Travelling Images, Images of Travel in Nicolas Bouvier's L'Usage du monde

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Sketches and photographs are a familiar tool of the traveller-writer, who commonly draws on them when transforming experience into a textual narrative. The verbal thus displaces the visual — the latter retained, if at all, as mere illustration — in ways that echo James Heffernan's definition of ekphrasis as the ‘verbal description of visual representation’. Yet Nicolas Bouvier's 1963 travel narrative L'Usage du monde challenges conventional conceptions of ekphrasis. Juxtaposing the stark ink drawings of Thierry Vernet — Bouvier's travelling companion — with Bouvier's textual narrative, L'Usage du monde shifts representation away from a hierarchical relationship between verbal and visual; it offers instead an account of other cultures that is grounded in polyphony and exchange. This article applies Bouvier's own image of travel as a mosaic to the dual narrative form (or ‘iconotext’, to use Michael Nerlich's term) in order to consider a range of fluid relationships between Bouvier's text and Vernet's drawings. In examining these relationships of amplification, reduction, and absence, the article argues that the plurality of the narrative prompts a rethinking of conventional, binary paradigms of intercultural contact. Ultimately, the iconotextual nature of L'Usage du monde can be interpreted as a metaphor for the processes of cultural translation and transculturation that are central to Bouvier's travelling ethos.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)302-316
Number of pages15
JournalFrench Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2010


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