Article by Mary Blume, International Herald Tribune, November 1993:
On the Road with an Unruly Traveler
PARIS – At the age of 90, Ella Maillart is no more ready to go gentle into that good night than she was ready in her prime to go gentle into that good day. As a young traveler and sportswoman she was restless and, for a well-brought-up Swiss, unruly: obsessed, she has said, with the geographic reality of the earth – “I feel the latitudes, each with its own color.” Now relative immobility makes her often cantankerous.
“I want to be in accord with this mad world,” she says, “and I’m grumbling all the time.” She had just ticked off a radio journalist for asking boring questions (and later apologized). Her blue eyes are like bubbles of glass in her fine tanned face, her white hair is waved and tidily secured by a bobby pin, her colours bright. Her hearing is dull, her mind is not. She lived a life of action to get to know the globe and herself and thinks her knowledge slight in view of man’s unending folly. A doctor is useful, she says, and an engineer, but she is not. “I see problems, I have no solutions.” It doesn’t make for a peaceful old age.
Maillart, a doughty survivor of the last great age of travel, between the two world wars, had come to Paris for an exhibition of her photographs at the Swiss Cultural Center in the Marais. “How lucky we were – not merely at the time, but in retrospect,” Peter Fleming, her companion on her most famous trip, wrote her in 1971. “Nobody will have the chance of doing, in whatever part of the world, that sort of thing again.” Fleming, Ian Fleming’s younger brother, belonged to the Old Etonian school of travel writing – graceful and wilfully amateurish. Maillart’s books are plodding in comparison, in part because of her view of travel is literally pedestrian, in part because she wrote only to finance her trips.
“I hate writing because it takes so much time. I am neither a good writer in French or in English. My French is not completely good because I thought and traveled in English, my English is not perfect because I never learnt it properly.” Taking pictures was marginally better. “It was quicker and less tiring than taking notes.” Her photographs are a sharp and sometimes striking form of road map. She says that her aim in travel was self-knowledge and she likes to quote the line by Henri Michaux, “The shortest road to oneself goes around the world.”
Her father was a furrier in Geneva, her Danish mother liked sports. Ella had a stubborn chin, and like many of the English travel writers of her generation, a profound disgust for the horrors of World War I. “I wanted to leave Europe, go as far as possible.” She bought a map of the South Pacific and, having already sailed the Mediterranean with a childhood friend, Miette de Saussure (later the mother of the actress Delphine Seyrig), she thought of heading to happy islands with an all-girl crew. Miette fell ill and the trip was off.
Ella taught French in Wales, was a secretary and a travelling saleswoman. She sailed and skied on the Swiss teams and founded the first women’s field hockey club in Switzerland. She was an actress, a sculptor’s model, and a stuntwoman in the UFA studio in Berlin when “The Blue Angel” was being filmed. Helped by a gift of $50 from Jack London, she went from Berlin to Moscow where she met Pudovkin, walked across the Caucasus, tried to field a women’s hockey team and rowed for the Alimentation Workers Eight. In 1932 she went to Russian Turkistan. Introduced to a Paris publisher by the great yachtsman Alain Gerbault, whom she had met while sailing on the Riviera, she wrote two books.
In England, she had a somewhat glamorous reputation because the Admiral of the Fleet had received an official reprimand after the entire Mediterranean Fleet missed lights-out while the admiral entertained Ella and three other female yachtswomen at dinner. Peter Fleming, a correspondent for The Times, had heard the story. Like Maillart, he was eager to go to Sinkiang in Chinese Turkestan, which was closed to foreigners. In 1935 they set off from Peking, reached their goal, and ended in Kashmir 3,500 miles and seven months later.
Each preferred solo travel. Maillart decided it might be prudent to have Fleming along in case she were imprisoned, Fleming must have sensed that she was a lot more frugal and handy than he was, able to design and make a tent, cook outdoors in freezing winds, sew, walk 14 hours without food and willing to wash his clothes. “It was she, and not I, who did the dirty work,” Fleming wrote later in “News from Tartary.”
Maillart took the minimum, Fleming packed Macauley’s “History of England” (Maillart’s books were Maigret and Arsène Lupin), a rook rifle, two pounds of marmalade, a bottle of Worcester sauce and writing paper headed The Times Foreign and Imperial Department. He called his horse Greys, she called hers Slalom, and both animals had to be abandoned when their strength failed.
Maillart, Fleming wrote, was a gallant traveler and good companion, and he suspected that the reason they got along was that she had a friendly contempt for him and he had a sneaking respect for her: “Both sentiments arose from the fact that she was a professional and I was eternally the amateur… We both knew that she was, so to speak, the better man.” Fleming, Maillart says, was charming and gifted and fundamentally unhappy. “We laughed at each other, I think that was the main thing.” At the end of the often frightful trip, Maillart wrote that she was sad: “It was the end of the easy life.” It seems an extraordinary phrase but privations chosen are a kind of luxury and concentrating each moment on survival is as good an escape as any from conventional demands.
Maillart continued to travel, although less spectacularly and made her last big trip in 1986 when she led a group of tourists to Lhasa. Now she spends the summers in a mountain chalet and in the winters descends to Geneva, which depresses her. She may go to Goa at Christmas.
She never had the illusion that she was an explorer or in any way an expert (“I knew the countries I had crossed only superficially”). She did not research her trips in advance. “I never knew if I would have the permit. Why read in advance if I am not allowed in? I always aimed at countries that were difficult to approach because I needed the spirit of challenge. Nobody can go? Then I shall go!”
The only challenge left, she says, is to die happy, with a smile. But the world with its thriving arms merchants and war gives her little cause to smile. “How can I smile when I see our madness?” She is incapable of the comforts of nostalgia, having always as a sailor and a skier and a voyager had to concentrate on the present moment. At her age, the present is inhibited and the future does not exist. One of her favorite quotations is Baudelaire’s “The cat explores his habitat before he sleeps.” She sees the earth, wasted as it is, as her habitat and she is not ready to sleep.
© Mary Blume / IHT, 1993