Literature’s Long and Winding Roads

Journey. I’m talking about a long trip, not the rock band, and specifically talking about long trips in novels.

Those trips, sometimes described as quests, can be in fantasy fiction or more realistic fiction. Journey novels of course have the potential to be quite exciting and compelling — with the characters fleeing something and/or searching for something, seeing new places, encountering great danger, testing their courage, testing their stamina, and successfully completing the journey, or not.

If the journey IS completed, is the result triumphant or at least satisfying? Often. But sometimes there is tragedy, mixed feelings, and/or results that are unexpected.

The last point is one of the interesting things about a book I just read: Tailchaser’s Song, the compelling Tad Williams fantasy novel featuring cats. (Yes, journey fiction can star animals.) Tailchaser the kitty character takes a long, arduous, harrowing trip for a very specific reason, and then…

Another novel about animals on a lengthy trek is Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey. In it, two dogs and a cat travel 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness to try to find their beloved humans.

Getting back to fantasy fiction, perhaps the journey novels that most come to mind are J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The stakes could not be higher in the latter trilogy; the characters leave their homes to literally try to save their world. (Tailchaser’s Song obviously takes some inspiration from The Lord of the Rings in that and several other ways.) There’s also L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its story we all know so well.

Science-fiction writers of course also offer journey motifs, whether the setting is Earth or outer space. Among the many examples are Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days, and H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon and The Time Machine (time travel is obviously an epic journey of sorts, even if many miles are not traversed).

Epic sea voyages that can last for many months or years? Edgar Allan Poe’s only finished novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, White-Jacket, and Redburn; and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi — to name just a few.

Lengthy trips via motor vehicle? John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance are three of many examples.

Other novels that are quite different from each other but share long journeys: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Voltaire’s Candide, Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles, H. Rider Haggard’s She, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, to name just a few.

I’ve only mentioned books I’ve read, so I missed plenty of trek-heavy novels. Any you’d like to mention and/or discuss?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which looks at fictitious graduation ceremonies of the past 🙂 — is here.

89 thoughts on “Literature’s Long and Winding Roads

  1. Thinking about this question, I realised, almost at once, that almost every novel or fairy tale I’ve enjoyed enough to remember the whole plot involves a journey, Thrilling, exhausting, magical, even harrowing – including the Irish fairy tales, told by Granddad, who insisted this must be in the dark. The Magician’s Nephew, more magical journeys, reminded me – probably not consciously, of the journey to Tyr nan Og . Next question ? Fiction inspired by one house ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Esther!

      There IS something about a journey that makes a novel or other story appealing. New places, new people, meeting challenges, etc. I like your four adjectives about that. And, yes, all that can bring up personal memories of being told stories when we were kids.

      I realize this is not exactly what you’re suggesting, but I once wrote a blog post about houses in literature. 🙂

      This Blog Post Is On The House

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  2. A different sort of journey:

    I have read two crime novels, “In the Woods”(2007) and “Broken Harbor” (2012), by the same author, Tana French, in which the narrator, a murder squad detective, years after, investigates on the scene of a childhood tragedy– one which utterly gutted the childhood of the investigator. It’s like a circular trip, not to a new physical destination from an old location, but from youth to adulthood. Nonetheless, nearly everything has changed but what was never resolved. (In each book, a different detective narrates.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Both novels sound very intriguing and compelling. Well-described by you. I’ve heard of Tana French, but have yet to read her work. Yes, a journey is not only a literal physical trip to someplace.

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  3. Thanks for sharing such an interesting piece. It reminds me of the ‘hero’s journey’ theory put forward by Joseph Campbell and also lost world genre literature, something I am very interested in myself and have written about in the context of the necessity of adventure and escapism in our lives. If you are interested here is the link. https://escapeandadventure.com/2021/02/28/sources-of-inspiration-adventure-stories/ Please feel free to disregard if isn’t up your street. Best regards and thanks again. BTW, Lost Horizon is a personal favourite of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My novel-in-progress, Giants is a quest that takes place in the area now called Patagonia in 1750. The story is based on Magellan’s circumnavigation (1519-1522) and the journal entries made by his assistant, Antonio Pigafetta. Pigafetta noted they encountered ‘men of giant stature…so tall we reached only to his waist.’ in the region south of Rio de la Plata. My fictional account is of a scientific expedition that attempted to find, and bring back to Europe, evidence of the giants. The idea for the story is based on my interest in the general subject of giants and how prevalent they are in many cultures, yet no one has ever discovered physical evidence of their existence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, James! “Giants” sounds fascinating — and well-researched. Continued good luck with it! Definitely contains journey (and journal) elements.

