The Best of Travel Fiction



Before getting into the literature first a little justification I feel necessary. Few of us can explain, in any profound manner, why it is that the travel bug bit them. To be fair, it’s not something that needs explaining – it’s a happy accident and no one grumbles much about it. But I did grumble about it. It sucks to be bitten by the travel bug when you can’t travel! And because of this I think I can explain why myself and most of my countrymen have been facing a travel epidemic in the last few decades.

It boils down to this: affluence is a recent phenomenon in my native Malta. Historically, my class, my social milieu, have known nothing of the social freedom and mobility we find ourselves exposed to now. Historically, the only way our class got to travel was when they emigrated, permanently, to fellow Commonwealth colonies like Australia or Canada. The food we ate was meagre, good and hearty, as all humble food is, but un-varied, mostly bread, soups and the occasional scraps of leftover meats mostly pork. Upward mobility was unlikely, even nigh-on impossible. And splurging out meant buying some cloth for a new dress or going on a buscade with friends and family.

Malta has 7,000 years of history, and only a small, recent percentage of that has been any good to us, has known any affluence. It began in 1964 when Malta became Independent and boomed in the 70’s when Malta became a Republic and we began to diversify our economy away from the British fortress economy. One of that diversification led us into a brave new world of tourism. The industry soon developed as Malta’s major source of income and, external tourism, for the first time in our history, became a reality accessible to most. In 1973 Malta’s national airline Air Malta was founded and it opened up, without exaggeration, a new mind-set, a new wanderlust for a whole new class.

Since the 70’s until today the Maltese have been catching up on what they’d missed out for centuries. Not just in travel but in eating, entrepreneurship, leisure, consumerism, the like. We do things big here now, because we feel we deserve it (on the negative side: Maltese men are now the most obese in the EU and Maltese weddings are amongst the most grandiose and Baroque anywhere). We like to spend, we like to eat, and now, we like to travel – we do all these things like there’s no tomorrow after such a forlorn yesterday.

And those, as far as I can tell, are the historical, sociological reasons why I inherited the wanderlust gene. We’ve always had it but it has been suppressed and now, it’s like a phoenix rising from the economic ashes. Ashes which still linger around here and there. For most of us travel still isn’t easy. Not all of us travel as much as we would want to. Yet the travel bug digs further in like a mosquito bite you can’t get rid of. It’s a love hate relationship we absolutely love.


*    *     *


Why write and why read travel fiction when you can pick up a guide book or a sophisticated travelogue by Bruce Chatwin or Colin Thubron? Aren’t travel novels superfluous? Not the good ones. And the travel novels are the ones that aren’t really about travel.

All the best novels, in fact, aren’t about what they say they’re about. Lolita isn’t about illicit, underage love by an older man, it’s about how that older man destroyed a child’s life and potential. The Great Gatsby isn’t about Gatsby but about the selfish, egotistical, greedy woman that destroyed him. And we all know that War and Peace is only superficially about war and peace. So, as much as I love travel, I have to admit that any really good, worthwhile travel novel is not about travel.

But then why include travel in the foreground anyway? I think travel produces a unique state of mind that is alluring to the writer of fiction. When we travel we are more alert, we become observers, we notice details, notice the way people live, talk, drink. When we travel we all become amateur novelists. This is what novelists do by nature. And also, when we travel, we open ourselves up to more experiences, more opportunities – and these make for more exciting reading than if we’d stayed at home.

And above all that travel and literature have a raison d’etre in common: both of them are about finding a purpose in life. We travel so as to expand our minds and see where we fit in in this grand old world. Good literature does the same, it seeks to explore, to unearth purpose, meaning in a meaning-free universe. So the two of them strive towards a common understanding, so they are like brothers from another mother, to put it crassly.

Coming back down from the ether a bit, perhaps, the reason why I like travel novels above all else, is their hedonistic attention to detail. At the moment I am re-reading Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and one of my favourite lines in the book is not the most profound or poetic, it’s this: “Silence while he stared at a shelf that held the humbler poisons of France – bottles of Otard, Rhum St. James, Marie Brizard, Punch orangeade, Andre Fernet Blanca, Cherry Rocher, and Armagnac.” How irrelevant, right? Yet how enticing. When on holiday we are like children, we notice things, because everything has new, everything has a symbolic meaning.

