Les morceaux épars d’une mosaïque détruite”
Language, Literature and the Poetics of Travel
« Les morceaux épars d’une mosaïque détruite » : langage, littérature et poétique du voyage


…je me bricole de petits morceaux de savoir comme on ramasserait les morceaux épars d’une mosaïque détruite, partout où je veux, sans esprit de système. […] La seule chose qui me fasse accepter l’idée de vieillir, c’est de compléter cette mosaïque encore lacunaire.1

1When asked by Irène Lichtenstein-Fall whether he accepted the label “écrivain-voyageur”, Nicolas Bouvier replied with a certain ambivalence, commenting how he appreciated the way the designation had allowed him to become associated with a wider network and a new generation of travel writers, especially through the “Étonnants voyageurs” festival in Saint-Malo.2 The elliptical and characteristically modest response disguises the impact on the author’s literary recognition of his affiliation to the Pour une littérature voyageuse movement. In the context of Michel Le Bris’s late twentieth-century promotion of a French-language tradition of “une littérature qui dise le monde”3, Bouvier’s first – and many would argue most important – work, L’Usage du monde, attracted the readership it had failed to reach on its first publication with Droz in 1963. Le Bris has repeatedly focused on this delayed recognition, associating the neglect of this classic modern travelogue with the specific niche, both poetic and ideological, in which it was published : for the founder of the “Étonnants voyageurs” festival, the 1960s are associated with a “mise-entre-parenthèses-du-monde”, with the rise of Structuralism and the Nouveau Roman, and the decline of the realism with which the travel genre is often associated.4

2It is not the intention of this article to engage with one particular account of post-war French literary history. It is important to note, however, that observation of the world in which they lived was arguably equally intense in the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and others associated with the New Novel,5 and also that the French appetite for travel writing in the trente glorieuses was perhaps linked more to decolonization and the further democratization of tourism than to trends in experimental literature and theory.6 Le Bris’s granting of L’Usage du monde an avant-garde status in relation to what he dubbed variously “une littérature qui dise le monde” or “une littérature voyageuse” raises additional questions relating not so much to literary history or its ideological frame, but more specifically to the poetics of travel writing. These are what interest me in the current article. The signatories of the essays collected in the 1992 livre-manifeste entitled Pour une littérature voyageuse display an eclecticism of approaches to the writing of their journeys, ranging from the geopoetics of Kenneth White to Le Bris’s own practice in the tradition of the roman d’aventure of the earlier twentieth century, passing via the allusive, aphoristic, often classically-inflected work of Jacques Lacarrière.7 In short, whilst the movement retained a certain consistency in terms of the gender and ethnicity of those associated with it, the poetics of this “littérature qui dise le monde” was far from homogeneous, but this creative diversity has rarely attracted the critical attention it merits.

3The aim of this article is to consider, therefore, in such a contextual frame, the distinctive modes of literary creativity and experimentation, including recurrent stylistic and rhetorical devices, that underpin the work of Nicolas Bouvier – and in particular L’Usage du monde.8 This approach is framed in a more general consideration of the ways in which the text manifests an interest in language and literature, in reading and in writing, that is unusual for the genre to which it belongs, but characteristic of Bouvier’s wider œuvre. The focus here on a single text by Bouvier is accompanied by two caveats : first, I acknowledge that the author’s work is characterized by rich variations in terms of genre, medium and forms of artistic creativity : his texts range across forms, including the more traditional travelogue, poetry and various formes brèves, and his writing is also complemented by an important corpus of photographic works ; at the same time, Bouvier’s approach to transforming travel into text varies considerably across his writing, a tendency particularly apparent in the multiple accounts of the foundational journey in Bouvier’s life, from Switzerland to Japan via Sri Lanka between 1953 and 1956.

4The literary narration of that journey lasting three years took a further quarter of a century, and evolved in a non-linear fashion as L’Usage du monde was followed, over a decade later, by an account of the final stage of the journey in Chronique japonaise (1975), with the middle section of the itinerary eventually presented in Le Poisson-scorpion (1981). Central to much of Bouvier’s reflection on travel is thus a key question about when the journey begins and when it ends, echoing issues central to the work of Victor Segalen in Equipée (1929) where he too reflects on the tensions between the réel and the imaginaire in the field. For Bouvier more than for many other authors, the afterlives of the journey extend far beyond the physical activity on which any individual itinerary depends, and this process of re-visiting and re-working manifests itself in processes of polygraphy, i.e., in multiple rewritings of the same journey or stages of the journey at different moments and often across different genres.

Multilingual soundscapes and the functions of language

5Bouvier’s poetics of travel – and his often-artisanal interest in the creative mechanisms whereby a journey becomes text – is related to the fact, noted above, that L’Usage du monde is a work that shows a degree of interest in language that is unusual for the travel narrative. By this, I do not refer to the writerly nature of the narrative itself, often dependent on the crafting of retrospective narration (of which more below) ; I allude instead to a marked awareness of the written and spoken languages that serves not only as the backcloth to the journey, but also as the means of facilitating intercultural encounter. As Michael Cronin has noted in his Across the Lines, many travelogues reveal a surprising degree of linguistic indifference, actively disguising or concealing the competence (or otherwise) of the traveller in the languages of the countries through which they travel.9 Apart from a small subgenre of work in which languages – as a marker of cultural diversity and its loss – are foregrounded,10 the representational practices of many travel writers depend on the reduction of the dynamic multilingualism of the field to the fixed monolingualism of the text. Following such a logic, linguistic difference and the misunderstandings it can engender are regularly reserved for little more than comic effect. Countering this tendency, Bouvier presents the countries through which he travels in their multilingual variety : varying degrees of linguistic (in)comprehension reveal his own limitations as an often exotic other, whilst also providing a clear indication of the diverse and often entangled cultures and histories with which he comes into contact.

