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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel


How to Talk About
Places You've Never Been

Pierre Bayard

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase How to Talk About Places You've Never Been

Title: How to Talk About Places You've Never Been
Author: Pierre Bayard
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 185 pages
Original in: French
Availability: How to Talk About Places You've Never Been - US
How to Talk About Places You've Never Been - UK
How to Talk About Places You've Never Been - Canada
Comment parler des lieux où l'on n'a pas été ? - Canada
How to Talk About Places You've Never Been - India
Comment parler des lieux où l'on n'a pas été ? - France
Wie man über Orte spricht, an denen man nicht gewesen ist - Deutschland
Come parlare di luoghi senza esserci mai stati - Italia
  • On the Importance of Armchair Travel
  • French title: Comment parler des lieux où l'on n'a pas été ?
  • Translated by Michele Hutchison

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable variations on the theme

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Chicago Tribune . 21/1/2016 Michael Upchurch
FAZ . 9/4/2013 Katharina Teutsch
Le Monde . 26/1/2012 Enrique Vila-Matas
The Observer . 16/5/2016 Ed Cumming
TLS . 16/6/2016 Ian Sansom

  From the Reviews:
  • "Bayard's arguments can be so elaborately knotty and counterintuitive they'll make your head ache. But his overall message is clear." - Michael Upchurch, Chicago Tribune

  • "So fällt dieser schmucke Essay doch am ehesten in die Kategorie des bürgerlichen Geschenkbuchs -- durchaus fürs leichte Reisegepäck" - Katharina Teutsch, Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung

  • "Bayard’s jaunty tone is still there, at times almost to a fault: you can almost smell the Gauloise smoke as he flourishes yet another wry observation, and it is unclear whether he is ever taking himself seriously. But his confident grasp of a wide range of material is also intact. (...) You can’t help but be impressed by Bayard’s cheek, and if nothing else he makes you want to go back and read the source texts. But ultimately this is a weaker take on his original idea, and he needs a lot of hot air to float his balloon. For its moments of insight, the prose can be confusing and riddled with academic claptrap." - Ed Cumming, The Observer

  • "There are admittedly some portentous pronouncements at the very beginning of the book that might give one pause (.....) But Bayard soon gets into his stride, which basically consists of encouraging other writers not to get into theirs." - Ian Sansom, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Pierre Bayard's three-part study of How to Talk About Places You've Never Been considers: 'Various Ways of Not Traveling'; 'Talking about Travel'; and 'Procedures to Follow'. In his Prologue he already suggests:

There is actually nothing to show that traveling is the best way to discover a town or a country you do no know. Everything points to the contrary -- and the experience of numerous writers supports this -- if you want to be able to talk about a place, the best thing to do is stay at home.
       Bayard offers a variety of examples of the equivalent of armchair travelers who nevertheless wrote about distant places they (generally) claimed to have visited, from Marco Polo (who, as Bayard notes, certainly seems to have missed a lot for someone ostensibly traveling through China) to disgraced reporter for The New York Times Jayson Blair to German adventure-novelist Karl May.
       Many, if not all, of his examples are writers who rely on other written records; indeed, it is here that non-travel is the most interesting -- as, for example, he writes of Chateaubriand:
His encounter with countries is fundamentally intertextual -- that is to say, it is also an encounter with books, which are called to the rescue whenever he is forced to skip a step.
       There are also examples of travel-by-(human-)proxy -- Édouard Glissant sending his wife to the Easter Islands and writing based on her impressions -- but reliance on other (generally written) sources is far more common.
       Bayard suggests there's a fundamental validity to this sort of deception. In some cases, (non-)travelers seem to be willingly taken in because they're simply not willing to take the extra step -- Margaret Mead's socio-anthropological method is a case in point -- but elsewhere the deception is entirely intentional: people setting out to fool others. Jean-Claude Romand's elaborate if small-scale pretend-travel -- its audience essentially family and friends --, chronicled in Emmanuel Carrère's The Adversary, is essentially a private deception -- while George Psalmanazar, presenting himself in Europe in the early eighteenth century as a man from Formosa, was entirely a public show and ruse.
       As Bayard notes, the audience is often complicit in the deception, hearing and believing what they want to -- a vision of the distant and often exotic that fits the image they have in their own mind's eye (those free-loving Samoans ...) much more closely than any reality could: "her Samoan novel was a useful fiction", he notes about Mead's supposedly scientific writing, for example.
       Bayard appreciates these travel-fictions, but perhaps doesn't show enough concern about the flip-side, their unreality damaging, too, because while they may well present a world-view that is, in some or many ways convincing, it often mis-represents reality -- a lie that is often far from benign.
       Bayard collects and presents an interesting variety of more-or-less armchair travelers, and his discussions are entertaining and often clever. Not quite the how-to guide the (English) title seems to promise, Bayard's little study does offer a nice overview of the subject and its implications.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 February 2016

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How to Talk About Places You've Never Been: Reviews: Other books by Pierre Bayard under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Pierre Bayard was born in 1954. He is a psychoanalyst and teaches literature at the University of Paris VIII, and he has written numerous books.

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© 2016 the complete review

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