Travelling And The Writer: Europe 1914-1939

Brian Collins
Brian Collins

I am a traveller and I don’t mean a two-week-a-year holidaymaker. On average, I have moved to a new city or country or continent once a year for the past ten years. While travelling I read. I read on buses, planes, trains, only stopping to look out the window or to sleep. I mostly travel by myself and during the first days of a move abroad I find a park or a street bench or a bar and read as the new place settles into me and I to it. These are undoubtedly my two happiest reading habits.

“I am standing on the platform of the electrical tram, feeling wholly uncertain of my position in the world, in the city, in my family. I would be unable to offer even the most approximate statement of my justified expectations with regard to each or any of the above. I am not even able to justify my standing there on the platform, holding on to a strap, being carried by this conveyance, that people step aside from the conveyance, or walk quietly along, or stop and look at the shop windows. True, no one is expecting such a statement of me, but that’s neither here nor there.”

Franz Kafka, The Passenger


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Travelling on your own provokes thoughts, leads to introspection, evaluation of the self. You say goodbye to your home, but you may feel that nowhere is your home, yet everywhere becomes your home. While on the road your body and mind go through a type of catharsis, a rinsing of recent tensions to prepare for everything forthcoming, everything new. When you get to your destination, say the centre square of a metropolis like Madrid for example, having paced through the passageway corridors of airports and stations, and you’re not weighed down by bags anymore as you’ve dropped them off wherever you’re staying, there comes a realisation: for the first time you have accepted the move. You find a place to eat and have a drink, sit back, relax and watch the city. This is the traveller’s release.

“On the Alexanderplatz they are tearing up the road-bed for the subway. People walk on planks. The street-cars pass over the square up Alexanderstrasse through Múnzstrasse to the Rosenthaler tor. To the right and left are streets. House follows house along the streets. They are full of men and women from cellar to garret. On the ground floor are shops. Liquor shops, restaurants, fruit and vegetable stores, groceries and delicatessen, moving business, painting and decorating, manufacture of ladies’ wear, flour and mill materials, automobile garage…”

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

The writer is a traveller, but the lone traveller, even if not a writer, always becomes one. I met many people who hadn’t written introspectively since they were instructed to in school, however, once they had taken to the road they started keeping a journal. There might not have been any literary ambitions for their journals, but they still felt compelled to note down their thoughts and observations. These travellers always asked for book recommendations and while I told them about authors like Jack Kerouac or Henry Miller, I knew they wouldn’t read them. Lone travellers need a way to communicate their thoughts as they can pass days without having a conversation that goes beyond the transactional. They start writing.

“Beautiful in the frost and mist-covered hills above the Dnieper, the life of the City [Kiev] hummed and steamed like a many-layered honeycomb. All day long smoke spiralled […]

All night long the City shone, glittered and danced with light until morning, when the lights went out and the City cloaked itself once more in smoke and mist.”

Mikhail Bulgakov, The White Guard

The three excerpts are part of El viaje y el escritor: Europa 1914-1939, Travelling and the Writer: Europe 1914-1939, an exhibition currently showing in Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Conde Duque. Curated by historian and essayist, Fernando Castillo, the exhibition displays a collection of excerpts describing landmark European cities and travelling between the years 1914 to 1939. The excerpts, hung on the exhibition’s walls, are from writers such as Rafael Alberti, Maria Teresa Leon, Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth, James Joyce, Cesare Pavese, Tristán Tzara, Corpus Barga, Paul Valery, Luis Cernuda and Ramón Gómez de la Serna. Hung next to the excerpts are distinctive paintings of the authors by the artist, Damián Flores. The canvases visualise the authors’ words, framing the writers into the paragraphs they wrote.

Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Conde Duque 9-11. Metro: Plaza de Espana L3, L 10.

16 Feb – 15 Oct.

Tuesday – Saturday: 10:00 – 14:00 & 17:30 – 21:00.

Sunday & hols: 10:30 – 14:00. Free entry.

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