A Dreamy Rumination on Travelling by Moonlight

The British novelist Will Self and the legendary illustrator Quentin Blake have teamed up on a new book — a dreamy rumination on travelling by the light of the moon. Blake and Self make strange bedfellows: The former is best-known for his joyful illustrations of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, and the latter for his cerebral writing style and caustic ripostes on British political chat shows. While Self looks a bit like a Blake illustration (he’s nearly two meters tall and smokes a pipe), the links between the two are not readily apparent. For both, “Moonlight Travellers” is out of their usual repertoire — and it’s refreshing to see two talented figures, both in the heyday of their careers, trying their hand at something different.

Picture a Quentin Blake illustration and you’re likely thinking of ebullient colors and nimble, energetic lines. “Moonlight Travellers,” a book aimed at an adult audience, presents 46 illustrations by Blake, all in the same somber palette of tombstone greys and inky blacks. Blake exploits the full tonal repertoire afforded by his media (Payne’s Grey watercolor and reed pen), the one variant being the daub of color adorning each moon, which changes from one image to the next. The illustrations imagine fantastical modes of transport with wheels and wings, part-beast part-machine, as if conjured up by an erratic mechanic in a 19th-century laboratory. Human, animal and machine merge as the reader turns the pages, but near the end of the book two drawings stand out as markedly different from the rest. Far from the hybrid creations of the previous pages, they depict a more haunting and familiar image: an overcrowded boat slipping silently through dark waters. At the risk of projecting politics where it is not invited, in 2019 such an image calls to mind the ubiquitous photographs of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. Given that the book approaches nighttime voyaging in all its guises, it would be hard to overlook such an association, particularly one so ingrained in the collective unconscious. 

In turn, Self’s text responds to Blake’s drawings with a surreal, dream-like quality, mimicking the indistinct meanderings of the tired mind. Taking nighttime travel as his point of departure, the author abandons linear structure and lets his imagination wander from association to association. The pronouns “I,” “you” and “she” slip around, never quite anchoring to a person, and leaving the reader scrambling in the dark to discern a cast of characters. Self divagates from late-night car journeys and boat trips to the cross-continental migration of our human ancestors, bringing his wanderings to a close in a terse and beautiful elegy to the moon. 

A “psychogeographer” by his own admission, Self has written about the art of flânerie before, but this text is more poetic than many of his best-known works. As the book jumps from one reflection to the next, Self focuses on the sensory experience of travel — the reassuring physicality of riding on horseback, or the lulling momentum of a train — rather than the itinerary or the landmarks along the way. The style for which Self has become known is nonetheless still present in “Moonlight Travellers.” His reputation as a walking thesaurus holds true (“lycanthropic,” anyone?), and if ever the text is at risk of becoming too lofty, Self’s bathetic humor serves to ground it (in a meditation on a nighttime car journey, a voice interjects “are we nearly there yet?”).

Given the poetic and rather niche subject of “Moonlight Travellers,” the pull of the book will no doubt be the celebrity of its authors. On this count, readers won’t be disappointed — the book stands testament to the fruitful collaboration of two creative minds when given the artistic freedom to do something a little bit different. 

“Moonlight Travellers” by Quentin Blake and Will Self came out on September 24 and is published by Thames & Hudson ($24.95).

Article published on Blouin Artinfo.