Friday 16 September 2011

Questions of Travel

While travelling to and from Michelle Weinroth’s recent Morrisfest in Ottawa, I decided to read, as the most apt book I could think of, Lavinia Greenlaw’s Questions of Travel: William Morris in Iceland (2011), a curious little tome which slips handily in your pocket when you’re on the road. On the righthand pages, Greenlaw gives extended extracts from the 1871 Iceland travel diary; and on the lefthand pages, underneath a key Morris phrase, she offers her own brief, bulletpoint-style reflections. Some lefthand pages are entirely blank, others have half a dozen Greenlawian reflections which almost constitute a small poem in their own right.

What she does, in effect, is to subtly x-ray out the general issues of travel – philosophical, ethical, therapeutic – which get lost in the sheer welter of Icelandic detail that Morris throws at us. The quality of her commentary is mixed, sometimes falling into banality (‘You are moving and so things keep changing’), now and again sounding rather mystically portentous, and occasionally addressing Morris as an analyst might a patient (‘At last you let yourself be carried’); but also often achieving some startling illuminations, especially in her delicate metaphorising of some of the literal details of the trip (dark passages, floating helpless, messes in boxes).

What Greenlaw does to Morris is effectively what Roland Barthes did to Balzac in his wonderful study S/Z in 1971: break the primary text up into fragments and offer a subtle commentary on these discrete units. She has brilliantly found a new form for writing about Morris, and for this we can only be grateful; for increasingly my feeling about Morris studies is that we need to be more experimental, to invent new writing projects which might lead to the discovery of new content, rather than packaging new content into the familiar form of the scholarly essay. I have myself been trying to contribute to new modes in my blogging and tweeting on Morris, and intend to pursue them further in the form of a News from Nowhere sequel in due course; and I therefore salute Lavinia Greenlaw as a bold pioneer in such formal iconoclasms.


Tony Pinkney said...

Disappointing that Morris's Icelandic Journals didn't feature in the Guardian newspaper's list of "favourite travel books" in last Saturday's Travel supplement (pp.2-3 and 11). But I suspect that is indeed an effect of the sheer excess of empirical detail that Morris overwhelms us with, and which Lavinia Greenlaw has beautifully slimmed down to allow the more meditative themes to emerge.

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