Not only are we like children but we are more primitive. Travel is spiritual because it makes us elicit meaning from meaningless things. We go on a zebra crossing and wait for the lights to beep – oh God that was quick – then you barely have chance to cross before they go red and you say “life is so much more hectic here.” Or you enter a series of bars and cafes and notice they have tissue dispensers everywhere, “we don’t have them back home, they’re so much more hygienic here.” All the while you’re thinking like a primitive, like a child… like a novelist.

I feel I still haven’t answered why read a travel novel as opposed to a travelogue by a master? Well, purely because novels aren’t merely about travel. In fairness, neither are the great travelogues. But novels aren’t preachy, they proffer adventure, provoke thinking, elicit sympathy, drive us wild, make us weep – they are movies on paper, they do more than just instruct or reminisce, they provide us with a reflection of our own lives, our own dreams. So yes, a travel novel has all the best of a travelogue, new places, adventure, exploration, new food and drink and lifestyles; but in a novel those images are three-dimensional, they are there for a higher purpose, they are a stage on which the actors play out their addictive roles.

And in that vein, I would like to make a shortlist of what I think are the best travel novels (this is a broad, unofficial, un-licensed term) that I have read, and I would recommend both travellers and lovers of literature to read. These travel novels all have one thing in common (maybe with the exception of one, but it proves the rule): they are not about travel, but merely use foreign climes as a means to ennoble and elucidate their vagrant themes.


Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald


Set around a group of wealthy American expatriates living it up in France and Switzerland, this exciting, yet dark and confusing novel is Fitzgerald’s second-masterpiece. The only one of his novels to be set exclusively outside the US. The story of psychologist Dick Diver and his unstable wife Nicole, many would say draws an autobiographical portrait of Fitzgerald’s life with his all-over-the-place wife Zelda Fitzgerald. A psychologically profound novel, full of hedonism and, (like all good books about hedonism) it’s darker side; a two-pronged, surprising novel that keeps you on your feet. It has some wonderful, powerful insights like: “The strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing. Maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged.” And, along with the lines I mentioned earlier, there are some child-like observations of locales: “I like France, where everybody thinks he’s Napoleon–down here everybody thinks he’s Christ.” And it ably puts thoughts in our heads, the kind of thoughts we’d like to vocalise when enjoying ourselves abroad: “Rosemary felt that this swim would become the typical one of her life, the one that would always pop up in her memory at the mention of swimming.”


Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis


Travel novels have the weakness of at times being plotless. Zorba is guilty of this, but it makes up for it by having one of the most powerfully memorable characters in literary history – the book’s namesake. The novel is set in Crete, where life is archaic, tranquil and Zen-like, if you choose it to be so. Set around 1916 the book is holistic – it deals with history, philosophy, and of course the meaning of life (which is what the book is about). But it does so in the hearty, working-class, inimitable voice of Zorba. Many have seen the film of the novel and many are struck by Anthony Quinn’s portrayal of the giant Zorba, and we all remember that final scene where Zorba and the narrator dance the traditional Greek dance, on the beach, hot, sweaty, but laughing, enjoying life!

This is for me the quintessential travel novel in that it features a man searching for the meaning of life in foreign climes. And he finds it brilliantly in old Zorba. “I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.” Isn’t that how we feel abroad? How wonderfully Epicurean! “Happy is the man, I thought, who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean sea.” This is better advertising for Greece than any travel book could provide – such gusto! And that final, maddening piece of wisdom Zorba offers us all, this cannot be bettered: “You have everything but one thing: madness. A man needs a little madness or else – he never dares cut the rope and be free.”


Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow


Bellow, the great Nobel laureate, waterfall-writer, that gives eloquent voice to the non-eloquent classes, seldom wrote novels set outside the US. This was a beautiful exception. America’s most American of writers sends his main character to Africa of all places. A place Bellow himself had not visited! This novel is strange territory for Bellow in many ways: his main character is not even Jewish! It is his tribute to one of his literary role-models, Hemingway.

Similar to Zorba’s main character, Eugene Henderson leaves behind his homeland and undergoes a secular journey with spiritual aims; the aim of finding purpose in life. He travels to the heart of Africa, gets settled into a kind of tribal life, and gets himself appointed king because it is believed he can predict when rain will fall. He is a tall, athletic, muscular man – really a Hemingway character in Bellovian clothing. It is in many ways a romantic novel and a typically funny, enlightening one for Bellow and yet more exciting than usual (unless you count Augie March’s sojourn into Mexico in The Adventures of Augie March). In the novel Bellow and Henderson aren’t really interested in Africa as such. They are interested in how Africa relates to them. And this is crucial to all of us when we travel: we are all selfish, we study our new locale only so we can unearth something about ourselves.