6As the text of L’Usage du monde opens, Bouvier surrenders his own narrative voice after only one sentence – in a process described by Jean-Xavier Ridon as a self-effacing “esthétique de la disparition” – to cite a letter received in Zagreb from Thierry Vernet11 describing a chance meeting with a peasant riding a pony, Vernet focuses on their exchange :

Avec mes quelques mots de serbe je parviens à comprendre qu’il ramène des pains chez lui, qu’il a dépensé mille dinars pour aller trouver une fille qui a de gros bras et de gros seins, qu’il a cinq enfants et trois vaches, qu’il faut se méfier de la foudre qui a tué sept personnes l’an dernier.12

7Beyond the characteristically Borgesian catalogue of information that the list includes, the reader is drawn here to the opening of the sentence (“mes quelques mots de serbe”) and to the paucity of linguistic knowledge that Vernet admits. This epistolary fragment underlines from the outset the linguistic dimensions of the everyday forms of intercultural opacity with which the travellers will grapple as they travel through what later Bouvier calls “ces campagnes peuplées de paysans incompréhensibles” (83). The negotiation this implies is implicit throughout much of the text : the artists and writers with whom the travellers share accommodation in Belgrade offer – among a list of other acts of generosity – “à nous servir d’interprètes” (84) ; and many other characters encountered en route are defined primarily by their language skills : in one scene in Prilep, the locksmith who attempts to fix a luggage rack to the car “ne comprend pas le serbe” (118) ; the owner of the welding equipment with whom he is supposed to work “parle un allemand intelligible” (119), meaning that the travellers are obliged to serve as intermediaries as Bouvier himself spoke fluent German ; the headmaster who acts as host for the travellers in Gümüsane “ne savait pas un mot d’allemand, d’anglais ou de français” (158) ; and Bouvier and Vernet themselves possess “vingt mots de turc à peine”, leading to a practically wordless display of hospitality.

8Although English, French and German serve as lingua francas, fragments of other languages are also scattered throughout the text. An innkeeper in Slovenia reacts in German to what he perceives as the absurdity of the pair’s journey : “Ich bin nicht verrückt, Meister, ICH bleibe zu Hause” (83) ; German is also spoken by a woman they also meet in Prilep, a Ravensbrück survivor, for whom Bouvier notes with a degree of fascination and alarm how “la déportation devient une forme de voyage” (131) ; the welder known as Matt Jordan, who claims to have lived for thirty years in California and to have had the (London-born) Charlie Chaplin as a school friend, spends his time muttering conspiratorially in English : “One day, I will tell you my big secret… nobody knows… chchtt !” (123) ; Mme Wanda, owner of the Moda-Palas where Bouvier and Vernet lodge in Istanbul, lapses on occasion into Polish, addressing “une de ces ombres très anciennes, et chères, et perdues, qui accompagnent les vieilles gens en exil et tournoient au fond de leur vie” (146). Other single foreign terms are dropped into Bouvier’s sentences, and glossed with the author’s footnotes : ‘Bog’, meaning God in Serbo-Croat (125) ; the Turkish exclamation ‘aman’ (127) ; ‘korsi’ (187), the Persian for a low heated table ; ‘shiré’ (199), the term for the residue of burnt opium in the same language ; ‘tar’ (256), Persian for a long-necked instrument ; ‘pharsar’ (267), described by Bouvier as a unit used to measure distances in Iran. Borrowed lexical terms also betoken the exoticism of the travellers themselves, variously seen as ‘saya (voyageurs)’ (275) and ‘firanghi (étrangers)’ (292 ; see also 349).

9The fragmented, multilingual soundscapes that these words reveal serve as a backcloth to the journey. They are further complicated by those languages encountered which are in effect an amalgam of others, revealing the ways in tongues co-exist in often complex configurations : in one striking example, Bouvier notes, for instance, that “[l]e dialecte macédonien comprend des mots grecs, bulgares, serbes et turcs, sans compter les vocables locaux” (129). Faced with such a range of languages, and unlike many other travel writers, he actively acknowledges the limitations of his own linguistic capabilities, but turns them into a theme throughout the text that often overshadows the events of the journey : a police captain in Tabriz assumes, for instance, that “[leur] ignorance du persan était simulée”, creating an air of surveillance in the encounter (220). Travel thus becomes a form of eclectic language acquisition, and learning a language is even transformed, during the enforced stay in Tabriz, into a means of distraction. Vernet “s’était mis au Latin sans peine” (204) ; and the experience of the travellers is actively mirrored on occasion by that of the those they meet, such as the rare pupils they manage to acquire, or the sous-directeur of the post office in Tabriz, “qui tuait le temps en étudiant le français dans un abécédaire orné de vignettes figurant l’’A-rrosoir’, la ‘B-oîte’ ou le ‘CH-eval’”(181).

Reading fragments

10The results of these language lessons, formal and otherwise, are often inevitably outlandish : Paulus, the doctor the travellers meet in Tabriz, “parlait avec un lourd accent germanique un français imprévu qu’il semblait inventer à mesure” (185) ; but Bouvier’s interest in these baroque forms of languaging, sustained throughout L’Usage du monde, not only complements his experience of travel, but also serves as an integral part of the journey. This interest in spoken language is reflected in Bouvier’s parallel emphasis throughout the work on reading and writing. I am not suggesting that L’Usage du monde in any way adopts the nineteenth-century Orientalist mode of treating the field of travel as a book to deciphered,13 with the result, at the extremes of such an approach, that any interest in the ‘travellee’ may evaporate. Books are as a result never used to predetermine the journey itself, for as Bouvier himself notes : “si vous lisez avant, vous bloquez votre imaginaire sur les schémas d’une attente trop precise.”14 Instead, various forms of writing may be seen as woven into the text, contributing to its mosaic-like structure (to be studied in more detail below), but also creating a self-conscious and self-relativizing mise-en-abyme that locates the literary work that the reader holds in their hands within a wider network of variegated textual fragments.

