If you can't travel you might as well read about places you never could travel to anyway, right? Like Antarctica. Beryl Bainbridge's short novel, The Birthday Boys, is the story of Scott's fatal expedition, seen through the eyes of each of the men with him on the trip.
It's horrifying, gripping, very sad and immensely insightful about British class, honour and emotional life. Portraits of a place that is not the one you're in? They don't come any more vivid than that.
Bainbridge draws freely on non-fiction classic The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of that same expedition who, lucky lad, was not chosen for the final push to the Pole. Cherry-Garrard's worst journey is not Scott's, but one that he made a few months earlier, with two colleagues, in the winter darkness and in temperatures of −40C. To find some penguin eggs. As you do.
Honestly, it's better to stay home and read about it. In the same genre: Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Newby was a London tailor who decided one day to set off, in his ordinary street clothes, to climb the Himalayas.
An Englishman, in other words, blinded, like Scott, by his own certain sense he could do no wrong because isn't that the point of being English? The things those public schools are responsible for . . . and to think they still produce prime ministers.
Newby, however, was also a gifted writer, so his foolishness becomes charming, his descriptive powers splendid, his imperial lack of self-awareness untroubling, and his devotion to the joys of travel in places where the unexpected will certainly happen stirs the imagination on every page.
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If you prefer tropical heat, try Timothy Mo's The Redundancy of Courage, which will cure you forever of any desire you might have to live in the jungle, or during a war, for that matter. It's a set in a fictionalised version of the freedom struggles of the people of Timor L'Este, a place of horror then but, I imagine, well worth visiting now, if ever the chance arises.
Back to the cold and snow, which weep from the pages of every Russian novel ever written, although spring flowers also feature widely. A metaphorical people, those creative Russian types. My favourite movie for all that is Burnt by the Sun, set in 1936 in a wonderfully picturesque countryside, all meadows and birch forests and quietly flowing river, in which a hero of the Russian revolution and his family are betrayed, there amid all the beauty, during Stalin's terror.
Movies can be so misleading, however, can't they? The snow in Dr Zhivago, so Russian although it was shot in Spain; the Vietnamese jungle of Apocalypse Now, shot in the Philippines; the streets of Woody Allen's Manhattan, shot in the right city but in black and white, which makes everything both more real and less real at the same time.
Then there's Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, which was not actually shot in Middle Earth.
Jenny Diski had the right idea, conveyed fairly accurately by the title of her book of essays, The View from the Bed. She knew the world was scary, that somehow it was set up all wrong, and she interrogated it with unsparing rigour, a corrosively funny sense of humour and admirable social distance.
She also wrote superbly of the country we all get to visit in the end: In Gratitude is her memoir about facing up to death (and living with Doris Lessing, which was not at all the same thing).
Diski wrote the marvellous Stranger on a Train, too, a travel book about America in which she never gets off the train. It's very good.
There are parts of America I doubt I would disembark for, either. New Jersey, for example, in spite of Bruce Springsteen, obviously because of The Sopranos and also because of some great American novels where the reading is much better than the visiting.
Richard Ford's Independence Day is the best of them: an engrossing story of ordinary lives that don't work, even as they seem so ordinarily functional. Also, half the entire canon of Philip Roth is set in New Jersey. Where Ford's characters think little of themselves, Roth's are full to bursting with the roiling conflicts of their own self-importance. Try American Pastoral for starters.
Both men write brilliantly about a psychological country: the American character. American men, that is. Then there's Elizabeth Strout, who presents, in books like Olive Kitteridge, Olive Again and My Name is Lucy Barton, the landscapes of Maine and New York, peopled by quietly idiosyncratic women: characters who stand subversively against those big-name blokes. Frances McDormand is mesmerising as Olive in the HBO series.
In a very different way, Lisa Taddeo also stands up to the big guys. She's kind of the anti-Roth, her Three Women going where few others have dared or known how, into the country of women and sex.
Then there's Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, for whom, in everything they wrote, the story of America was the story of a country built on slavery and never reconciled to what that means. Ta-Nehisi Coates carries the same flame bright today. Essential reading, in my view, if the borders ever re-open and it's time to plan your next trip to the US.
The past, as they say, is another country, and that might be the best way to view Italy right now. Bernardo Bertolucci's movie 1900 is an epic tale of the peasant struggle against landowners in the first half of the 20th century, with rural scenery to die for, which many of the characters are forced to do.