      Giants certainly appear in literature here and there, even if they might not exist in real life. “Gulliver’s Travels,” “Harry Potter” (Hagrid, etc.)…

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    • Weren’t those possibly mythic Patagonians also barefoot, with huge calluses to show for it as they moved about down there? I also recall that they wore no clothes, warming themselves at night by huge bonfires…
      I think I read some summary of your man Pigafetta’s account, possibly as part of a popular and/or young person’s history of Magellan’s voyage— 60 years ago!.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “Stamboul Train” by Graham Greene (1932), and “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) by Agatha Christie, are two suspense novels, the latter more of a conventional drawing room murder mystery set on wheels, that take place along portions of the same rail route. The Greene novel was even made into a movie titled “Orient Express” in 1934, and the possibility of customers confusing one property for the other caused Christie’s American publisher to put out her book under the title “Murder in the Calais Coach.” Besides route and a similarly large cast of characters, each novel shares a most bleak depiction of human beings behind their respective social masks– their cruelly casual prejudices, their selfish expediencies, their tactical amoralities. Those seeking uplift out of their reading materials will find themselves and their intentions derailed, should they take up either book– but they will also be entertained, even thrillingly, as long as the journey lasts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Excellent related mentions, and I loved your line “Those seeking uplift out of their reading materials will find themselves and their intentions derailed.” Yes, humans can be pretty darn biased, selfish, and amoral — and many a novel has skillfully depicted that, while also entertaining readers.

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    • Thank you, Bill! Two great mentions!

      My blog post focused on fiction books with travel elements, but it has been alleged that some of the nonfiction “Travels with Charley” (which I liked a lot) has fictional elements. 🙂

      Possibly my favorite nonfiction travel book is Mark Twain’s amazing/hilarious “The Innocents Abroad.”

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  6. I don’t think the novel “The Drifters” by James Michener was mentioned as of yet. Published in 1971, it’s another “On the Road” type of book. It’s been a while since I read it, but there were six young characters who meet up and drift around parts of Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Mozambique. I haven’t read many of Michener’s books, but I did enjoy this one quite a bit, because it made me think of my journey traveling around Europe for 9 weeks with two girlfriends, drifting around wherever the mood or whim might take us — it was the summer of ’69, and as the Bryan Adams song says “Those were the best days of my life”!🙂

    What first came to mind, though, was a film I loved, “A Far Off Place,” starring a young Reese Witherspoon. I just discovered that it is actually based on a novel by Laurens van der Post, the plot being about a young teenage boy of European descent and a young white girl, who after surviving the murder of their families by terrorist “Freedom Fighters,” must trek a thousand miles or so across the Kalahari Desert, with the aid of two Bushmen, to avoid being killed themselves. Now that is a trek! The book is now on my TBR list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Great Michener mention! There was certainly plenty of travel in his canon — “Caravans,” “Mexico,” etc., in addition to “The Drifters.”

      Fond memories of Europe trips when young — I totally hear you! Nine weeks with two friends…it doesn’t get much better than that. I did three two-week Europe trips during a four-year span in my 20s — one alone, one with a girlfriend, and one on a group tour (Russia).

      “A Far Off Place” sounds VERY intense and fascinating!

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      • I’m way behind on catching up on some of my favorite authors, so what did you think about Lionel Shriver’s novel “The Mandibles”? For some reason I think you may have mentioned this book before, but alas, my memory is definitely not what it once was (and never more shall be!).

        Liked by 1 person

        • I liked “The Mandibles” a lot, but wasn’t totally engrossed. Set in the future (spanning 2029 to 2047) — unusual for Lionel Shriver, I think.

          It’s hard to remember everything! 🙂 😦

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  7. Hi Dave, since the thread appears to be never ending (you’ve clearly pressed a button with a few people…) allow to me jump back in again with recommending Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady’. It takes the protagonist Isabel Archer from Boston to London and then on to Rome (with back-and-forths between the latter). But more than anything, it is about a woman’s journey from adolescence to adulthood, and the deceptions, traps and disillusionments that so often await a woman on that particular journey. The latter is of course true for many men, but they are mostly blisfully unaware of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! So glad you mentioned “The Portrait of a Lady” — my favorite (and I imagine many readers’ favorite) Henry James novel. Definitely some serious travel in it, as there is in a number of James novels, and a riveting/heartbreaking work. You summarized and described the book really well.