11The eclecticism of the corpus that this reading matter represents is striking. It illustrates, to a certain extent, Bouvier’s persistent interest in the temporalities of travel – and in particular in the ways in which the traveller is accompanied by the baggage of the past (including texts previously read). These processes are made particularly clear in the narrative’s overt use of intertextuality.15 This device – common, as Christine Montalbetti has demonstrated, in travel writing – is not deployed by Bouvier as part of a performance of erudition or as some sort of compensation for aphasia in the field.16 Instead, it becomes part of a wider poetics of accumulated fragments, related to a modest narrative self-awareness, that constantly holds in check any risk that the travelling self might lapse into solipsism. The most obvious manifestation of this intertextuality are the citations that pepper the text, ranging from the opening epigraph from Romeo and Juliet, to the concluding passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Uses of great men”. In the first (77), Bouvier adapts Romeo’s speech in Act 3, Scene 5, his final exchange with Juliet : “I must be gone and live, or stay and die”, changing the ‘must’ for the future tense ‘shall’ and indicating the centripetal forces that drive him from Geneva to experience ‘l’usage du monde’ ; in the second (387), the author draws on the American essayist’s comments on those forms of mental gymnastics whose results seem to chime for Bouvier with those of travel : “And this benefit is real, because we are entitled to these enlargements, and, once having passed the bounds, shall never again be quite the miserable pedants we were.”

12Numerous other literary citations are embedded in the text itself, at times drawing L’Usage du monde into a wider network of loosely-defined travel literature. Explaining the sudden change in the weather that strands the travellers for six months in Tabriz, Bouvier notes : “Comme l’écrivait un poète, les projets des souris et des hommes n’aboutissent pas” (173). He directly translates here a line from Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse”, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley” [The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry], and alludes by association to the title of John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella of migration during the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men, which had itself adapted Burns. In a passage on the kidnapping of Armenian women by Kurdish men, Bouvier refers to a more foundational narrative of mobility, and quotes a passage from Herodotus, from the Première enquête translated by Bouvier’s fellow Pour une littérature voyageuse member Jacques Lacarrière (201). Texts cited are not, however, exclusively literary, and there is a conscious levelling of the fragments drawn into Bouvier’s text : during a detour to Batchka in the north of Serbia, he provides a transcription of intangible heritage, “[d]es chansons frustes, excitées, vociférantes qui racontent en langue romani les avatars de la vie quotidienne” (105).

13Moving beyond the citations and allusions of intertextuality, other physical texts – both printed and written – fill the narrative as physical objects with which the progress of the journey is associated : Bouvier often longs, for instance, for personal correspondence and the contact with home this implies (“dans la vie de voyage, les lettres peuvent aider et resservir”, 236) ; and the theft of letters in Tabriz, carried out by boys in search of exotic stamps, leads to a strikingly described account of communal punishment. A register signed at the customs in Mirjawé contains the name of the archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein, who had crossed the same border twenty years previously, creating an echo – since Stein had narrated his journeys through the same region and along the same routes – that is at once intertextual and “interviatic”.17 Books – often but not exclusively works of French literature – also serve actively as props in the field of travel. Bouvier alludes to the few volumes that accompany the journey, focusing for instance on a 1907 Manuel de conversation franco-serbe, the quaint exchanges in which (the example provided relates to the waxing of moustaches, 98) not only reveal, once more, the travellers’ linguistic limitations, but also the radical post-war changes that the societies they visit have undergone. It is, however, other books that the travellers find or are given that provide distraction in moments of boredom or breakdown, create unexpected tangents as they are discovered out of place, and remind the travellers of the culture they have left. Bouvier and Vernet read a discarded copy of Valéry’s Variétés V, recovered in Belgrade, while they wait for rare visitors to the exhibition of the latter’s work : “le style maniéré prenait,” notes Bouvier, “une allure exotique qui ajoutait au plaisir de lire” (88) ; also in Belgrade, French literature becomes a shared point of contact with those they meet, but also an indication of the rapid social change among the Serbs, and of the nostalgia for a cosmopolitan past. Bouvier describes, for instance, some “conversations avec ces vieux bourgeois férus de littérature, qui tuaient leur temps à relire Balzac ou Zola, et pour qui J’accuse était encore le dernier scandale du Paris littéraire” (90).

14The ubiquity of French literature is evident elsewhere : Mme Wanda in Istanbul sits at night reading Mérimée (146) ; in response to a question about what he lacked most in terms of pedagogical resources, the school master in Erzerum responds : “douze douzaines de Voltaire” (165) ; the pharmacist in Tabriz reads Perrault’s Peau d’âne and Le Chat botté (189) ; and perhaps most strikingly, Terence, the patron of the Saki Bar in Quetta, is defined by the books that surround him : Tennyson and Proust are among the “objets qui l’avaient suivi dans ses tribulations” (328), and his distraction from the events surrounding him is encapsulated in his absorption in the latter author : “Terence relisait Le Côté de Guermantes dans une édition tachée de gin” (335). Seeking entertainment during their winter in Tabriz, Bouvier approaches the Lazarist mission, where he is directed to the University library which contains “quelques vieux lots de France – tout ce qu’on jetait sous Jules Ferry” (178) ; and a major activity during their enforced stay is visiting other various libraries. Subsequently, Tehran is presented in particular as a “ville lettrée” (257), Francophile and engaged with modern and contemporary literature : “À la bibliothèque de l’Institut, les ouvrages de Proust, Bergson, Larbaud étaient couverts d’annotations marginales” (257).

