Caught by the River

The Gift of All Travel: Frans Masereel’s Passionate Journey

16th March 2019

2019 marks a hundred years since Frans Masereel’s ‘Passionate Journey’ — widely regarded as the starting point of the graphic novel — was first published. Daniel Williams celebrates the centenary of this evocative ‘story without words’.

Pick up a copy of Frans Masereel’s Passionate Journey, and open the book at any page. There, in lines originally gauged, carved or chiselled into pearwood, are two of 165 striking images of a man in both everyday and red-letter day situations. At first he is fresh-faced, but later he bears the marks of life’s excesses and disappointments, of time’s inexorable march. Each scene is both a story in its own right, and a continuation of the man’s overarching tale, from his arrival in a great city (most likely an amalgam of the European capitals Masereel knew), to his death and indeed his afterlife. So we see him lost in a crowd; looking down into the water of a canal, head in hands; making love to a woman, then walking the streets, his face lit up with euphoria; gathering a flock of birds about him; buying fresh produce from the market; reading under a tree; attending political meetings and demonstrations; fallen grief-stricken over the deathbed of a young woman; and travelling widely, visiting as many destinations as a landscape artist might, learning about other cultures as he goes, and perhaps concluding on his return to the city that wherever you are in the world, people are not so very different from each other.

There are no words. Originally published as Mon Livre d’heures (My Book of Hours) in Geneva a hundred years ago this year, Passionate Journey is one of the earliest examples – possibly the first, preceded only by Masereel’s own much shorter work, 25 Images of a Man’s Passion – of the wordless novel, and as such is widely recognised as being pivotal in the development of what would later come to be known as the graphic novel.

Lauded by Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, a friend of and illustrator for the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, and an admired confidante of the poet Rilke, among others, Masereel’s achievements in his favoured medium of the woodcut would be impressive even without Passionate Journey. He went on to carve many other wordless works, including (from the subsequent decade alone) The Sun, The Idea, Story Without Words, and The City, all available in inexpensive editions from Dover Publications.

In the medieval sense, a book of hours was an illuminated manuscript containing devotional texts and prayers. While usually written in Latin, many were rendered in the vernacular, especially in Holland. Born and raised in Dutch-speaking Flanders, Masereel must have been well aware of these works, and alongside them Paupers’ Bibles, in which illustration was central, with little or no supporting text. Perhaps a book of hours or an illustrated bible had been passed down within his family, a seed of inspiration for the artist he would become.

At the time of the First World War, Masereel was an activist contributing his art to pacifist publications with limited circulation, so it should come as no surprise that the life of the hero of Passionate Journey is very much a political one, and it’s for this reason that the book has long been a favourite in left-wing and anarchist circles. I first came across it at about the same age as is the protagonist at the start of the book. From either a radical bookshop (Compendium in Camden or Housmans in King’s Cross, the former gone, the latter happily still in business) or possibly from a stall at the Anarchist Book Fair held at Conway Hall in Holborn, I bought a cheap A6-sized version of the work, published by an underground Spanish publisher. The pirated images were badly reproduced, as if they were photocopies of photocopies, but Masereel’s captivating art and storytelling nevertheless shone through, moving beyond the political to encompass all of life. The appeal to Masereel of the woodcut form and its resultant starkly beautiful black and white images was precisely its reproducibility; he saw that it meant his art might be widely and cheaply circulated, and this is exactly what happened, initially in Germany in the 1920s (until Masereel’s work was banned as degenerate by the Nazis), and then in the late 1940s in the United States.

Passionate Journey was the work of a relatively young man; 1919 was the year Masereel turned thirty. While he does a fair job of making his character age, perhaps inevitably he makes his ‘everyman’ hero atypical in not settling down or becoming more moderate as he does so. The hero’s experiences were a blend of Masereel’s own and those of Henri Guilbeaux, a French Marxist and advocate for pacifism who wrote a biography of (and was befriended by) Lenin, and who, in a time of war, was as fearlessly outrageous as the hero of Passionate Journey becomes. The resulting composite character veers from a life of contemplation to one of impulsive activism. At times, outraged by injustice and unfairness, Passionate Journey’s hero is rather like a later character graphically rendered by a Belgian, Tintin, missing only the foil of a Captain Haddock. Perhaps in a sense, he is both at once – idealistic, never-say-die Tintin before his travels, and jaded, cantankerous Haddock after them.

Masereel’s art would go on to become more sophisticated than it is in the raw and passionate pages of My Book of Hours; 1925’s The City shows a fully realised ability both to caricature, and to depict a city with far greater precision and detail than in the broad brush strokes used for his earlier city-celebrating work. But what makes Passionate Journey the more striking of the two is the thread of the single life that it follows. Thomas Mann was in no doubt about its qualities, declaring it – in the age of silent film – his favourite movie:

Darken the room! Sit down with this book next to your reading lamp and concentrate on its pictures as you turn page after page. Don’t deliberate too long! It is no tragedy if you fail to grasp every picture at once, just as it does not matter if you miss one or two shots in a movie. Look at these powerful black-and-white figures, their features etched in light and shadow. You will be captivated from beginning to end: from the first picture showing the train plunging through dense smoke and bearing the hero toward life, to the very last picture showing the skeleton-faced figure wandering among the stars.

Interest in Masereel has waxed and waned over the decades, and it remains to be seen how widely Passionate Journey will be celebrated in its centenary year. My own contribution to marking Masereel’s artistic and narrative achievements is not only to have penned this piece, but also a novel inspired by Passionate Journey. It’s called The Gift of All Travel, and it recasts Masereel’s hero as an immigrant arriving in the capital city of a country which alternates between welcoming him with open arms, and giving him the cold shoulder. It’s my interpretation, with the lead character’s story invented afresh at every turn, but what I hope it has in common with Masereel’s ‘novel in pictures’ is that it too is both a contemplative book of hours and a fiercely passionate journey.


This article is an edit of a longer essay which originally appeared on Daniel’s website. You can read the piece in its entirety here, or follow Daniel on Twitter hereHis first novel, ‘The Edge of the Object’, is due to be published in the coming year by The Half Pint Press.