In 1790, Xavier de Maistre was 27 years old, and a soldier in the army of the Sardinian Kingdom, which covered swathes of modern-day Northern Italy and Southern France. An impetuous young soldier, he was placed under house-arrest in Turin for fighting an illegal duel; there is no record of what happened to the other guy. It was during the 42 days of his confinement here that he wrote the manuscript that would become Voyage autour de ma chambre.
Inspired by the works of Laurence Sterne, with their digressive and colloquial style, de Maistre decided to make the most of his sentence by recording an exploration of the room as a travel journal. Like a modern teenager cataloguing their daily routine in a series of finely-tuned Instagram posts, de Maistre’s book imbues the tour of his chamber with great mythology and grand scale. As he wanders the few steps that it takes to circumnavigate the space, his mind spins off into the ether. It parodies the travel journals of the eighteenth-century (such as A Voyage Around the World by Louis de Bougainville, 1771), and could be read today as an early take on the modern vogue for "psychogeography" — each tiny thing that he encounters sends de Maistre into rhapsodies, and mundane journeys become magnificent voyages:
But you must not let yourself think that instead of keeping my promise to describe my journey around my room, I am beating the bush to see how I can evade the difficulty. This would be a great mistake on your part. For our journey is really going: and, while my soul, falling back on her own resources, was in the last chapter threading the mazy paths of metaphysics, I had so placed myself in my arm-chair…
De Maistre reportedly did not think much of the work, but his elder brother Joseph, the renowned philosopher and counter-revolutionary, was so impressed with what he read that he arranged for it to be published, much to his younger brother's surprise. By the time of its publication in 1794 Xavier had left the service, after his home region of Savoy had been annexed by the French Revolutionary Army. He went on to join the Russian army, and moved to Saint Petersburg, where he wrote a sequel, Night Voyage Around my Room. It was clearly a difficult follow-up: he began writing it in 1799, but didn’t finish it for another twenty-five years.
The edition featured here is an 1871 translation into English, we believe the first, by someone named Henry Attwell who also provides a "notice of the author's life". A few more English editions have appeared of late, most recently as a 2016 reissue by New Directions, who published it as Voyage Around My Room with a translation by the poet Stephen Sartarelli.
March 2, 2017