15Passing a parfumerie in the city, Bouvier listens to the recitation of a poem by Henri Michaux, “Ma vie” from La Nuit remue, a reminder of the latent presence of the author whose poetics and travel practice, as Le Poisson-Scorpion makes clear, had heavily influenced Bouvier.18 Literature serves as a distraction for other characters : Moussa, the young man also met during the winter in Tabriz, is drawn to Hugo, for instance, and devotes his time to rereading “indéfiniment en traduction persane Les Misérables qui l’enflammaient de chimères héroïques et de passions égalitaires” (201). Literature serves elsewhere as a shorthand point of reference : two lovers who commit suicide recall the “Capulets et Montaigus” (199) ; a young boy who attaches himself to Moussa is Sancho Pança (202) ; an imam in Tehran is a “sorte d’affable Montaigne en turban blanc” (264) ; the tents of the archaeological dig that Bouvier joins at the end of the text are “disposées comme le camp d’un roi shakespearien” (375).

16The travellers’ attraction to French-speakers and resort to literary allusion, on occasion in the most unexpected of locations, is not part of a cultural chauvinism or any anxiety regarding multilingualism. Instead, it permits reflection on the ways in which (and the reasons for which) languages themselves travel, and forms an important dimension of the pen portraits of many characters met en route. A doctor encountered in Kragujevac, as the journey heads south from Belgrade to Macedonia, “parlait français avec une voix de stentor et nous remerciait de Jean-Jacques Rousseau comme si nous l’avions fait nous-mêmes” (112). At the same time, rather than celebrating the soft power associated with Western European literature, Bouvier deploys direct and indirect references to literary works in French and English to stress the complex communication networks linking the cultures through which he travels, whilst alluding to the processes of “textualization” to which he subjects the journey, both in the field and on his return.

17The reading outlined in the text is not only of books, however, and Bouvier shows a similarly active interest in the linguistic landscape through which the journey passes. A particularly striking example is found in Quetta, where the proliferation of textual fragments in the city is seen to reflect the precarious nature of the urban environment :

Une profusion admirable d’écriteaux, d’enseignes, d’injonctions hors de propos, de réclames… Cornflakes… be happy… Smoke Capstan… Keep left… Dead slow… étoffait cet urbanisme frugal. Malgré cette rhétorique barbouillée d’aniline, la ville ne pesait rien. Aucune glu. Un fort vent l’aurait emportée. Elle tirait un grand charme de sa fragilité (308).

18This approach to reading the writing physically embedded in the field of travel does not underpin the work, as it does in a near contemporary travelogue, Michel Butor’s Mobile (1962), the poetics of which depend on the accumulation of fragments as the traveller-narrator drives around the freeways and interstates of the USA. Bouvier notes instead the formal and informal presence of writing in the built environment, as travel itself becomes an act of reading and decipherment : he associates a quartier of Belgrade to which he is regularly drawn with “des graffitis tremblés, pleins d’expérience, comme dessinés par des vieillards” (111) ; he remarks in Prilep on the pedagogical potential of such writing on the wall : “ces mots qu’à force de voir dans les pissoirs en toutes lettres ou en pictogrammes on finit quand même par connaître” (129) ; in Istanbul, the travellers find consolation and distraction from their fruitless search for employment in the traces of Turkish that surround them : “les singulières orthographes turques : Fileminyon…, Agno alobergine… Kudefer & Misenpli… que l’œil, entre deux visites, relevait au vol sur le menu d’un restaurant ou dans la vitrine d’un coiffeur” (142) ; lorries passing the travellers’ tiny vehicle on the road to Shahrah in eastern Iran are covered with “inscriptions votives : Tavvak’kalto al Allah (c’est moi qui conduis mais Dieu est responsable)” (247) ; a sign welcomed by the travellers on the approach to Quetta announces “Ici route asphaltée” (305) ; and in the microspection that equally characterizes his work, Bouvier even records the writing on the Ghorband cigarette he smokes in Balochistan, “une pâle inscription persane près du bout” (304).

Writing fragments

19This varied but sustained focus on travelling and reading is to be associated with the parallel representation in L’Usage du monde of the act of writing. The consumption of text by the travellers and by those they meet is also complemented by its production. Indeed, the presence of intertextuality, and the emphasis on various forms of transcription and citation, underline the extent to which reading and writing are closely entwined. Just as Thierry Vernet’s painting serves as a precarious means of generating income, so the writing of articles and lectures serves, on occasion, as a way to earn the money the travellers require to continue their journey : topics are often self-referentially literary (“Stendhal l’incrédule”, for instance, at the Collège Saint-Louis in Tehran [265]), but also include – e.g., the “long papier sur la Laponie, avec photos” (144), translated into Turkish – accounts of Bouvier’s own previous journeys. More importantly, the author presents, throughout the text, indications of the ways in which the ultimate textualization of his journey – i.e., its transformation into L’Usage du monde – begins in the field of travel itself. At times, these indications are limited to fleeting references to the trappings of notetaking, observation and composition in various media : Bouvier walks in Belgrade with “un cahier sous le bras”, and on arrival in the Mostar bistro, the patron immediately brings him “un godet d’encre violette et une plume rouillée” (99) ; on a number of occasions, the travellers record the music and singing they hear (e.g., 108), and this act of recording becomes a focus of encounter in its own right ; in Belgrade, Vernet passes the time by drawing, in careful detail, a tree he observes : “Il avait dessiné sur la nappe une citrouille grandeur nature qu’il remplissait, pour tuer le temps, de pépins minuscules” (83) ; and in Prilep, Bouvier describes himself “en train de photographier la mosquée” (134).