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  8. Yyyyeah Lord of the Rings! 🙂 I just bought a collector’s version of all four of those (including the Hobbit) and am going to read them again very soon! Lonesome Dove is another novel I can think of with a pretty big journey in it – crossing the country on horseback in a time when it was quite dangerous to do so! Kristin Hannah’s “the Nightingale” also shows us the dangerous mountain passage British Pilot refugees, led by a young woman, had to take over the mountains on foot into Spain during the war. And “War Horse” is near and dear to my heart, the novel of Joey the horse and his journey across the battlefields of WWI. A very fun topic as summer travel season descends upon us!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! 🙂

      A collector’s edition of those four Tolkien books — very nice. 🙂 “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” are always worth a reread — I’ve done that a few times myself, though not recently.

      And I appreciate the mentions of those three other works with strong journey themes! Treks were certainly more difficult long ago, in places such as America’s Old West. And mountain passages…rarely easy.

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  9. Since you mentioned the band Journey, my brain got stuck in the 60s/70s so here’s a coupla books: Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig and Wolfe’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test. Those hippie reprobates… ha! Great post Dave. Peace out, Susi

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  10. Thought provoking theme and treasure trove of reading suggestions, as usual! I had to scour my list to find a couple. Of course I second Rebecca’s mention of “Pilgrim’s Progress!” I would add “Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis, sort of theological science fiction, and Paul Harding’s “Enon” which is a heartbreaking journey of loss and recovery.

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  11. Hi Dave, this is another interesting discussion. I concur with Sarah and Rebecca with regards to their choices. The Pilgrim’s Progress and Alice in Wonderland are marvelous journeys, as are The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells have also written some spectacular journeys and I love The Time Machine. To these I would add The Divine Comedy, The Stand by Stephen King, and The Last of the Mohicans.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Robbie! Terrific mentions!

      James Fenimore Cooper is kind of underrated these days. I liked all five of his “Leatherstocking” novels (including “The Last of the Mohicans”) featuring Natty Bumppo. And plenty of journeying in all of them.

      And, yes, “The Stand”! Stephen King has written so many works that journeying is inevitably part of a good number of them. “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” “The Tommyknockers,” “Rose Madder,” “Cell,” etc.

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        • Robbie, I’m glad you mentioned spiritual journeys along with physical journeys! Both are important, and both are seen often in literature and real life. Of course, spiritual journeys don’t necessarily have to be religious journeys per se. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Erich Maria Remarque are definitely adept at depicting spiritual journeys. Also in such novels as “The Blithedale Romance” (Hawthorne) and “Arch of Triumph” (Remarque).

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            • “I have an on-going inner conflict about reading quicker to read more and reading slower to appreciate more” — that IS a dilemma!

              “The Blithedale Romance” is good not great — certainly a lesser novel than “The Scarlet Letter.” But interesting in its way, as kind of a semi-autobiographical take on Hawthorne’s time living in a commune.

              I absolutely love Remarque’s work, also including “The Night in Lisbon,” “A Time to Love and a Time to Die,” etc. Such a great writer!

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          • Don heartily agrees with you. Sir Walter Scott, as you know, was another of Don’s favorite author. He especially appreciated how James Fenimore Cooper used “here” as the last word of Natty Bumppo in “The Prairie.” While many people think it is open-ended and ambiguous, Don thought it was the perfect ending.

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            • “The Prairie” in general was a very worthwhile and moving conclusion to Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels, Rebecca. Interesting, as you and Don know, that it was the second of the five books written even though it was chronologically the last in terms of Natty Bumppo’s life (as an old man).

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  12. A wonderful post and followup discussion, as always, Dave. What a marvelous word – journey! It defines humanity, for our journey moves from birth to death, crisscrossing others who we meet along the way, which includes those weread about in books. For me, the journey began with Jason, leader of the Argonauts, and Odysseus and the Odyssey. In the cold of the northern regions of Canada, I imagined sailing under the warm sun of the Mediterranean Sea. The Pilgrim’s Progress was another unforgettable journey. When Christian was captured in Doubting Castle with the Giant Despair, I was elated when he found the key that would unlock the door. And then came Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” a recommendation from my brother, Brian. It’s the possibility of having a dream come that makes life interesting.”

    And of course J.R.R. Tolkien’s , “There and Back Again, A Hobbit’s Tale,” I loved this benediction: “May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks.”

