I’ve lost German. I’ve lost French a bit too, but not as much, mostly the accent. I can still read in French. My German was never as good, never really good enough for nineteenth-century novels, with the foolish result that I have read almost no German literature. I knew I ought to read it in German. I knew it would be mere laziness and self-indulgence to use a translation. I wanted to be like the Bronte sisters, like the Rivers women in Jane Eyre, gathering around the fire with Goethe and a German dictionary night after night until they could do it, not because they needed the GCSEs but just for the love of the thing. For self-improvement. I worked my way through the French canon along approximately those lines but my German just wasn’t really there, not enough for Thomas Mann. And I’m a literary critic by training and translations just won’t do. You’re reading for the plot, with a translation, or for the cultural and historical context, or even if the translator’s done a lovely job and you’re reading for the beauty of the thing, it’s not the original beauty. It’s not authentic. (And yes, I do know fairly exactly how problematic is the idea of authenticity.) So German literature, bar a bit of poetry, had to wait until I could read it in German. Twenty years later, it’s still waiting.
Meanwhile, I’m writing this on the train to London on my way to Japan. I haven’t pulled myself together. I haven’t risen like a phoenix from the ashes of my seventeen-year-old self, the one disabled by self-consciousness and the haunting fear that one day someone would see through me. I’m still afraid of making a fool of myself. I’m still scared by the idea of a world in which there are no words for me. But I’m also, now, writing a novel in which someone bigger and braver than me goes to Japan. I’ve gone back to my fascination for the wood-block prints. And while I might have got away with writing Cold Earth without ever going to Greenland because I knew other North Atlantic landscapes pretty well, I don’t think I could write about Japan without ever having set foot in Asia.
There is a solution for people who want to go somewhere but don’t want to be alone in a foreign land. I thought the history of tour groups began with Thomas Cook at the end of the nineteenth century, but on reflection I recall that almost all European travellers in Asia had guides from the very beginning, and usually they took along their own servants as well, to do the laundry and make sure they had nice food and that the sheets were aired and the towels clean. The idea that one could or wish would to travel unescorted and unmediated is a very modern one. I was not brought up to join tours, or indeed groups of any kind. My parents were fully independent, intrepid travellers. We found roads that weren’t on the map and drove along them through the mountains. We camped because we could carry our own tents and sleeping bags and be dependent on and beholden to nobody. (I am reminded of Pa in Little House on the Prairie.) We scorned crowds, tourists, translators. The highest praise for a landscape was that it held no trace of human occupation and that we had it to ourselves.
All that seems pretty misanthropic to me now. Humans are, by and large, sociable animals. Most of us need company as well as solitude. I despise the rhetoric of independence in relation to politics because I am certain that we all have the responsibility of caring for others and the right to be cared for ourselves. I don’t want to live in a society that fetishes independence but one where ordinary human weakness meets with ordinary human mercy and compassion, not because the world is divided into the weak and strong but because we are all weak and strong. Well, I’m a weak traveller, at least according to the definitions with which I grew up. Isolation drives me mad, quite quickly. I worry a lot. I see catastrophes coming from far away. I dislike being unable to communicate. But I would still like to go to Japan, not because I need to prove anything along the lines of independence, intrepidity or general moral worth but because I am a writer and I want to write about it. So I’ve found people who will do the difficult and arduous bit for me so I can concentrate on looking really hard and writing really hard about what I see. I’ll be walking the Nakasendo Way with a company called Walk Japan, staying in interesting and comfortable guesthouses chosen by people who know what they’re doing, having my bags taken ahead by taxi so I can tread lightly without being impeded by impedimenta. They’ve chosen and booked a traditional inn in Kyoto for me, because I reckoned I’d rather rely on someone’s professional expertise than on vindictive or simple-minded Tripadvisor reviews and I want to be well looked-after so I can get on with seeing and writing. And I’ve got The Magic Mountain to read on the plane, in a perfectly adequate English translation.
Growing up is hard to do. But it means I get to go to Japan.