daily diary ... Copyright Christine Williams