One Little Room An Everywhere

Xavier de Maistre, trans. Andrew Brown, A Journey around My Room

Alma Classics, 160pp, £7.99, ISBN 9781847493088

reviewed by James Riding

Emerging from six weeks of isolation in the spring of 1790, deprived of the stimulation of friends and social gatherings, you might assume Xavier de Maistre would be feeling restless, his joie de vivre depleted. Not so. The young aristocrat’s confinement left him exhilarated. In a breathless account, de Maistre wrote how he had undertaken a journey in isolation that had given him a rewarding new way to see the world and led to surprising reflections on his own life and character. ‘My heart senses an inexpressible satisfaction,’ he began, ‘when I think of the countless unhappy people to whom I am here offering a sure and certain resource against boredom, and an alleviation of the ills they endure.’ That’s quite a claim. What was this ingenious idea — and, as the spectre grows of a second wave and the imposition of localised lockdowns, could we employ it to help alleviate the ennui of our own situation?

De Maistre’s account of his lock-in was A Journey around My Room, published in 1794. Having been placed under house arrest for participating in a duel, de Maistre considers the items in his modest apartment as a tourist might view a foreign land. The result is a witty, whimsical ‘travelogue’ that transforms the everyday into the visionary, containing musings on the self and the duality of man leavened with irony and mock-heroic silliness. The presence of Laurence Sterne is palpable — not just in the direct references to Tristram Shandy, but also in the meandering, shaggy-dog-story tone and restless, playful voice, which would go on to influence Victor Hugo and Marcel Proust, among others. Owing to this year’s surge in demand for books about isolation, a splendid 2017 translation by Andrew Brown, published by Alma Classics, has received a promotional boost. Appealing to us from 230 years ago, the positivity of de Maistre’s message that travel is a mindset offers us consolation at a time of mass confinement.

De Maistre was born in 1763 in Savoy, then an independent country, at the foot of the French Alps. He longed for adventure, possessed a strong sense of duty — he would spend most of his life in the military — and read voraciously. At 23 he became fascinated by aeronautics and tried to fly to America on an enormous pair of paper wings. Regrettably, this flight of fancy failed, although he was able to take part in a brief ascent in a hot air balloon two years later. Staunchly opposed to the French Revolution (which had little to offer a man of his social class apart from the guillotine), he joined a counterrevolutionary army and was stationed in Turin as an officer, where he wrote his Journey around my Room aged 27. When Savoy was annexed by France in 1792, he left the service, later joining the Russian army. He was also briefly a landscape painter in St Petersburg.

Although its setting is ‘thirty-six paces in circumference’, much of the picaresque range of de Maistre’s life can be glimpsed in his Journey around My Room. We are immediately informed that our tour will not be straightforward: ‘I will be crossing [the room] frequently lengthwise, or else diagonally, without any rule or method. I will even follow a zigzag path.’ De Maistre keeps his promise; at various points, he: lounges in his bed; muses on old flames and death; guides the reader through the sentimental engravings on his wall; shimmies around in his chair and falls over; confesses to being a novel-reader (‘As if my own troubles weren’t enough, I also voluntarily share those of a thousand imaginary characters’); and reveals his embarrassing admiration for Milton’s Satan. Simply listing what happens, however, rather misses the point of the book, especially since de Maistre spends large parts of it digressing from his proposed subjects and then reprimanding himself for doing so. What begins as a straightforward contemplation on the merits of various art forms, for example, ends with the author arguing with himself. He assumed he would believe painting to be the pre-eminent art, but after mulling it over, he is no longer certain. As he puts it: ‘Discussion [even with oneself] awakens objections.’ The journey is more important than the destination.

De Maistre is never truly alone in his ‘isolation’. Sidekicks, such as his faithful servant Joanetti and his beloved dog, Rosine, bumble in and out of the narrative, providing some of the funniest moments. They are constantly firing de Maistre’s imagination, and exposing his pretentiousness — ‘I continually take lessons in philosophy and humanity from my servant and my dog.’ At one point, Joanetti’s casual observation of a portrait on the table prompts a lecture from de Maistre on ‘plane surfaces’ and rays of light. Joanetti stands agape; he has no idea what de Maistre is going on about, even though he intuitively grasped everything his master is now explaining in over-elaborate terms.

