The Way of the World

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Overview

In 1953, twenty-four-year old Nicolas Bouvier and his artist friend Thierry Vernet set out to make their way overland from their native Geneva to the Khyber Pass. They had a rattletrap Fiat and a little money, but above all they were equipped with the certainty that by hook or by crook they would reach their destination, and that there would be unanticipated adventures, curious companionship, and sudden illumination along the way. The Way of the World, which Bouvier fashioned over the course of many years from ...
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Overview

In 1953, twenty-four-year old Nicolas Bouvier and his artist friend Thierry Vernet set out to make their way overland from their native Geneva to the Khyber Pass. They had a rattletrap Fiat and a little money, but above all they were equipped with the certainty that by hook or by crook they would reach their destination, and that there would be unanticipated adventures, curious companionship, and sudden illumination along the way. The Way of the World, which Bouvier fashioned over the course of many years from his journals, is an entrancing story of adventure, an extraordinary work of art, and a voyage of self-discovery on the order of Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As Bouvier writes, “You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making—or unmaking—you.”
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A genuine masterpiece, an exhilarating, innocent, perceptive and wholly enjoyable young man's travel book, and a discovery of the Asian road that by rights deserves to occupy the same shelf as great classics of the genre such as Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana or Eric Newby's Short Walk in the Hindu Kush." --The Financial Times

The exhilaration of the open road and the feeling of connectedness to the natural world that it can produce, is, after all, a common human experience. Simply expressed, it has produced some of mankind’s greatest writing. The Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier explores this territory in his youthful masterpiece, The Way of the World, where he conveys as well as anyone the raw intoxication of being on the road.” —The New York Times
 

"The Way of the World is a masterpiece which elevates the mundane to the memorable and captures the thrill of two passionate and curious young men discovering both the world and themselves. Racy and meditative, romantic and realistic, the book is as brilliant as Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts, but with its erudition more lightly worn and as alive as Kerouac's On the Road, though without a whisper of self-aggrandisement...On every page a gem or two glitters, and the accumulation of colour, detail and inspired metaphor produce an intensely hypnotic effect...If you read any travel book this year--or indeed the next forty years--this should be it."  --Rory Maclean, The Guardian (UK)

"Bouvier has all the gifts a travel writer could want--curiosity, tolerance, hardiness--but above all he has a poet's sensibility with words. His is a lyrical style that is as pure as spring air." --James Owen, Telegraph (UK) 

"...it's about a journey in the 1950s from Belgrade to India. They try to go to India in a tiny battered Fiat and it takes them several years, these friends, and it probably describes the attraction of travel better than any book I've ever read." --Roy Moxam

"Bouvier wrote only a handful of books, but this relatively small production has attained classic status in Europe...His prose is at once musical and remarkably factual, while the odd detail always seems captured with the deftness of a haiku poet. His gift for summing up significant experiences often rivals Thoreau's." --Paths to Contemporary French Literature

"A classic on the Continent; [Bouvier's] youthful masterpiece...has something close to biblical status for the current generation of French travel writers....Like Lévi-Strauss, like Chatwin, like Sebald even, his writing binds elements of autobiography and travelogue, history and literature. Yet Nicolas Bouvier remains his own man; he is the minimalist of modern travel writing." --Ben Hutchinson, Guardian (UK)

"An exquisitely vivid and accurate translation." --Paths to Contemporary French Literature

"It is difficult to isolate the best moments of [The Way of the World]. Bouvier is a colourist and a miniaturist of the highest order." --Le Monde

"Bouvier alerts the reader to the transcendant dimensions of travel." --Jasion Elliot

"...like a meteor which comes to light up our atmosphere." --André Rollin

"In the tradition of great travel writing it is beautifully written and works on many levels - being an account of the journey, a meditation on life and an appreciation of the spirit of a place." --Sarah Anderson, founder of the Travel Bookshop, in The Guardian