    Journey is about about home, identity, leaving, past, present, travel and moving on. My most recent read was:Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon. I happened upon this quote by chance, which led me to this remarkable book. “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”

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    • Thank you, Rebecca, for the profound and eloquent words — including the descriptions of various kinds of journeys and the naming of several journey novels, among them some long-ago classics. I definitely want to read a modern classic, “The Alchemist,” one of these days.

      That Pascal Mercier quote is as good as it gets!

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  13. I am so glad that you liked the novel, Dave! I was intrigued by it and I know how you feel about your feline friends!

    I’m glad you mentioned Cold Mountain! Talk about a very unhappy journey! And don’t forget Sounder!

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    • Thank you, lulabelle! I appreciate you recommending “Tailchaser’s Song,” and I agree that it’s an intriguing novel! And, yes, I do love cats. 🙂 Tad Williams definitely gave his feline characters many recognizable cat traits even as they acted sort of human, too.

      I agree that “Cold Mountain” was a downbeat book, but compelling. 😦 And I’m very glad you mentioned “Sounder”!

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  14. Hi Dave, Journey stories are fascinating! The characters always seem quite brave as they leave all that’s familiar. I think the first time that struck me was when I read Lord of the Rings many many years ago. What an excellent tale that is!
    I’ve just started reading ‘Vile Bodies! By Evelyn Waugh which begins with a journey funnily enough. Other books about journeys…‘Frankenstein’ charts quite an epic trek. I suppose ‘Dracula’ as well to some extent. ‘The Artificial Silk Girl’ by Irmgard Keun tells the story of a young woman who travels between cities in Germany before the second war. She gets herself into all sorts of scrapes. Her story really is one of survival. Keun is such an excellent author. Another story I read this year is ‘Nectar in A Sieve’ by Kamala Markandaya. I loved this novel and it was quite heart breaking as the main character and her husband leave everything they know in the country to find their son who left for the city.
    Got to mention ‘Alice in Wonderland’ again as well…

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    • Thank you, Sarah! I appreciate all the examples of novels with journeys.

      The “Alice” books — definitely! Very quirky journeying courtesy of Lewis Carroll.

      I’m totally forgetting lengthy trips in “Frankenstein” and “Dracula.” Guess I read those two novels WAY too long ago. 🙂

      “The characters always seem quite brave as they leave all that’s familiar” — great line by you!

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      • I did have to do a quick ‘refresh’ about Frankenstein (thank you Google)…isn’t there some chasing going on across the Arctic tundra?
        I forgot to mention ‘HMS Ulysses’ by Alistair Maclean. A harrowing tale about an arctic convoy sailing from
        Scapa Flow in the second war.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Ah, that’s sounding familiar now, Sarah! “Frankenstein” is one of those novels I need to reread someday.

          And Alistair MacLean can definitely make traveling VERY exciting and scary — also in a novel such as “Where Eagles Dare.”

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  15. Great post Dave. As I was reading I thought..oh this book and that book and then there it was, from The Incredible Journey to Grapes of Wrath and Cold Mountain. I’ll put in 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea. Verne did like his science fiction, didn’t he? Watership Down and The Birthday Boys.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne! 🙂

      “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is a great addition, and Verne was indeed a sci-fi maestro. (I’ve read at least a half-dozen of his books, most when I was much younger.)

      Excellent mention of “Watership Down,” too! I wasn’t familiar with “The Birthday Boys” but just googled it — and that’s a (historical-fiction) journey for the ages! Reminds me that the protagonist in Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” also went to Antarctica, albeit many years later and in a less-rugged way.

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      • Yeah, I read the Verne books many years ago. They were wonderful ‘ adventure’ books and we was ahead of his time the things he ‘saw’. I liked the ‘construction’ of Birthday Boys, where she took each of the men on that ill-fated trek and has a chapter devoted to a birthday in their lives but interweaves that birthday with the actual raging insanity of that trek. I’ve read a lot of Bainbridge. I like her prose. But I like this one because Dundee has the Discovery which was commission for the first journey out there. It was a Dundee crew on the Terra Nova ..also a Dundee built ship… that had to get them out of that mess when the ship was frozen in the ice and that was also the ship that took them on that second trip. We call ourselves the City of Discovery. Also, Robert Scott’s son came to our primary way back to give a talk on his work with wildlife. And of course we were told..in addition, to shutting the whatever up and giving the man a chance–we were a rough area—that his father had been in this race for Antarctica. etc.

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        • Yes, Jules Verne was way ahead of his time — anticipating so many things that came to pass in some kind of form.

