Travelling light

In 1790 Xavier de Maistre was a French army officer with a problem.Strictly speaking he didn't have an army any more, he was a minor aristocrat on the run from the Revolution, washed up in Turin, where he became involved in a duel, and was serving a 42 day sentence of house imprisonment. Life must have looked pretty bleak. Trapped in his room, and becoming a little stir-crazy De Maistre wrote A journey around my room.

In this slim volume he spends part of each day "travelling" around his room, reflecting on the books, portraits, ornaments and furniture that litter it, his companions - his servant, the loyal Joannetti, and his beloved dog, Rosine, his memories of friends and women, of love and laughter, and of his hopes for the future. Laid out like a travel book, this is a musing on the importance of the small things of life, the objects that are usually overlooked but that are vitally important to us. It's an endearing small book, a journey into the human spirit that prompts you to look at what's important within your own life too.

De Maistre doesn't take himself too seriously either, so there's plenty of humour here alongside some serious thought. 30 years later on the verge of leaving Turin forever (it's not entirely clear whether De Maistre is thinking of geographically moving, or whether there is something rather darker going on in his mind) De Maistre writes a companion volume A nocturnal expedition around my room. This is (perhaps appropriately as it's written at night) a rather darker volume. It lacks the insouciance that makes the first volume such a bright book; but there is much to be admired and enjoyed here too.

An older, wiser, and sadder De Maistre is now alone having lost both Joannetti and Rosine. He still takes delight though in the simple things of life, not least the glory of the night sky, the beauty of the night-time silhouette of the city he is about to leave, and a lovely voice and a shapely ankle glimpsed unexpectedly as he nearly tumbles through the window. This is definitely an older voice, more sardonic, but none the less charming and endearing for that.

I really enjoyed these two slim volumes. They capture the best that lies within the human spirit. De Maistre may have been locked in his room, but he was free. His mind could range across the globe, backwards and forwards through time, and, in the second volume, space. He could meet with old friends, return to lovers, resurrect the dead. And all this without moving outside the tiny space he occupied. His love for the small things of life was truly endearing, and will make anyone who lives in cluttered surroundings (mea culpa) think again.

It's hard too not to feel a great deal of affection for the charming author, a man who both captures his time, and yet is also timeless in much of his thinking. The books like their author are charming, and well worth a read.


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