Joanetti’s presence does not prevent de Maistre from longing for other forms of human interaction. His sexual frustration is palpable — one chapter is composed entirely of the mischievous double-entendre ‘the mound’, surrounded on either side by a forest of ellipses. In more melancholic moments, de Maistre contemplates feelings of pointlessness and the futility of life: ‘The imperceptible destruction of creatures and all the woes of humankind count as nothing in the great universe.’ Yet before he can transform into one of Beckett’s miserable narrators, positivity reasserts itself and he apologises for his lapse into misery: ‘If anyone finds that . . . I should have cut this chapter, he can tear it out of his copy, or even throw the book on the fire.’ Again and again, fun and farce overcome feelings of despondency. Imagination also offers a way of both overcoming fear of missing out and discovering beauty in the smallest spaces, much like the house-bound Coleridge in ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’ (written a few years after A Journey): ‘No plot so narrow, be but Nature there, / No waste so vacant, but may well employ / Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart / Awake to Love and Beauty!’ Remarkably, by the end of his journey it is returning to the outside world that de Maistre fears. ‘The yoke of business is going to weigh down on me once again,’ he sighs: without idle time to allow his mind to wander, maybe normal life is the real prison. Rather than systematising de Maistre’s wandering thoughts in search of an overarching theory, perhaps we can empathise with his contradictions, finding both solidarity in his struggles and reassurance and encouragement in his irrepressible optimism.

In his thoughtful introduction to the Alma edition of the book, translator Andrew Brown notes that ‘the experience of being alone will naturally tend to lead to an obsession with “reflection”.’ Sure enough, doubles abound on the Journey. In one passage, de Maistre considers the role of the mirror in society: ‘It alone always tells the truth to the great, unlike all their other counsellors.’ More interestingly, de Maistre proposes the theory that he is composed of two warring beings: the ‘soul’, with its inner thoughts and passions, and ‘that crazy beast’, the body which operates independently. To illustrate this, he uses a literary metaphor: when your thoughts wander while reading a book and ‘you come to the ends of the page without understanding it’, it is because ‘the other continued to read even though your soul was no longer listening’. Essentially, it is a fanciful version of Cartesian dualism, leading to the mind-boggling question: how does an immaterial ‘soul’ cause anything to happen in a physical body? For de Maistre, it was apparent that these two Xaviers influenced one another with only intermittent success. A more positive spin on this is that none of us are ever truly alone, since we are always contending with another aspect of ourselves, and that isolation is a great opportunity to learn more about, and harness the potential of, our inherent duality.

With its extended theme of doubles, it was only right that A Journey around My Room would receive a sequel. So, years later, de Maistre undertook a second journey, this time by night. A Nocturnal Expedition around My Room, finally published in 1825, is a particularly interesting counterpart to A Journey, for this time de Maistre actively seeks out his solitude. The first book suggested it was the mandatory nature of his confinement that sparked the author’s imagination. This time, like a writer deliberately limiting himself within the constraints of a poetic form, de Maistre voluntarily confines his body so as to expand his mind. Indeed, without his beloved dog and servant, de Maistre is closer to true isolation than ever. His focus has changed from easing the boredom of solitude to singing its praises: ‘Oh sweet solitude! . . . Woe betide the man who cannot go a single day in his life without feeling the torments of boredom and who prefers to converse with idiots rather than with himself.’ It’s hard to imagine many people today opting to stay at home once the virus is finally eradicated. However, as de Maistre quickly points out, we also need a social life — these ‘two modes of existence’ can only be truly enjoyed alongside each other. One night alone, therefore, is probably enough; like so much in life, it is the contrast and change that heighten the appreciation.

De Maistre’s writing was well received in his lifetime. Upon visiting Paris in the 1820s, he was surprised to discover he was widely known in literary circles, and even received a poem dedicated to him by Alphonse de Lamartine. Yet it was in successive generations that the impact of his travelogues began to be felt more deeply. A Journey is directly mentioned in stories by authors as various as Jorge Luis Borges, W. Somerset Maugham, Wilkie Collins and DH Lawrence. There is also the genre of ‘psychogeography’, beginning in the mid-20th century, which infuses de Maistre’s whimsicality and philosophical musings with Marxist defiance — you can imprison me in the confines of capitalism, but you’ll never take my freedom to travel internally. Like de Maistre, Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual and Species of Spaces probe the trivial to find the profundity underneath, creating an entire microcosm within a Paris apartment block with no detail left unexamined. More recently, even writers who are able to get out and about have kept one foot planted in the realm of the psychological: they do physically what de Maistre does mentally. It is hard to imagine Will Self’s lugubrious travel columns or Robert Macfarlane’s mind-bending nature writing, as much about the inner journeys of the author as they are about their physical excursions, without de Maistre paving the way two centuries prior.
James Riding is a freelance writer. He contributes to Literary Review and The London Magazine.