20Elsewhere, however, Bouvier focuses in much more detail on specific scenes in which the journey becomes an object of scrutiny and narration in its own right. He describes, for instance, lunch in an inn :

Là, la journée trouve son centre : les coudes sur la table, on fait l’inventaire, on se raconte la matinée comme si chacun l’avait vécue de son côté. L’humeur du jour qui était répartie sur des hectares de campagne se concentre dans les premières gorgées de vin, dans la nappe de papier qu’on crayonne, dans les mots qu’on prononce. (116)

21The nature of this scrawling on the table cloths is unclear, but the passage reveals the extent to which retelling travel, processing the experience of it, turning it into lists, and consequently making meaning in the field itself through the poetic transformations of writing, form an integral part of the journey. Elsewhere, Bouvier is more explicit about the practicalities of these processes, and presents himself, for instance, making notes and drafting sections of text. Describing their lodgings in Tabriz, he refers to the creation of a dedicated work space :

Thierry tendait des toiles ; j’avais ramené une rame de papier blanc du Bazar et décrassé ma machine à écrire. Jamais le travail n’est si séduisant que lorsqu’on est sur le point de s’y mettre ; on le plantait donc là pour découvrir la ville (178).

22Such writing is clearly central to the field of travel, but the playful final sentence here underlines the tension in the field between the experience of travel and its notation, between engaging with place and the distraction inherent in seeking to represent that engagement. In the same way, arriving in Quetta, Vernet offers the table in their shared room to his travel companion, adding : “je peindrai dans la chambre de bain”, but Bouvier reflects : “je n’étais pas pressé d’écrire ; pour quelques jours ‘être arrivé à Quetta’ me tiendrait lieu d’occupation” (306).

23The focus is thus often also on writer’s block, on the absence of writing, on the refusal of the journey to be transformed into text : in Belgrade, the author writes : “Thierry n’avait encore rien vendu. Je n’avais rien écrit” (92) ; at another point, deflated on return from a trip into the Armenian quarter of Tabriz, Bouvier describes such a moment of creative panne : “je rentrai la tête dans les épaules et ne parvins pas à écrire une ligne” (205). Still stranded in the same city, Bouvier presents another such instance :

Je déchirais et recommençais vingt fois la même page sans parvenir à dépasser le point critique. Tout de même, à force de me buter et de pousser j’obtenais parfois pour un petit moment le plaisir de dire sans trop de raideur comme j’avais pensé. Puis je décrochais, la tête chaude, et regardais par la fenêtre notre dindon Antoine, une volaille décharnée que nous nous flattions d’engraisser pour Noël, tourner dans le jardin enneigé. (198)

24The apparent distraction following a moment of success in writing focuses on a seemingly insignificant detail characteristic of Bouvier’s work : the turkey that he and Vernet are fattening for Christmas, familiarly named Antoine, suggesting a certain nostalgia for a now distant and exotic festival. Far from being a moment of panne in the narration, however, the turkey becomes not only a metaphor for the travellers themselves, confined also to “cette cage enchantée où nous étions coincés jusqu’au printemps” (199), but also a poetic inspiration. Bouvier is led to cite what he calls “un poème baroque que j’avais déniché pour mes élèves”, in reality from Stances à l’Inconstance” by Etienne Durand, the poet put to death in 1618 after he had offended Louis XIII, which contains the lines Donque fille de l’air de cent plumes couverte, /Qui de serf que j’étais m’a mis en liberté”.

Towards a poetics of travel : microspection, lists, fragments

25Such mise-en-scène of the act of writing in the field of travel is not unique to Bouvier. In the pivotal fifteenth étape of Équipée, describing the moment of panne as the journey grinds to a halt, Victor Segalen had evoked the unpacking of his bags and his uneasy attempt to write up the journey, activities also evident, as we have seen, in Bouvier’s text ; typewriters feature prominently in the pair of texts describing the 1935 journey of Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming across Xinjiang, Oasis Interdites (1937) and News from Tartary (1936), although such composition in the field is closely associated, in their case, with the urgency of the reportages the travellers are seeking to file. For Bouvier, the focus on creativity and writing in the field – ranging across the various manifestations of language and literature in the text outlined above – appears to form part of a wider reflection on the poetics of travel. His text reveals a particular interest in the tensions between simultaneous and retrospective modes of narration, the one spontaneous and embedded in the mobile experience of the journey itself (and represented by the repeated focus on acts of writing in the field discussed above), the other associated with the remembering, forgetting and other forms of textual embroidering associated with the traveller’s return to the sessility of their writing desk. A letter from Vernet in the final section of the text outlines the welcome Bouvier will receive in Sri Lanka : “Une table t’attend pour tes paperasses” (386), proposing a stable surface on which the preceding stages of the journey will be given some form of order and meaning. Yet a parenthesis towards the end of the text (“écrit six ans plus tard”, 378), as Bouvier seeks to make sense of his stay with a group of French archaeologists in Afghanistan, reveals the anxiety with which this writing is associated and the labour it requires. The author – who seeks here to “retrouver le fil” of the narrative – provides an insight into the writing process, leaving the self-reflexive scaffolding of the text provided on rare occasions for other works by commentaries such as Gide’s Journal des Faux-Monnayeurs. “Et puis pourquoi,” asks Bouvier, “s’obstiner à parler de ce voyage ? quel rapport avec ma vie présente ?” (379). Writing the journey takes on self-destructive dimensions : his book is seen as “ce récit fantôme qui me dévore sans engraisser”, and memories of the journey appears to recede : “ces souvenirs qui ont séché sur pied comme si une malveillance toute puissante avait tranché leur racines, me coupant, moi, de tant de choses aimables” (379).