And Franco Zeffirelli's movie Romeo and Juliet has totally the best glamorously dusty streets, the best beautiful people, the most heart-meltingly, gloriously tragic romance ever. Spoiler alert: there are worse things that can happen than Covid-19.
Italy as medieval Verona. Who wouldn't want to live there? It's not much different in Martin Amis' terrific novel The Pregnant Widow, set in the luscious hills of Tuscany: a book notable, among other things, for the observation of its 70-year-old protagonist that his greatest regret is not having had more sex. And they didn't know anything at all about social distancing.
Italy as playground of the rich and pretenders to be rich, that's pretty lovely too. In the movie, based on the excellent novel by Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr Ripley delivers Venice, Rome and the Amalfi Coast in thrilling technicolour – you'll never find those places looking half as good on a real-life holiday.
For an even more sinister and no less lovely look at Venice, try Nicolas Roeg's classic Don't Look Now, with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie at their finest and a dangerous little person in a red raincoat: you think you know fine-grained artistic horror? Try this. Or, almost as sinister and even more lovely, there's The Comfort of Strangers, from the novel by Ian McEwan, with Christopher Walken as the personification of evil, living in a shockingly shabby palace with Helen Mirren.
I've got a death-y theme going, I see. Might as well put in a plug for Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice, the greatest movie about either death or Venice anyone ever made. Such beauty on the beach at the Lido. And such a death, which, when it comes, comes from strawberries. Or a surfeit of Mahler, who provides the inspiration for the story and much of the glorious soundtrack. If you've never seen the late, great actor Dirk Bogarde, this is the one.
Other great cities you may still hope to see, or see again? Zadie Smith's NW is the best London novel I know, the best "this is urban life today" novel, really. Unsparing and yet warm-hearted and enormously uplifting, a celebration of community that troubles even as it thrills. One of the greatest storytellers of our time.
The diaries of Anais Nin, from a completely different time, are the best evocation of "that probably never was Paris but I sure wish I could live like that". Paris like in Amelie, but more wantonly erotic. Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers delivers the life of Mumbai with a depth and intensity you could never experience on your own.
James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late is also a deep dive into place: his man, Sammy, wakes up blind in Glasgow after a two-day drinking binge and stumbles through the city and his life, trying to make sense of it all. It's written entirely in Glaswegian dialect and is far more exciting than it has any right to be.
If you really want to get lost in a place, truly soak yourself in it, the quartet's the thing. Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet raises the Egyptian city to near-mythic status with a complex and poetically charged tale of unrequited love, Coptic mysticism and diplomatic intrigue. A lot of languorously beautiful people and endless marshlands, also sand, and so many ideas to rub your brain against: in parts thrilling, but also veiled, it's like seeing through gauze.
Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet, on the other hand, starting with My Brilliant Friend, is hyper-real: gritty and glorious and stuffed full of insistent life. It has the family violence of Once Were Warriors and a long story arc of terrible crushed talent and ambition, and it's an extraordinary read. Far better than visiting Naples today, I bet. TVNZ has the dramatised version, series 1 and 2, OnDemand.
There are alternatives. Why not visit the universe? How to Gaze at the Southern Stars by Richard Hall will help you get there. How meaningful can social distancing really be? Olivia Laing's The Lonely City, a lively meditation on a life alone, may help answer that.
Why not visit another world entirely? Elizabeth Knox is the writer for you. Her newest, The Absolute Book, is set in this world and an adjacent one, and is absorbing, morally challenging, delightfully readable and important. A big story that just keeps growing, with its dark fairy world conjured to life from an enormous imagination.
Or just stay home and visit home? Years ago when I worked in book publishing I commissioned an anthology called Countless Signs, with writings about landscape and places in New Zealand literature, edited by Trudie McNaughton. Librarians! Bring it up from the stack rooms! It's full of delights.
Still fretting about that cancelled cruise? Don't. Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections contains a memorable account of a man with dementia who goes Awol on a cruise ship in Alaska. Read that instead.
And speaking of ships, we're back with Jenny Diski and snow and ice. In her marvellous memoir, Skating to Antarctica, she embarks on the voyage, thinks about things and never actually gets there. Just like life, at least for the moment.
For Armchair Travels from Steve Braunias, see next week's issue