Martin Sorrell on Xavier de Maistre, subversion of the travelogue

Around a Room in Forty-two Days

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We were recalling, my friend and I, the oddest people we’d ever met. He, an academic, thought that the great philosopher A. J. Ayer would take some beating. Freddie, as he was known, was giving a lecture on logical positivism when some elderly man in the front row interrupted him with a stinker of a question. Freddie stopped in his tracks, looked up at the ceiling, down at his shoes, then picked up a stick of chalk – this was before marker pens – turned to the blackboard and proceeded to cover it for fully five minutes with tiny white dots. No words, just stab, stab, stab. When the board resembled the Milky Way, Freddie turned back to his questioner and said: ‘I’m afraid, my darling, I haven’t the foggiest idea.

Walking home, chuckling, I remembered a curious little book I’d read years earlier, one chapter of which was composed entirely of dots. The other chapters, I recalled, were pretty strange too. The next day I went in search of a copy, and eventually got lucky. I reread it at one sitting.

A Journey around My Room was the unlikely result of a duel. In 1790 Xavier de Maistre, a 27-year-old officer in the Army of Piedmont, fell out with someone over something, somewhere in Turin. One party called the other out, a duel was fought, and thus an offence was committed which merited punishment. De Maistre was sentenced to six weeks’ house arrest. Scarcely cruel and unusual, in that he was allowed the comforts of his own room, the company of his dog Rosine and the devoted attention of his manservant Joannetti. Still, for a full-blooded young man forced to cool his heels for forty-two long days and nights with only four walls to stare at, the prospect must have seemed a miserable one.

In such circumstances, what can you do to fight off boredom? De Maistre chose to write a book. Not a novel, or short stories, or a play, or a treatise. Rather more original than that – a book about the journey he proposed to make around his prison.

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About the contributor

Martin Sorrell is planning a journey around his own room, but meanwhile the world will have to do.

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