Motorway Madness

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As with many of the books I’ve come to love most, I bought Autonauts of the Cosmoroute (1983) impulsively, knowing nothing about it, and mainly because of its cover. This features a doughty old red Volkswagen camper, with its forward-pitched roof raised like a sceptical eyebrow as a bearded man climbs out through its sliding side door. In the foreground, we see two lurid, flowery chairs. Above is only blue sky. Inside, you can make out a cooker, a folding table and a checked curtain. It is the kind of van in which you could go a long way.

The book’s authors, Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop, do indeed go a long way, metaphorically speaking. In literal terms, they do not go far at all. Their book recounts a journey they made in the early summer of 1982 from Paris to Marseilles, on the high-speed autoroute. Normally this would be a boring, featureless trip, similar to that made by thousands of other people, and taking some ten hours in a VW van. Its tedium would be relieved by music on the radio and brief stops at the route’s service stations or the leafy picnic spots that are such a feature of French motorways. Mostly, it would just be long, fast driving. No one would want to spend time on a motorway for fun – or would they?

Cortázar and Dunlop decided that they would, so they did the journey not in ten hours but in a month. They entered the Paris end of the autoroute on Sunday, 23 May, and 32 days later, on Wednesday, 23 June, they left at the ‘Welcome to Marseilles’ sign. In between, they stopped at every one of the route’s 65 motels, cafeterias, lay-bys and picnic areas. They followed two simple rules: they would not leave the motorway until the end, and they would stop twice each day, once for lunch and once overnight, no more and no less.

It was a mad caper ‒ a Dada performance and a quixotic adventure, but the spirit of whimsy belied the sombre origins of their trip. Julio Cortáza

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About the contributor

Sarah Bakewell’s last book was How to Live: A Life of Montaigne; her next one, this year, will be At the Existentialist Café. She still buys anything with a Volkswagen on the cover.

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