In 1790 a 27 year old French solider working as a mercenary in Italy named Xavier de Maistre was sentenced to 42 days of house-arrest in Turin for fighting an illegal duel. During his time confined to his room he wrote the manuscript for Voyage autour de ma chambre or as it is often translated, Voyage Around My Room and in doing so unwittingly penned the ultimate travel book for the age of the Coronavirus. The book also appears in English as A Journey Round My room.
By all accounts de Maistre was an impetuous young man, who originally didn’t fancy himself a writer. But as the world is learning now with the current social distancing lockdowns, being confined to your house makes you do strange things. Xavier de Maistre was born the younger brother of noted philosopher Joseph de Maistre to an aristocratic family at Chambéry, France in October 1763. His life took a few turns until it came crashing to a halt in 1790.
Confined to his home, with only his manservant for company (we feel sorry for him), de Maistre took to writing to past the time. And while he wrote Voyage autour de ma chambre as a parody set in the tradition of the grand travel narrative, which was popular at the time, it was never intended for publication. This is perhaps what makes the book so fascinating. It is funny, self-deprecating, innovative and a thoroughly enjoyable read, even though de Maistre never expected anyone else to see it.
Voyage Around My Room is an autobiographical account of how a young official, imprisoned in his room for six weeks, looks at the furniture, decorations and his possessions, as if they were scenes from a voyage to a strange land. He praises this voyage because it does not cost anything, and for this reason it is strongly recommended to the poor, the infirm, and the lazy. The author’s wit and sense of humour is always present.
His room is a long square, and the perimeter is thirty-six paces. “When I travel through my room,” he writes, “I rarely follow a straight line: I go from the table towards a picture hanging in a corner; from there, I set out obliquely towards the door; but even though, when I begin, it really is my intention to go there, if I happen to meet my armchair en route, I don’t think twice about it, and settle down in it without further ado.” Later, proceeding North, he encounters his bed, and in this way he lightheartedly continues his “Voyage”. This work is remarkable for its play with the reader’s imagination, along the lines of Laurence Sterne, whom de Maistre admired.
At first Xavier de Maistre did not think much of his manuscript, but his brother Joseph did and he had it published in 1794. It instantly became a hit in Paris. To capitalize on his success de Maistre wrote a sequel, Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room, where his travels took him as far as his window sill. Over the years many great thinkers such as Nietzsche, Machado de Assis, Ossian and Susan Sontag have all come to embrace the book as being ingenious. Which it is.
Today the appeal of this travel book is the writer’s humour and his ability to overcome forced isolation with only his imagination. A lot of travelers with wanderlust can identify with his predicament these day. But de Maistre proves that sitting on the living-room sofa can be as fascinating as crossing the Alps or paddling up the Amazon. Voyage Around My Room is a fun read and and it might just be the ultimate travel book for the age of there Coronavirus.