In 1939, Ella K. Maillart and Annemarie Schwarzenbach, both accomplished writers and photographers in their own right, left Geneva together in a Ford and traveled on Afghanistan’s Northern Road. They recorded their experiences in two separate travelogues: The Cruel Way by Maillart, and All the Roads Are Open by Schwarzenbach. I’m writing about them both in one post because I think they can, and perhaps should, be read in concert. The two women had a complicated relationship, and both texts (whether deliberately or not) unite the narrative of their challenging Afghan journey with the equally difficult internal struggles they faced along the way.
Annemarrie Schwarzenbach was androgynous, promiscuous, and constantly at odds with her wealthy conservative family. In fact, at her mother’s insistence, she is described in The Cruel Way under the pseudonym “Christina,” so as to not ruin the family’s reputation. She wrote political articles, and was an active member of the antifascist resistance. At the time of her trip to Afghanistan, she was struggling with morphine addiction, and Ella Maillart did everything she could to help her. Maillart was, or at least appeared to be, much more well-adjusted, easy-going, and even successful by society’s standards (before starting a career as a writer and photographer, she had also competed in the 1924 Olympics). Still, she no doubt suffered for the same restlessness that led them both to want to travel for a living. Here is an excerpt from The Cruel Way, in which Ella and “Christina” are in Istanbul:
Of all the towns I know Constantinople is the most international: nothing can compare with the variety of its people, religions, alphabets, fashions, styles of architecture. Seen from the sea, Pera even offers a sky-scraper’s silhouette. I suggest that Constantinople, more central than Geneva, should harbour the next League of Nations. There the daughters of Stalin, King George and Nehru could easily meet Madame Chiang to decide if Eurasia is to fight the two Americas ruled by the sons of Roosevelt!
Christina was also in a gay mood: the paymaster had addressed her as Monsieur! The further we moved eastward, the more often she was taken for a boy. And this not only by Asiatics: in Delhi smart Major Gastrell spoke to her for fifteen minutes before suspecting that she was a woman.
And in All the Roads Are Open, Annemarie contemplates this same stop on their journey:
None of us know what we live by--how can we miss something, then, and regret it? In Stamboul, when I arrived very tired late in the evening and the ancient arch of the city gate closed over me, the pavement echoed, oil lamps lighted the street of the bazaar, and at last the glimmering night water of the Bosporus flowed past in ceaseless gliding silence--then, surely, I could have breathed easy and believed for a moment that I had arrived at some kind of destination and had honestly earned this thousandfold fanfare of reunion. But terrible doubts would soon have taken hold: was this really the true, the ultimate place? In my dreams I would have seen the domes of other cities, and when I woke I would have sought their sonorous names on signposts and maps. The journey demands no decisions of us and does not confront our conscience with a single choice to make us guilty and penitent, humble and defiant; soon we despair in all justice and think this life is meant as a labyrinth for us, an ill-fated trial. Departure is liberation--O one and only freedom left us!--and demands only undaunted, daily renewed courage…
In our Restless Women Travelers series, we will celebrate and (re)introduce you to some of the most important travelogues written by women, from Frances Trollope’s colonial voyage to the contemporary jungle treks of Kira Salak. Make sure to look through our list of upcoming titles to find the travel tale that will inspire you to be restless this summer!
On Sunday, June 22, we'll be hosting a very special book launch for the first title in our series, Edith Wharton's A Motor-Flight Through France. The event will take place at The Mount—Edith Wharton's gorgeous home in the Berkshires. Beginning at 5:30, we'll have a short reading, conversation, and cocktails on the patio overlooking Wharton's gardens, with fellow readers, writers, and travelers. We hope to see you there!