by Roderick Conway Morris

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St. Malo, Brittany

'Anciens Astrolabes' at St Malo

By Roderick Conway Morris
ST MALO, France 29 July 1994


'Etonnants Voyageurs' (Amazing Travellers) is an engaging literary festival held annually in the Breton port of Saint-Malo. The festival takes its name from a poem in Baudelaire's cycle 'Le Voyage' ('Etonnants Voyageurs! ... Dites, qu'avez-vous vu?'), and is dedicated to travel and adventure writing, factual and fictional.

The hundredth anniversary of Robert Louis Stevenson's death provided the festival's central theme this year - with talks, readings, films and exhibtions devoted to his works - a subject especially close to the festival's founder, Michel Le Bris, who spent a dozen years studying Stevenson, transcribing and editing his unpublished writings and preparing a biography, the first volume of which R.L. Stevenson: Les années bohémiennes 1850-1880 has recently appeared.

In the annual competition young Breton writers between the ages of eleven and eighteen, the challenge was to produce a sequel to Treasure Island. One winner had Jim ending an eventful career - losing a leg here, an arm there - as the the doppelgänger of Long John Silver; another revealed that the piratical monoped was none other than Jim's grandfather.

'Stevenson has had a very strange fate,' said Le Bris. 'He was hailed by contemporary authors, but there has been almost total critical silence about him - a genius to literary giants both during his lifetime and subsequently, but a minor author as far as the critics are concerned. This is why I have made a special effort to make Stevenson's thought better known. Because he is a particularly fascinating case - a natural, original, imaginative writer but with an exceptionally refined and subtle theory of literature.'

One could be forgiven for thinking Le Bris an usually erudite oddball with a mission, but a visit to the Saint-Malo book hall, where over eighty of French publishers had stands, revealed him rather to be a prominent representative of a major current in French literary taste. Here, piled high, were books translated into French by just about every conceivable English travel and adventure writer from Edward Trelawney and Richard Burton to Partick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin. That elusive, gripping, often dazzling genre, 'le travel writing' was on everybody's lips, a situation that would have been extremely vexing to France's new culture minister Jacques Toubon (now popularly known in France as Monsieur 'Allgood'), who is introducing stiff fines and even prison sentences for the public use of foreign words - had he been invited (which, one gathered, he had not).

Meanwhile, the great trailblazers of French travel writing were represented by the old Asia hand Ella Maillart, the oceanographer Anita Conti and the African explorer Theodore Monod (all three now in their 90s), names hardly familiar to English readers, due to the deplorably few translated titles available today. Three out of five the books on the short list for the 1994 Prix de l'Astrolabe were translated from English: Nigel Barley's Le retour de l'anthropologue, Norman Lewis's Torre del Mar and Jonathan Raban's Nouveau Monde - Lewis finally carrying off the prize for his novel first published in 1955 as The Day of the Fox, and set on the post war Spanish Mediterranean coast (to which he returned thirty years later in a non-fictional account of his experiences there, in the magnificent Voices of the Old Sea).

The self-deprecating poise and amusing eccentricity of Lewis's acceptance speech - which would have been as appropriate in a long house full of Dayaks as at a literary dinner - painted an intriguing picture of the rural Essex, where he lives, 'a place with no facilities, where trains invariably arrive late, if at all, and if you want to eat out, you have to get in your car and drive 50 miles, only to be told the food has run out for that day, so please come back tomorrow'.

Later in conversation afterwards, Lewis related his failed attempts to settle abroad, first in a village outside Rome and then in Tangier, finally ending up once again in Essex, 'which I suppose is pretty lamentable, but at least I can cope with that.'

Jonathan Raban made a brief appearance, and then vanished without trace. 'I'm nine hours out of synch,' he later explained, 'and when I went to the hotel I made the mistake of momentarily resting my elbow on the bed - at which point I fell into a deep coma.'

Nigel Barley reduced the Cafe Littéraire to stunned silence, then hilarity with his vivid account in fluent French of the possible metaphysics lying behind male and female circumcision in Africa: 'In men's bodies there are feminine parts - that is, the prepuce - whilst in women's bodies there are masculine parts - that is, the clitoris. If you take these parts away, you have corrected the errors of nature. And you've created true men and true women.' Voila! Despite Barley's unsuccessful search for a tribe that, applying this principle, practised male mastectomy, Maette Chantrel who, along with Christian Rolland, introduced and interviewed the authors at the Café with indefatiguable good humour, generously refused to believe that such a 'formidable écrivain' could really be as naive and accident-prone as he made himself out to be.

Perhaps it was as well that the Innocent Anthropolgist did not reveal to Mlle Chantrel that, on being informed earlier that Redmond O'Hanlon was an 'ancien Astrolabe', he was at first under the impression that he had stumbled on a picturesque Breton expression describing 'a fine fellow, a jolly good chap, that sort of thing...'.

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023