For those struggling with lockdown, an anti-travel book written in 1790 offers unlikely solace. Written while under house arrest in Turin, Italy, Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room is an undervalued travelogue. De Maistre describes his travels in miniature with the enchantment of the Grand Tour: a few paces around the bed, a longing gaze at an engraving, and on to the armchair:
My room is situated in latitude 48° east, according to the measurement of Father Beccaria. It lies east and west, and, if you keep very close to the wall, it forms a parallelogram of 36 steps round. My journey will, however, be longer than this; for I shall traverse my room up and down and across, without rule or plan.
I stumbled across Voyage Around My Room in philosopher Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, a quizzical appraisal of travel writing. De Botton weighs Voyage against Alexander von Humboldt’s 30-volume Travels to the Equinoctial Regions, a magnum opus of scientific and geographical exploration. Where von Humboldt braves rapids, scales peaks and wrestles electric eels, de Maistre stays in his room with insouciant aplomb. Von Humboldt longed “to be transported from a boring daily life to a marvellous world”. De Maistre’s insight, conversely, is that within life’s boredoms greater marvels may be discovered.
With wry sideswipes at the grandiosity of travel narratives, de Maistre offers vivid lessons for troubled times.
In his confinement, de Maistre ponders friendship, death, philosophy, and misfortune. He delights in painting and poetry – and his breakfast. He mocks travel writing’s pedantry, itemising details along the way: furniture, engravings, contents of the bureau.
Upon opening the first drawer to the left, we find an inkstand, paper of all kinds, pens ready mended, and sealing-wax; all which set the most indolent person longing to write.
His tongue-in-cheek tale nonetheless offers timely lessons, if we have the patience to discern them.
One reader calls de Maistre “a master of minutiae. Voyage Around My Room is his manifesto for surviving and thriving. Finding his chamber abounds in "all the riches and enjoyments of the world”, he revels in his constriction. Whenever frustration threatens, he dissolves it with attention to detail.
Exemplifying minimal effort
Lockdown initially ignited crazes of mastering skills, learning languages, decluttering, revamping spaces. For those, like me, overwhelmed by such strenuous goals, de Maistre is a patron. He exemplifies minimal effort.
De Maistre’s style of voyaging also suits all. The poor and rich; the sick and the idle. He admires that “capital article of furniture”, the armchair; he applauds a good fire, books and pens, immediately forgetting books to stir the fire. He allows his journey to zig-zag like Tristram Shandy’s errant narrative.
I am no admirer of people who are such masters of their every step and every idea that they can say, “To-morrow I shall make three calls, write four letters, and finish this of that work.” So open is my soul to all sorts of ideas, tastes and feelings.
Without Zoom, de Maistre maintains contact with the world through his long-suffering valet. He takes care to be mindful that, with such reduced human contact, he is escaping the fickle judgements of the world: “The pleasure to be found in travelling around one’s room is sheltered from the restless jealousy of men, and is independent of Fortune.” We might benefit from recasting lockdown as an opportunity to switch off from feeling judged by others. If nobody is dressing up, going out, having a better time than us, then we may forget, for a while, the latest fashions and cars, jostling for status and exchanging gossip.
To those who may not travel, Voyage Around my Room offers alternative explorations. We are all making such voyages perforce, equipped only with our pyjamas and capacity for noticing. If surviving in cramped circumstances seemed challenge enough, de Maistre’s wry counsel turns isolation into expedition. Consider your furniture; lose your way en route to the armchair; stand idle, indulging in behaviour we’d rather not broadcast away from prying eyes.
Voyage Around My Room shows the weary in lockdown that there is much more to discover on our voyages around our room. Xavier de Maistre was so encouraged by his brother’s reaction to his work that he wrote a sequel, Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room, in which our intrepid author heads for the balcony.