Perhaps all travel writers should come home in the end.
British author Nicholas Jubber started a little too late for the heady days of the 1980s and 90s, when travel writers could earn big advances and ready name-recognition. But he is apparently unbothered by the vagaries of publishing fashion. Since his 2005 debut, The Prester Quest, he has displayed an admirable commitment to what might be called “classical travel writing”, delivering a series of books that cleave to the well-established format in which a well-educated young Briton with a sense of humour and an interest in history steps out into what William Dalrymple has called that “particular quadrant of the world—the area roughly between Athens and Calcutta.”
But Jubber’s latest journey has brought him out of the quadrant (which, in his case, also extended to North Africa) and into territory much closer to home but in its way much less familiar. It turns out to have been a canny move, for Epic Continent is his best book yet.
Even the stupendously convoluted Nibelungenlied gets distilled into a snappy 300-word overview.
As with his previous books, Jubber takes a solid historical theme and sets it up as the basis for a writerly quest. This time, however, the theme is not the Persian poet Firdowsi, or the writings of Leo Africanus; it is the grand European tradition of the epic, and the quest is to ask “What did these stories do to create Europe? Are they still worth reading? And can they help us to understand Europe today?”
Jubber takes six individual epics, a pleasing mix of the familiar (the Odyssey, Beowulf) and the more obscure (the Kosovo Cycle, Njal’s Saga) and uses them to frame a journey that begins in Greece, traverses the Balkans, passes back and forth from Britain, winds through Scandinavia, and ends in Iceland. A thoroughly European trip, then. But at the outset Jubber crosses the fraught maritime frontier of the EU to, very briefly, set foot in Asia—at Troy, the “blood-stained maternity ward” for Europe’s imaginative consciousness of war, as far as Jubber is concerned. The birthplace of the Odyssey in Ancient Greece, he reminds us, is “at the edge of Europe, eavesdropping on the dramas of Asia.” There’s an unintentional moment of tension here: the travel writer standing at the brink of that “particular quadrant”—surely the road to Oxiana beckons! But Jubber turns back west.
Along his European journey there’s plenty of humor, and a convincing enthusiasm for the epics themselves, which Jubber has a knack for précising in highly engaging terms. For the Odyssey, “Think road movie or disaster movie, slashed with setbacks and sudden deaths, climaxing in a shoot-out as blood-spattered as a spaghetti Western.” Even the stupendously convoluted Nibelungenlied gets distilled into a snappy 300-word overview.
This is a writer who travels with a Dictaphone, who is seemingly concerned with honoring his interlocutors’ actual words.
But this is, in its way, a more serious book than Jubber’s previous works. It brims with human encounters: the author might be notionally concerned with the past, but it’s clear that he takes his “what can history teach us about the present” set-up seriously. Here and there he includes indented blocks of verbatim speech from those he meets along the way: a woman in Sarajevo recalling the violence of the 1990s, a Bosnian poet, and others. This is a writer who travels with a Dictaphone, and who is seemingly more concerned with honoring his interlocutors’ actual words—even those of a singularly unsympathetic supporter of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland movement in Germany—than with crafting the artfully reimagined dialogues of other travel writers.
The book also features a brief, glancing element of the deeply personal. Early in his journey, walking on the blistering Greek coast, Jubber mislays his backpack. The loss is particularly alarming, he confesses, for the pack contains the serotonin-regulating pills he has needed to take “for a few years now” to “control the chemical imbalances in my own head.” The relentlessly merry protagonist of his previous books gains a sudden new facet in retrospect here. But Jubber’s reluctance at this moment of self-revelation is palpable: “I’ve hesitated to write this” he notes in the key passage, which breaks down in reticent ellipses.
The lost pills do cast a faint shadow over a few subsequent chapters, and there’s a brief, and similarly reluctant, reflection on the death of his father, many years earlier. But then a new delivery of medication arrives and he moves on with no more to say on the matter. Contemporary British travel writing—and especially its “new nature writing” subset—is crowded with “inner journeys” and self-focused tales of recovery from grief, addiction and mental illness. Epic Continent is all the more engaging for Jubber’s brief confession, but it’s to his credit that he resisted the temptation—and perhaps the editorial pressure—to make this all about him.
An inevitable second theme, running alongside that of the old epics, emerges across the course of the book—that of contemporary migration. At every turn, from Greece to Scandinavia, Jubber runs into refugees and migrants—many of them from the parts of the world where he previously practiced his travel writing. Rusty Arabic language skills, acquired for his earlier books, turn out to be useful on the streets of Central Europe. Jubber foregrounds the migration story subtly, and without ever saying as much directly he plainly implies that these many thousands of men and women each possess their own epic stories, far outstripping the elective odysseys of travel writers, and perhaps even the narrative of Odysseus himself.
Towards the end of his quest, Jubber returns to his own homeland, England, to cover Beowulf (“simply, one of the most beautiful things that England has ever made”). It turns out to be the stand-out section of the book. Overnighting in Brexit-voting English towns, the author seems to be in more foreign a territory than ever before. A placard-waving pensioner in Stoke-on-Trent angrily tells him that “They’re coming in their hordes,” with the “they” requiring no further clarification. Later, slogging along litter-strewn East Anglian roadsides, Jubber’s observations and turns of descriptive phrase gain a new sharpness:
this was classic Little England, mixing old-school trustfulness with beady-eyed vigilance: sticker decals for Neighbourhood Watch stamped the windows behind honesty stalls with slots to pay for punnets of fresh eggs.
The momentum gained in the English interlude carries Jubber through the book’s final chapters—through Denmark to finish the Beowulf story (which, of course, emerges from an ancient tradition of cultural connections between England and mainland Europe), and onwards to Iceland for the final epic, Njal’s Saga. But one comes away from the book with a clear impression: that when, for whatever reason, a travel writer’s journeys into the traditional “particular quadrant” are over and done, there will always be another undiscovered country to write about, much, much closer to home.