Travelling Companions: Antoni Jach’s inspiration for new novel

We are delighted to welcome Antoni Jach to share with us what inspired him to write his new literary novel Travelling Companions.

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Antoni Jach on the inspiration for his novel, Travelling Companions

The inspiration for my novel Travelling Companions was fivefold: my first novel, The Weekly Card Game, lived experience as a solo traveller, oral storytelling, books such as The Decameron and Arabian Nights that employ the literary device of a frame narrative with embedded tales, and digressive fiction in general.

My initial concept for Travelling Companions was that it would be a sequel to my novel The Weekly Card Game so I extracted one of the main characters from that novel and I moved him around from Cordoba to Paris via Barcelona. But eventually I realised that I would have greater freedom if I jettisoned the notion of a sequel (while keeping the idea of a character moving by train through Spain, France and Italy). 

I realised that a new novel called for new fictive people and over time a whole suite of talkative characters emerged and evolved and filled out the space of 150,000 words with their tales, anecdotes and conversations.

For the creation of the book, I drew on my lived experience of travelling as a solo traveller through Europe — with side-trips to Morocco, Egypt and the USA — during the time span of 1980 to 2012. On my many intercity train journeys throughout Europe while travelling on a Eurail pass, I would invariably encounter other travellers and I would seek out opportunities to converse. 

These encountered others were often solo travellers, who were usually keen for company and eager to talk but occasionally I would travel with a group of strangers, who over three or four days would become travelling companions, and we would do what travellers usually do: we would exchange travel stories.

I have always been interested in oral storytelling (and folktales) and there are some people I know who excel at this skill. “

In my latest novel, I was interested in the notion that one of my main characters (Nina) would become an oral storyteller who would tell quite long stories to a listening audience during the companions’ shared train journeys.

When you are travelling by train from say, Paris to Venice, or even Paris to Rome, there are often vast amounts of time to kill and so I remembered books like The Decameron and Arabian Nights where the literary conceit is that there would be stories-inside-stories — or in other words a frame narrative with embedded tales. At that point the mature concept for Travelling Companions had fallen into place. 

Once I had settled on the concept that I would write a novel using the literary device of a frame narrative with embedded tales

… then I returned for inspiration to some of my favourite frame-narrative books:  Arabian Nights, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller (1982). In addition, Marina Warner’s book, Stranger Magic, was very helpful in illuminating various aspects of the Arabian Nights.

Part of the pleasure of frame-narrative books is the game playing; and, as a modernist writer, the obvious artifice appeals to me too. (Incidentally, Travelling Companions includes a table of contents that serves at least two purposes: to serve as a navigational aide — you can read the chapters of my book in any order — and it, intentionally, highlights the artifice that is to come.)

In digressive fiction the writer makes an excursion (a journey) away from the main narrative into a seemingly unrelated anecdote or story before returning to the main narrative. The great digressivist, Laurence Sterne wrote in his novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman that,

“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading.”

Savage Detectives

Digressive novels by writers such as Thomas Bernhard (Woodcutters), W. G. Sebald (The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz), David Foster Wallace (The Pale King and Infinite Jest), Roberto Bolaño (The Savage Detectives), Georges Perec (Life: A User’s Manual) and Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time) have all provided inspiration for Travelling Companions.

Travelling Companions’ first two reviewers (the novelist Paul Morgan and the literature enthusiast, Lisa Hill) both noticed the connection between the heroine of my novel, Nina (the compulsive storyteller who tells endless stories) and Scheherazade, the storyteller heroine, in Arabian Nights. Those who have read Arabian Nights, will remember that the heroine tells stories to save her life, so an interesting couple of questions for those who have read my latest novel is: why is Nina compelled to tell her stories to her travelling companions, and what is the larger meaning behind her suite of stories?

I have my own theories as to why, but I don’t want to interfere with your pleasure in working out your own answers to those questions.  Happy reading and fare thee well, book-traveller!

Travelling Companions Synopsis

Travelling Companions by Antoni Jach

Solitary travellers and a couple encounter Nina, an eloquent storyteller, on their travels through Spain, France and Italy. She entrances them all with her tales, which prompts her fellow travelling companions to share their own stories.

A handsome young man from Staten Island, who believes that life forms exist in other galaxies, vows to never work in an office again and travels by container ship to a commune in Italy. A lonely postal worker from Łódź takes home and reads the most interesting love letters, often becoming convinced a relationship needs his intervention, before delivering them the next day. A woman named Pauline calls herself Kim because her surname is Nowak. Depressed about turning forty, she mysteriously disappears from her own birthday party. Told by people on a journey, these are stories – rich with unexpected wisdoms – of lives in transit.

Travelling Companions is charming, amusing and philosophical – a wholly original exploration of what it means to honour our strangest dreams and disappointments. It is both a confrontation with, and a sweet diversion from, these, the darkest of times.

‘Travelling Companions is a hybrid travelogue of Europe and the strangeness of the human spirit. It reminds us that storytelling is different from ‘fiction’ – it catches us in a different pulse and breath as we open ourselves to even the most far-fetched and ironic pleasures of the tale. It leads our tourists further than mere travelling: these stories transport them, with folly, irony, humour and endless pleasure.’ – Philip Salom, author of The Returns and The Fifth Season

Get your copy of Travelling Companions from:

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More immersive literary fiction:
The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw / An Imaginary Life by David Malouf / The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht / A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois / Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

About the Author, Antoni Jach

Antoni Jach is the author of three novels – The Weekly Card GameThe Layers of the City and Napoleon’s Double; a book of poetry, An Erratic History; and two limited edition artists’ books – Still River in the Numinous World and Faded World. He is also a playwright and a painter.

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