26The struggle for retrospective narration, for reconstruction of the travel narrative from the fragments and residue left on the traveller’s return, is central to the poetics of travel that underpins Bouvier’s creative practice. The author’s writing style has previously been seen as an artisanal one, and it is true that Bouvier actively encouraged the identification of such an aesthetic. “Le travail très artisanal sur les mots,” he notes “m’a paru salutaire.”19 In L’Usage du monde, there are clear parallels between the travellers’ car, so constantly in need of attention that the intricacies of its mechanics play a central role in the narrative, and the workings of the text itself. Bouvier’s writing is often, as a result, seen as a parallel form of bricolage, an attempt to keep the journey moving through experimental strategies, repairs, borrowed parts : “monter, démonter, gratter, chercher au fond de sa cervelle torride l’idée qu’on n’a pas encore eue et qui, que…” (282-83). The parallel is implicit in Bouvier’s observation of the mechanics in Quetta : “C’est un travail d’improvisation admirable, jamais pareil” (311). Their intervention is anything by formulaic or dictated by previous practice, and the poetics evident in L’Usage du monde follow similar patterns. They reveal the close awareness of language and of its multiple possibilities that are evident in the subject matter of the text, but also exploit, as a form of creative practice, the forms of fragmentation similarly at the heart of the journey.

27This fragmentation manifests itself in formal ways. The text of L’Usage du monde is multimodal, mixing fragments of poetry with prose. As the poem produced in November during the stay in Tabriz demonstrates, there is an economical inventory of colours and shapes that captures the onset of winter (186-87). This variation in possible modes of narration is particularly evident in one of the polygraphic moments in the work. The epiphanic experience that Bouvier recounts on a beach near Trebizond – “Sur une plage de sable noir, nous nous faisions griller un petit poisson. Sa chair rose prend la couleur de la fumée” (154) – is not only re-interpreted in L’Usage du monde as an image by Vernet, but also resurfaces later, using much of the same vocabulary, yet transformed into a crucial tipping point, as a poem in Bouvier’s collection Le Dehors et le Dedans entitled “Le point de non-retour”.20 This emphasis on the moment – a concept equally important in the poetics of travel of Victor Segalen – reveals a tension in the text between the fragment and the complete text, the part and the whole, the discontinuous and the continuous.

28Central to this key aspect of Bouvier’s poetics is a reliance on microspection, a commitment evident elsewhere in his work to discovering rich material for observation where others perceive nothing. This tendency becomes particularly apparent after the enforced stay in Tabriz :

L’agrément dans ces lents voyages en pleine terre c’est – I’exotisme une fois dissipé – qu’on devient sensible aux détails, et par les détails aux provinces. Six mois d’hivernage ont fait de nous des Tabrizi qu’un rien suffit à étonner. (249)

29This ability to focus on detail is exemplified throughout L’Usage du monde, for example by Bouvier’s long and irritated reflection during his stay in Kandahar on flies (344), or the more joyful focus, which forms the title of a key section of the text, on the image embroidered on the uniform of the soldier who escorts the travellers over the Iranian border : “un petit lion vert d’une finesse merveilleuse, brodé sur un soleil en fil d’or” (172).

30The accumulation of detail that such an approach entails leads to a related aspect of the poetics of travel in Bouvier’s work, the use of the inventory. Although little critical attention has paid to this device, the practice of enumeration – manifest in the different phenomena of the list, the catalogue or the inventory – is in fact relatively common in travel literature. It has been evident since the foundational texts of the genre such as Herodotus’s Histories in which – as Joseph Skinner has outlined in The Invention of Greek Ethnography – the creation of lists permits management of the plethora of information gathered.21 Already in classical literature, the formal rhetoric of the list provides “important mechanisms of signification”, with an “ability to segment, order, condense and transform”.22 In more recent texts such as Bouvier’s, the instantaneous notation of travel, in the field, still often depends on the telegraphic listing of details (of places, encounters, sensations, impressions…) which may eventually serve as the raw material for a retrospectively produced account. This detail is often only revealed by genetic approaches to the travelogue, and by the resort to the writer’s notes and diaries, which customarily reveal a transformation of these fragments into more discursive forms of narration and description, providing a post hoc impression of textual coherence. These practices of progressive accumulation are nevertheless evident in a number of travel narratives. They either deploy, as a structuring device, a proliferation of fragmentary details and impressions to designate the fallibility of human memory (a striking cinematic example of which is found in Chris Marker’s Sans soleil) ;23 or seek to use listing as a way to suggest the un-representativity and contradictoriness experienced in the field of travel (evident again in the expressionist catalogues, with their recurrent patterns and jarring juxtapositions, of Butor’s U.S. road trip narrative Mobile, or in the endotic observations of texts by Georges Perec such as the Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien).

31In the light of these more generic considerations, the lists in Bouvier’s work may be seen to fulfil various functions. The inventory provides a seemingly undigested, photographic snapshot of the scenes that the author records : merchandise in a shop window in Belgrade (94), for instance, or the clients of a bar in the same city (100). It constitutes shorthand for outlining the everyday nature of the travel : a catalogue of food, drink and cigarettes conjures up “la vie pour deux, à sept cents dinars par jour” (132), or “à trois cents tomans par mois” (195). A common feature is also the tripartite inventory, a succinct recording of details that Bouvier rapidly passes over : “Glapissements, querelles, odeurs fortes : c’est la chambre des femmes” (279). Listing provides the means of rapidly juxtaposing the different ethnic and linguistic groups associated with, for example, the community of Prilep (122), the people passing in the streets of Sungurlu (149), the eclectic merchandise available in a market in Mahabad (223). The accumulation of fragments that the list permits also reflects the mode of observation associated with slow travel, not the motorized blur of detail in Butor’s Mobile, but a more precise and exacting way of seeing made possible by advancing “à vingt kilomètres-heure” (115).