Dennis Drabelle
…The text by Bouvier is larded with drawings by Vernet, and both travelers contribute an infectious exuberance.
—The Washington Post
The Barnes & Noble Review
In Francophone countries, Nicolas Bouvier (1929?98) has the reputation of Bruce Chatwin: stylist extraordinaire and philosopher of travel. In 1953, the 24-year-old Swiss left Geneva in a battered old Fiat Topolino, aiming to go across Asia with an artist friend. ?We had two years in front of us, and money for four months. The programme was vague; the main thing was just to get going.? They made it 47,000 miles -- pushing the car rather than riding for some of them. The Way of the World (1961) is Bouvier's literary-meditative account of the journey. They must often pause -- in Belgrade, Istanbul, Tabriz, Kabul -- to raise funds by waiting tables, performing in bars, selling portraits and murals, giving cultural lectures. When trouble keeps them in Quetta, they fall into the employ of an ex–Welsh Guards colonel running a failing French-style café called the Saki Bar.
Terence, who was very sensitive to happiness, uncorked his last bottle of Orvieto. The cork leapt out, increasing the Saki's liabilities by twenty-three rupees. What did he care? He had passed the point of efficiency, passed the point of being had. On half-pay, trapped in this disintegrating bar, burdened with the whole town's secrets, and with debts and old Mozart records, he traveled further and more freely than we did. Asia attracts those who like to sacrifice their careers to their fate. Once the sacrifice is made, the heart beats more generously, and many things become clearer. While the wine grew warm in our glasses and Terence, still and watchful as a night owl, gazed up at the stars, a couplet by Hafiz came back to me:

"If the mystic still doesn't know the secret of the World, I wonder how the innkeeper came to learn it so well."

What a beautiful zeugma is that "burdened" "with debts and old Mozart records," and an exemplar of Bouvier's attractions. The Way of the World took 30 years to make it into English, and then without the woodcuts done by Bouvier's traveling companion. New York Review Books have not only restored this work to print, but the original illustrations, too. It should be enough. But Bouvier was a fine photographer, and after his death, an archive of pictures from the trip was discovered. The catalog from the 2002 exhibit in Paris is readily available through the Internet, and you'll want it after you read this wonderful book. --Robert Messenger
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590173220
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 10/27/2009
  • Series: New York Review Books Classics Series
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 675,317
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicolas Bouvier (1929-1998) was born near Geneva. His father was a librarian, who encouraged his son both to read—among the books Bouvier devoured as a child were those of Stevenson, Jules Verne, Jack London, and Fenimore Cooper—and to travel. Bouvier studied for some years at the University of Geneva, but in 1953 he left without a degree to join his friend Thierry Vernet in the voyage to the Khyber Pass that is described in The Way of the World, published eight years later. Subsequent journeys took Bouvier to Sri Lanka (his experiences there inspired his one novel, The Scorpion Fish), Japan, and the Aran Islands (described in the books Japanese Chronicles and Journey to the Aran Islands and Other Places). Bouvier worked for many years as a photographer and as a picture researcher, spending much of his time hunting down obscure images in various libraries and archives. He was also a founding member, along with Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt and others, of Gruppe Olten, an informal organization of Swiss writers on the political left, and the author a slim book of poems, Le Dehors et le dedans (1982).

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) was an intrepid traveler, a heroic soldier, and a writer with a unique prose style. After his stormy schooldays, followed by the walk across Europe to Constantinople that begins in A Time of Gifts (1977) and continues through Between the Woods and the Water (1986), he lived and traveled in the Balkans and the Greek Archipelago. His books Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966) attest to his deep interest in languages and remote places. In the Second World War he joined the Irish Guards, became a liaison officer in Albania, and fought in Greece and Crete. He was awarded the DSO and OBE. He lived partly in Greece—in the house he designed with his wife, Joan, in an olive grove in the Mani—and partly in Worcestershire. He was knighted in 2004 for his services to literature and to British–Greek relations.

