V. AND ME AND OTHERS
I’m never sure how I feel about that old psychogeographic strategy of using a map of one place while walking in another. I mean it seems sort of interesting, but surely once you arrive at the first river or dead end then surely the conceit ends pretty abruptly. (I could be wrong, this isn’t my area.)
But suddenly I find some psychogeography avant la letter in a rather surprising place – in Evelyn Waugh’s travel book Labels. It was his account of the 1929 Mediterranean cruise he took with his wife, who was of course also named Evelyn. One of the places they visited was Malta, and Waugh bought himself a guide book titled Walks in Malta by one F. Weston.
Waugh reports that he enjoyed the book, “not only for the variety of information it supplied, but for the amusing Boy-Scout game it made of sight-seeing. ‘Turning sharply to your left you will notice …’ Mr. Weston prefaces his comments, and there follows a minute record of detailed observation. On one occasion when carrying his book, I landed at the Senglea quay, taking it for Vittoriosa, and walked on for some time in the wrong town, hotly following false clues and identifying ‘windows with fine old mouldings,’ ‘partially defaced escutcheons,’ ‘interesting iron-work balustrades,’ etc., for nearly a quarter of a mile, until a clearly non-existent cathedral brought me up sharp to the realization of my mistake.”
Most of us, without calling ourselves psychogeogarphers, have done something similar on our travels, looked for the right thing in the wrong place, found we were looking at the wrong page of the map, found we weren’t where we thought we were, and so on. Sometimes it feels simply annoying, sometimes we see the funny side, like Waugh, and I suppose once in a while we do experience a Debordian derangement of the sense.
The Waugh episode is quoted in Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. It’s a good book, but it contains, uncritically, a very odd quotation from Anthony Burgess, “Probably, (as Pynchon never went to Valetta or Kafka to America) it’s best to imagine your own foreign country. I wrote a very good account of Paris before I ever went there. Better than the real thing.” This comes from an interview in the Paris Review “The Art of Fiction No 48” and as far as I can tell he’s completely wrong about Pynchon, who had surely visited Malta, and especially the capital Valletta, before he wrote about it in V.. Here is a gloriously uninformative jacket:
And I did find this in the Malta Independent, 13 April 2014, an unsigned and unattributed article which describes a lecture delivered by Professor Peter Vassallo, who hails from Valletta and is described as “an eminent authority on British literature.” The article says, though it doesn’t seem to be a direct quotation from the lecturer, “It is ascertained that Pynchon as a seaman in the US navy was in Malta during the Suez build-up, so the Valletta he portrays is a town he knows well, including and especially Strait Street with its bars, brothels and latrine.” Did it really have just the one latrine? Maybe so. In any case it tends to confirms my feeling that Pynchon did know his Malta.
For what it’s worth, I too have been to Malta, with my first wife shortly after we were married. She had lived there for a while because her father had been in the British navy and was stationed there, so she knew parts of the island pretty well. I had certainly read Thomas Pynchon’s V. at the time, but like an idiot I didn’t let it inform my visit to Malta. And I don’t remember us having either a map or a guide book, though surely we must have.
I know we did a lot of traveling on local buses to far-flung bits of the island and then a lot of walking when we got there. It was very good as I recall. I can’t remember much about it, but I'm pretty sure we walked up Strait Street.
I took pictures the ones you see here but they seem odd to me now. I think this was a time when I wanted to take pictures but wasn’t sure what to take pictures of. I’m struck by how few people appear in these pictures, walking or otherwise. The streets surely can’t have been quite as deserted as they appeared here but maybe I was a mad dog walking in the midday sun when everybody was sheltering from the heat. I can't tell you exactly where the pictures were taken but I think most of them were in Valletta.
So now I’ve been rereading parts of V.. We have discussed elsewhere whether Pynchon is much of a flaneur, and the jury is still out, but it’s not hard to imagine him drifting through the streets of Valetta, consulting an old Baedeker as he went; it would have been the Southern Italy volume.
And there is this passage in V., chapter 11, “Confessions of Fausto Majistral,” describing Valletta in the blackout during the German bombardment. I suppose a map’s no use in a blackout even if it’s of the place you happen to be.
“A city uninhabited is different. Different from what a "normal" observer, straggling in the dark - the occasional dark - would see. It is a universal sin among the false-animate or unimaginative to refuse to let well enough alone. Their compulsion to gather together, their pathological fear of loneliness extends on past the threshold of sleep; so that when they turn the corner, as we all must, as we all have done and do - some more than others - to find ourselves on the street... You know the street I mean, child. The street of the 20th Century, at whose far end or turning - we hope - is some sense of home or safety. But no guarantees. A street we are put at the wrong end of, for reasons best known to the agents who put us there. But a street we must walk.”