32There are other distinctive elements to Bouvier’s poetics similarly related to the interplay between the fragment and the whole. A recurrent feature is the axiom or proverb, an aspect evident in the quotability of the author’s work. The foreword to L’Usage du monde contains one such regularly cited text : “On croit qu’on va faire un voyage, mais bientôt c’est le voyage qui vous fait, ou vous défait” (82). Fragments of this type then proliferate as the journey unfolds, with those Bouvier formulates supplemented by proverbs he gathers locally : a minister in Prilep shares the following : “Chacun soupçonne chacun mais nul ne sait qui est le diable” (125) ; in Mangour, he records a Kurdish proverb : “Le poignard est un frère, le fusil, un cousin” (230) ; leaving for Ispahan and fearing he will leave something behind, Bouvier recalls the Persian saying : “Première étape : petite étape” (267). Without seeking to be prescriptive, Bouvier deploys these axioms to turn his travelogue into a modest art du voyage.

Writing the world-as-mosaic

33The deployment of lists, and of brief axioms and sayings, reflects the ways in which the world Bouvier encounters is itself a fragmented and even fractured one – although rarely detected, the Second World War is a spectral presence in the text, a reminder of the upheavals and traumas that the countries visited and their inhabitants had only recently suffered. This fragmentation becomes an optic through which Bouvier actively views the world, and goes on to construct his account of it : Belgrade is, for instance, “ce désordre de maisons éparses entre deux fleuves” (99) ; Quetta is presented as “[u]ne ville éparse, légère comme un songe, pleine de répit, d’impondérable pacotille et de fruits aqueux” (305). Underpinning this poetics is a sense, echoing the work of Michaux in the interwar period, that travel writing is no longer driven by exoticism, but by a potential re-enchantment of the often-disappointing ordinariness of the world. As such, Bouvier continues the logic of a book published during the time of his actual journey, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes tropiques (1955) :

[C]omment la prétendue évasion du voyage pourrait-elle réussir autre chose que nous confronter aux formes les plus malheureuses de notre existence historique ? […] L’ordre et l’harmonie de l’Occident exigent l’élimination d’une masse prodigieuse de sousproduits maléfiques dont la terre est aujourd’hui infectée. Ce que d’abord vous nous montrez, voyages, c’est notre ordure lancée au visage de l’humanité.24

34L’Usage du monde steers away, for the most part, from this emphasis on fragmentation as a form of disappointment-inducing decay. The text adopts instead the figure of the mosaic – “les morceaux épars d’une mosaïque détruite” alluded to in the title of this article – to suggest that travel might constitute a form of negotiation of a passage through the world that avoids, on the one hand, either grand, unifying, relentlessly linear narratives, or, on the other, an understanding of space that is reliant on discontinuity and radical disconnectedness. Bouvier describes a mode of journeying that permits a route between the extremes of unity and diversity.25 The adoption of the poetics of the mosaic thus has a restorative function : it does not respond to discontinuity by asserting the non-systematic ; nor does it prescribe an arbitrary order where there is none.26 Instead, from the numerous fragments that underpin and constitute the text, it seeks to recover a sense of order where this is perceived to have been lost.

35In L’Usage du monde, the term “mosaïque” nevertheless appears only once, in the description of the ceiling of a hotel room in Tehran : “une mosaïque d’estagnons ‘BP’ qui laissent filtrer le clair de lune” (250). What is striking in this passage is the characteristic juxtapostion of an aestheticized mosaic effect with the accumulation of other assorted everyday rubbish, the proliferation of which threatens to hinder the traveller’s textualization of the journey. Bouvier’s focus is on the creative potential of the traveller who reconstructs patterns from scattered fragments, the previously existing configurations of which have been disrupted. This practice of reconstruction is not automatically associated with the mosaic, for there is a distinction to be drawn between the mosaic and the jigsaw, between what Lucien Dällenbach calls a “totalité inédite, donc à inventer” and a “totalité préexistante qu’il s’agit de reconstituer”.27 Bouvier’s work does not imply, however, any nostalgic yearning for lost origins. In constructing through his writing what may be seen as a “monde-mosaïque”, he seeks to maintain in this art form the experience of everyday discontinuity that he encounters in the field.

36Bouvier’s world-as-mosaic protects heterogeneity whilst allowing discontinuous elements to coexist in a single frame. The poetics of the mosaic offers travel writing a middle course between representations of place and culture that are either fixed and essentialized, or chaotic and even entropic. Bouvier seeks a poetics that maintains this tension and uses it as the foundation for his textualization of travel. In L’Usage du monde, he assembles fragments of elsewhere – intertextual traces, snippets of language, proverbs, material objects, recorded snatches of music – and transforms these into the raw textual material of his journey. This dimension of the text is most clearly illustrated in an episode at Quetta, during which the narrator’s notes on the journey captured spontaneously in the field are accidentally dumped of on a rubbish tip : “tout mon travail de l’hiver avait disparu”, observes Bouvier, “balayé par le boy” (329). The travellers seek the manuscript at the local rubbish tip, “dans une plaine d’ordures noirâtres, semées de tessons étincelants” (330), and Bouvier’s work is eventually unearthed, after the travellers have sifted through the trash to discover a largely illegible “agrégat noir et misérable” (332). The author is left with “cette envelope brenneuse et quatre lambeaux de papiers comme brunis au feu” (332).