Thierry Vernet (1927-1993) was born in Grand-Saconnex in the canton of Geneva. He studied painting and stage design with Jean Plojoux and Xavier Fiala, and worked as a stage designer for productions throughout Europe. He was married to the painter Floristella Stephanie.

Robyn Marsack has been director of the Scottish Poetry Library since 2000. She has degrees in English literature from Victoria University (New Zealand) and Oxford, and has worked as an editor for the Carcanet Press. She won the Scott Moncrieff Prize for her translation of Nicolas Bouvier’s Le Poisson-scorpion (The Scorpion Fish).

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 28, 2012

    Topical, timeless

    I had checked this out from my local library, via an interlibrary loan. I found this to be so much on point for the world today, that I HAD to purchase it. The bonus is this edition has pictures painted by Thierry Vernet. If you want to know about Afghanistan and Iran today, read this book. I fell in love with the Fiat Topolino that Nicolas and Thierry took on this adventure begun in 1953, and that led me to an image search on the 'net. This translation is so readable. In several places, I had to read passages aloud to my daughter. If stuck on a desert island, this is one book that I would like to have with me to read again.

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  • Posted May 24, 2010

    Like "On the Road," only smarter and with better illustrations.

    Although The Way of the World centers around two male travelers -- one, the scribe; the other, the philosopher-artist -- one struggles to make any useful comparison between it and On the Road. While Road helped create the distinctly American myth of the open road, and how one is transformed by dominating it, the epigraph to World gives a clue to the very different motives behind why the men in this book travel: "I shall be gone and live, or stay and die." (Shakes.) This is an urgent travel at heart, a thinking man's sowing-of-oats. Restlessness at its most basic. There is no choice but to seek.

    Nicholas Bouvier, author of the book and journals on which the book is based, and his companion, artist Thierry Vernet, set out from Geneva in 1953, in the shadow of a world war that has left its bloody prints are all over Europe. They drive east in a beat-up Fiat heading for the Kyhber Pass into Afganistan, the East. They plan to finance their trip as they go: Bouvier through freelancing before there was a word for freelancing (in Istanbul he sells a "long piece on Lapland, with photos for fifteen lirettes. Two meals.") while Thierry exhibits his paintings and drawings -- many of the latter, happily, illustrate the book -- at the seemingly infinite village markets on their route. They make enough only for the roughest accommodations, and so they get by on favors, bribes, luck. In short, they are vagabonds.

    "We denied ourselves every luxury except one," Bouvier writes, "that of being slow." They quickly learn, if they wan to eat, they must win over the people they encounter. Ultimately they find music holds the key. In a stroke of packing brilliance, they bring along a tape recorder. On their many stops, they rarely fail to find an expert lute player or the uncle of an inn owner who plays the accordion for all of a town's ceremonies. One night they stumble on a gypsy encampment in Bojogevo, Serbia. Known to perform the "folksongs of whatever province their in," after rounds of wine and smoked fish, Bouvier brings out his tape recorder as the group plays "the old melodies their village cousins had long since forgotten. Crude, rousing, vociferous songs which told of the ups and downs of ordinary life, poaching, small windfalls, the winter moon and empty stomachs." The next day they return to the encampment and play the recording back to the gypsies. "It was excellent: their voices timid at first, soon lapsing into rustic bellows, irresistibly gay. They listened with their eyes closed in pleasure, smiles on their hatchet faces. Bojogevo had never heard its music issuing from a machine." Is there a better way to make new friends than to hold up a mirror that returns an image at one's best, more creative and free?

    A savvy traveler, Bouvier also writes remarkably well about place. Take Belgrade in summer: "It is a morning city: at six o'clock the municipal watering cart sweeps away the refuse left by the market-garden trucks and the shops' wooden shutters bang open; at seven, all the cafes are jumping." Further, it is a town "where horses bore children's names."

    The strength of Bouvier's prose, and of The Way of the World overall, is the care with which he lays out a double commentary both on what he sees and how he interprets it -- thoroughly, personally. It's this personal tone that hooks the the reader, gets him to believe, if only for a moment, he's

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