          “The Birthday Boys” — which is now on my to-read list 🙂 — does sound intriguingly put together. Interesting that that beyond-intense expedition had a very strong Dundee connection. Thank you for that fascinating historical information!

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          • It was a whaling port, inspiring Mary Shelley for the same reasons. They built the Arctic whalers here and these ships could withstand months in ice and still come home. That was why when a ship was being looked for, to go the Antarctic, it was commissioned to be built here. It is now the focal point of a museum. And the fact it was a whaling port then played in to becoming Juteopolis because jute is a difficult fibre to work with but they found out that whale oil softens it. I hope you like the Birthday Boys. Thrilled it is on your list. OOH. She always took a very diff approach to how she told a story in her books. I did like the way she got so much into this book but it’s not a huge long book.

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            • A Mary Shelley connection, too? Fabulous! What a ship-building past in your neck of the woods!

              I love Shelley’s work…well…the two novels of hers I’ve read: “Frankenstein” and “The Last Man.” Such a pioneer in the genres of horror, sci-fi, dystopian fiction, apocalyptic fiction, etc. And a great prose stylist.

              Hoping my local library has “The Birthday Boys” when I get back there! I like novels that take quirky approaches. 🙂

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              • Me too. Hope you get it. I must order it up on kindle and read it again myself. Yes Mary Shelley came to Dundee to stay with the Baxter family who were involved in the textile trade at a house called the ‘Cottage’, which was anything but but would be roughly where a cinema stood eventually that will have shown Frankenstein. Anyway, she had a lot of freedom here and the city at that time would have been nothing like it became in terms of industrialisation. She credited it as being the place where her imagination took flight. But also the ‘Cottage’ would not have been far from the docks and I gather when the whalers came home the town hurried down to meet them and they’d come back with their hulls all misshapen from being locked in ice for months. So the reckoning is she would ahve seen this and may well ahve used it in these Arctic scenes in the book. .

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                • Always interesting, Shehanne, to hear how authors get some of their inspiration. And fascinating that the “Cottage” site was roughly where a cinema would show “Frankenstein” many years later!

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                  • Yeah. Her imagination would not have envisaged that!! There’s huge steps down that way called the Frankenstein steps also a connection with a house in Newburgh over in Fife that the baxters owned. I am going to do a blog on some of the literary figures who had a connection with Dundee, Robert Barrett Browning’s mother was born there and I would like to blog the bit of the talk I added to a presentation we gave to the library in the Ferry with some of the figures from the Mr’s play on McGonagall, about how he would have been bang at home as a writer today. He was way before his time in the use of shameless media promo and self publishing.

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  16. Pingback: Literature’s Long and Winding Roads – Lagamaya

  17. Ah, allow me to conclude my contribution to the thread by suggesting two novels of one of my all-time favorite authors, Virginia Woolf: To The Lighthouse and Orlando. The latter novel, which I think I remember Woolf once characterized as a writer’s holiday, recounts not just a geographical journey, but a journey through history and time, and across the sexes.

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    • Thank you for the mention of those two Virginia Woolf books! I’ve heard a lot about both of them, but my reading of that author’s work is limited to “Mrs. Dalloway” — which I liked a lot. Yes, as you astutely noted, journeys can be defined in all kinds of ways. 🙂

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  18. Well, Dave, in a recent post in my own crazy and offensive blog I professed my love and admiration for the French author and winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature Patrick Modiano. Quests and the classic Vatersucher motive are at the heart of practically all of his novels. And quite some physical journeying is going on in them as well. The only good reason not to start reading Modiano is that you will be at the risk of spending this month’ income on his novels all at once, and not make any next month because you’ll still be reading.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Dingenom Potter! I’ve never read Patrick Modiano, and see that I should after your high recommendation! I do like novels with journeys. 🙂

      What does the “Vatersucher motive” mean? I didn’t find an English-language explanation when I just did some googling.

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      • Ah, the Vatersucher Motiv. It’s a bit of a scholarly concept, for some reason mostly known by its German term. It alludes to the search of one’s origin, one’s roots, or, more literally, once birth family. It’s a topos in much of the world’s greatest literature, and it is very much present in Modiano’s oeuvre. A literal translation of Vatersucher is a person in search of her or his father.

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  19. This genre of reading is attractive because they collect the events, feelings and impressions of a traveler. They can be both fantastic trips and real trips, the idea is that we enjoy a pleasant and interesting reading, just as you say in the books that you have recommended to read. I think it’s a great selection because I’ve already read some of them. Your post is very good. Greetings.

    Liked by 3 people

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