37The search for this written version of the journey, assembled in the field, is seemingly frustrated, but the search for it involved sifting through a carefully catalogued list of disparate rubbish, everyday fragments that not only dominate this particular episode but also – once collected – eventually constitute the mosaic of the final account of L’Usage du monde. In his interview with Irène Lichtenstein-Fall, Bouvier gives this episode a positive spin, seeing the loss of the original notes as the reason for the polygraphic reconstruction of the journey : “au lieu d’avoir une histoire, j’en ai eu trois : j’ai écrit ce texte, je l’ai perdu, ensuite j’ai écrit comment je l’avais perdu et finalement je l’ai réécrit” (1292). Far from being a negative episode, the experience of the Quetta rubbish dump is thus a conformation of Bouvier’s poetics : the world is perceived and lived as discarded fragments of a potential mosaic, and such perception and experience have a structural, poetic and even epistemological impact on Bouvier’s subsequent struggle to turn the traces and memories of his journey into text.28


1 Nicolas Bouvier, Routes et déroutes : entretiens avec Irène Lichtenstein-Fall, dans Œuvres, Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Quarto”, 2004, p. 1249-1387 (p. 1280).

2 Ibid., p. 1364.

3 Not only via the Saint-Malo festival, but also through the launch of the periodical Gulliver and several book series including the ‘Voyages’ strand in Payot’s “Petite bibliothèque collection.

4 See Michel Le Bris, “La vie, si égarante et bonne, in Le Vent des routes : hommages à Nicolas Bouvier (Carouge-Genève, Zoé, 1998), p. 57–61 (p. 57).

5 See Lynn Higgins, New Novel, New Wave, New Politics : Fiction and the Representation of History in Postwar France, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

6 There are, moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, more links between Bouvier’s work and Structuralism than Le Bris appears to admit. See Charles Forsdick, “(In)connaissance de l’Asie : Barthes and Bouvier, China and Japan”, Modern and Contemporary France, 14.1 (2006), p. 63-77.

7 See Pour une littérature voyageuse, Bruxelles, Complexe, 1992.

8 For a more hermeneutical approach to Bouvier’s work, notably in the context of travel writing and Orientalism, see my “L’Orient quoi ! Bouvier and the Post-Orientalist Journey”, in Margaret Topping (ed.), Eastern Voyages, Western Visions : French Writing and Painting of the Orient, Bern, Peter Lang Publishing, 2004, p. 325-45.

9 Michael Cronin, Across the Lines : Travel, Language, Translation, Cork, Cork University Press, 2000.

10 See, for example, Mark Abley, Spoken Here : Travels among Threatened Languages, Londres, Heinemann, 2003, Helena Drysdale, Mother Tongues : Travels through Tribal Europe, Londres, Picador, 2001, and Pamela Petro, Travels in an Old Tongue : Touring the World speaking Welsh, Londres, HarperCollins, 1997.

11 See Jean-Xavier Ridon, “Pour une poétique du voyage comme disparition”, in Christiane Albert, Nadine Laporte, and Jean-Yves Pouilloux (eds), Autour de Nicolas Bouvier : Résonances, Carouge-Genève, Zoé, 2002, p. 120–135.

12 Nicolas Bouvier, L’Usage du monde, in Œuvres, Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Quarto”, 2004, p. 75-387 (p. 79). All other references will be inserted parenthetically in the main body of the text.

13 Bouvier associates such an approach also with American travellers in the twentieth century : “Quant aux Américains, on les voyait encore moins. Ils vivaient en marge à leur ordinaire, apprenaient le pays dans les livres, circulaient peu et buvaient leur eau bouillie (L’Usage du monde, p. 359).

14 Bouvier, Routes et déroutes, p. 1283.

15 For a detailed study of intertextuality in the text, see Olivier Salazar-Ferrer, L’Usage du monde de Nicolas Bouvier, Gollion, Infolio, et Bienne, ACEL, 2015.

16 On intertextuality and travel writing, see Christine Montalbetti, Le Voyage, le monde et la bibliothèque, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1997.

17 On the presence of ‘interviatic’ references (i.e., conscious references to past journeys on which current travel is overlaid) in travel writing, see my Peter Fleming and Ella Maillart in China : Travel Writing as Stereoscopic and Polygraphic Form”, Studies in Travel Writing, 13.4 (2009), p. 293-303.

18 On the influence of Michaux on Bouvier, see Jean-Xavier Ridon, Le Poisson-Scorpion de Nicolas Bouvier, Gollion, Infolio, et Bienne, ACEL, 2014.

19 Cited in Adrien Pasquali, Nicolas Bouvier : un galet dans le torrent du monde, Carouge-Genève, Zoé, 1996, p. 89.

20 Nicolas Bouvier, Le Dehors et le Dedans, in Œuvres, op.cit., p. 821-873 (p. 827).

21 Joseph Skinner, The Invention of Greek Ethnography, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016.

22 Skinner, The Invention of Greek Ethnography, p. 122.

23 Bouvier was familiar with and admired this work. See Routes et déroutes, p. 1326.

24 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, Paris, Plon, 1955, p. 36.

25 Bouvier alludes elsewhere to the alternative figure of the patchwork : “je fais un patchwork d’impressions tout à fait fugaces et complètement personnelles, sans aucune rationalité, et d’éléments que j’ai trouvés dans l’Histoire récente ou ancienne du pays et qui les corroborant de façon révélatrice.” See Routes et déroutes, p. 1295.

26 For a discussion of the visual dimensions of the mosaic in Bouvier’s work, see Margaret Topping, “Travelling Images, Images of Travel in Nicolas Bouviers L’Usage du monde”, French Studies, 64.3 (2010), p. 302-16.

27 Lucien Dällenbach, Mosaïques : un objet esthétique à rebondissements, Paris, Seuil, 2001, p. 62.

28 This article was written while Charles Forsdick was AHRC Theme Leadership Fellow for “Translating Cultures” (AH/N504476/1). The author records his gratitude for this support.

Pour citer ce document

Charles FORSDICK, «“Les morceaux épars d’une mosaïque détruite”», Viatica [En ligne], n°HS1, mis à jour le : 20/01/2021, URL : https://revues-msh.uca.fr:443/viatica/index.php?id=772.


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Université de Liverpool