A stunning review of Jean-Paul Kauffmann’s A Journey to Nowhere has just been published in the Financial Times, courtesy of Ian Thomson, Primo Levi’s biographer. The full review is essential reading . . .
The literary travelogue – with elements of history, anthropology, personal experience and quest – is a difficult genre. In the absence of conventional plot, the challenge is to create a forward momentum, something that WG Sebald was skilled at doing. In lesser hands, such a book could easily stagnate.
A Journey to Nowhere, fortunately, is a triumph. In absorbing detail, Jean-Paul Kauffmann explores Courland, even though it “no longer exists”. Between 1561 and 1795, Courland (in German, Kurland) was a duchy that extended into modern-day Latvia. Having been subsumed into the Tsarist empire, Courland was occupied by Imperial Germany during the first world war, but subsequently disappeared when Latvia proclaimed independence in 1918. What remains of this once glittering Baltic outpost?
A Journey to Nowhere, superbly translated by Euan Cameron, provides a vivid amalgam of opinion, history and travelogue; I was absorbed from start to finish.
Kauffmann’s book has also been reviewed in Standpoint Magazine by the organ’s editor, Daniel Johnson. The notice was no less rapturous . . .
Although I do not much care for travel writing, there are (as with every literary genre) some exceptions: Patrick Leigh-Fermor for one, V.S. Naipaul for another. A new discovery for me is Jean-Paul Kauffmann. His latest work, superbly translated by Euan Cameron, is A Journey to Nowhere. It describes a journey to Courland, the Latvian peninsula inhabited by the human debris of a history as picturesque and desolate as its windswept landscape.
There is something haunting about this story within the story of Kauffmann’s journey, which is embellished by random encounters with more or less colourful and eccentric Courlanders, none of whom however has the charm of Mara. She belongs to Courland’s amnesiac present, yet evokes its exotic past — from the Order of Livonian Knights to 19th-century Jewish emigrants, fleeing Russian pogroms from the principal port of Liepaja; Baron Munchhausen concocting his fabulous adventures; the exiled Louis XVIII, last of the Bourbon monarchs; and Eduard von Keyserling, whose novels immortalised the doomed Baltic barons: Courland’s Chekhov. Kauffmann’s homage to his lost beloved leaves us all in his debt.
And finally — for now — Clare Russell has reviewed it in The Lady, giving it four stars, although it reads more like a five-star review . . .
Jean-Paul Kauffmann’s Journey To Nowhere is an intriguingly eccentric book – a kind of Gallic version of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes. Both are fuelled by an obsession and a quest. Kauffmann – a French journalist – is obsessed with a region. Courland, a stretch of land between the Gulf of Riga, the Baltic and Lithuania, no longer exists. It was once ruled by Teutonic Knights, captured by Nazi Germany, then returned to Soviet Russia. It’s now part of Latvia, and its strange history holds a potent charm for the author and reader alike.
Kauffmann is a gripping narrator. The minute he lands in Riga to find out more about a place that’s possibly ‘not going to be very jolly’, the ‘opposite of Italy’, you’re hooked. His first book, The Dark Room At Longwood, about Napoleon’s exile on St Helena, won six prizes. This should win a few more.
Mentioned in the same breath as W.G. Sebald, Patrick Leigh Fermor, V.S. Naipaul and Edmund de Waal all in one week. Now that is not bad going.
A Journey to Nowhere is available in Hardback at £18.99