The South by Colm Toibin


The debut novel by that most Irish of authors sees his protagonist abandon Ireland for Barcelona. In 1950 Katherine Proctor leaves Ireland to try and become a painter in Barcelona – that most artistic of cities. There she meets a wild man called Miguel, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and an anarchist. She falls in love with him, despite having left a husband and daughter back home in Ireland. There are some charming descriptions of that city everyone thinks they know. It is a hedonistic novel but more sensitive than others – Katherine, despite her fixations with Miguel, is a mother, a family-woman, who misses her homeland despite its shortcomings. Toibin forces us to relate to her; we all have that feeling when abroad, that cognitive dissonance that tells us, God this place is wonderful and man I miss home! We are torn, and it is this emotion that Toibin magnifies throughout the novel which is a must-read for all travellers and expats.


The Quiet American by Graham Greene


“I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam – that a woman’s voice can drug you; that everything is so intense. The colors, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived. The smell: that’s the first thing that hits you, promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat. Your shirt is straightaway a rag. You can hardly remember your name, or what you came to escape from. But at night, there’s a breeze. The river is beautiful. You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war; that the gunshots were fireworks; that only pleasure matters. A pipe of opium, or the touch of a girl who might tell you she loves you. And then, something happens, as you knew it would. And nothing can ever be the same again.”

Has more beautiful travel writing ever been put to paper? In this political novel that predicted the Vietnam War, a novel that derides Americans, an entertaining thriller about CIA operatives and journalists… in the midst of all this, Greene gives us some of the most evocative depictions of Vietnam we will ever read. Greene, the heir of Joseph Conrad, is a great answer to the question I asked earlier why read travel novels.


The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

The ultimate travel novel. My favourite novel. The kind of novel I wish I could have written and re-written and written ad infinitum. This is the exception to the rule that travel novels shouldn’t be about travel. Yes you can seek out symbols in the novel, look beneath the tip of Hemingway’s iceberg. You can make a case about this being about the Lost Generation and how one can get bored with empty hedonism.

But ignore all that. This is about travel. About Paris. About Spain. About Pamplona. About San Fermin, the running of the bulls and the bullfights. Hemingway here is being self-indulgent. This is reporting, gossip-journalism about trips he actually made, there is nothing creative or imaginative about this novel. It breaks all the rules: it is about what it says it’s about. Only, don’t think, if you’re a writer that you can break the rules and be as self-indulgent as Hemingway; he can do it, you can’t. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Few novels and novelists have become so synonymous with the place they write about. Hemingway’s statue stands right in front of the Pamplona bullring and San Fermin would never be what it is today without The Sun Also Rises. You cannot go to Pamplona, or indeed anywhere in Spain, without bumping into some kind of Hemingway memorabilia. Hemingway casts a long shadow over the lisping portion of the Iberian peninsula in a way no other writer ever has. He was enamoured in Spain, wrote two travelogues set there centred around bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon and The Dangerous Summer, and Spain returned the love.

And despite all the well-painted hedonism, all the bullfights, the drinking, the eating and fishing, this is a poignant novel. Hemingway knows that living this hedonistic, superficial life can lead to emptiness, and you can’t get away from the gruelling task of finding meaning in life. “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”

“Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?”

“Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters.”

This is a novel that changed literature in many ways.


Honourable mentions:

An Outcast of the Islands by Joseph Conrad

The Plumed Serpent by DH Lawrence

The Lost Steps by Alejio Carpentier

The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles







3 Comments Add yours

  1. Maybe I am commenting too soon, but are you going to do a best of Historical Travel Fiction? That is my favorite genre for all the reasons you listed above (so superbly) but that it also has the element of truth. My absolute favorite to date is Captain Correlli’s Mandolin.
    Also, I really appreciated the history lesson on Malta!


    1. justinfenech says:

      I didn’t think of historical travel fiction, honestly, it’s not my expertise. Though, coming to think of it, there’s Love in the Time of Cholera and The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco! Thanks for the food for thought!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Orphan Master’s Son is a good, recent book to read as well!

        Liked by 1 person

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