Tracing the Traveler: Travel Narratives
and Those Who Wrote Them
By Ray Greenblatt
In their new book Anatolian Days & Nights, Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner write in Chapter 14: “ Joy had summed it up during one of our talks on the Sun Pension balcony. ‘I remember my first trip abroad,’ she had said. ‘Wendy and I got off our flight in Athens, and in the domestic terminal we picked the first plane leaving for the Greek islands. We arrived on the island of Kos at night, found a hotel, and in the morning awoke to a mauve and lavender sunrise over the Turkish coast. In that moment, the world expanded, and I found the path I’m still walking. E Zoe, as my Greek friends would say. Life in its grandest sense.’” That is how a traveler can suddenly realize why he or she loves to travel.
Jonathan Raban attempts to categorize travel writing in his book For Love and Money: “It accommodates the private diary, the essay, the short story, the prose poem, the rough note and polished table talk with indiscriminate hospitality. It freely mixes narrative and discursive writing. Much of the factual material, in the way of bills, menus, ticket-stubs, names and addresses, dates and destinations, is there to authenticate what is really fiction; while its wildest fictions have the status of possible facts. Because of this general confusion, it has always been a favorite haunt of writers, just as critics, with some justification, have usually regarded it as a resort of easy virtue.”
Thoreau had another view in that he said he traveled all around the world but by book. Perhaps that is why I like to read travel books; because they are a pot pourri of everything. I’m not as absolute as Thoreau but I understand his point. I like to travel but I also like to read about the places I’ve been both before and after. Comparisons too make life richer, as a metaphor enriches a poem.
There has been no limit to the number of travel books written. However, too often they are no more than notes or a log. I find that magic ingredient of “style” is foremost in makingtravel books special for me; they are the ones I want to reread. And style is a matter of personal taste. I offer a dozen books ranging roughly over the last century. I offer two excerpts from each book to form a line along which you can observe the breadth of each author’s approach.
THE SOUTH COUNTRY-EDWARD THOMAS-1909
Along with Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas is best known as a World War I British poet, dying in combat at age 39. Yet before the War he had been a prolific writer of nature essays. Many English writers highly valued the flora and fauna of their native land, from the days of Isaak Walton and John Evelyn three hundred years ago to Richard Jefferies and Eden Phillpotts one hundred years ago. Thomas traveled for his materials throughout southern England: Surrey, Sussex, Kent, with occasional visits to towns like Hastings, Dover, Canterbury.
Here from the chapter “A Railway Carriage” is a look at what the sound of a name can conjure: “Suddenly, the name of Mary is called by someone invisible . . . It is the main sound in ‘music,’ ‘melody,’ ‘harmony,’ ‘measure,’ ‘metre,’ ‘rhythm,’ ‘minstrel,’ ‘madrigal.’ It endears even sadness by its presence in ‘melancholy,’ ‘moan’ and ‘mourn.’ It makes melody on the lips of friends and lovers, in the names of ‘mistress,’ ‘comrade,’ ‘mate,’ companion.’ It murmurs autumnly in all mellow sounds in the music of wind and insect and instrument. To ‘me’ and ‘mine’ it owes a meaning as deep as to ‘mother.’”
Another passage from that chapter considers the history of England through the country estate, not a completely charming retrospective: “The scene appears to have its own sun, mellow and serene, that knows not moorland or craggy coast or city. Only a thousand years of settled continuous government, of far-reaching laws, of armies and police, of roadmaking, of bloody tyranny and tyranny that poisons without blows, could have wrought earth and sky into such a harmony . . . At such an hour the house and lawns and trees are more wonderfully fortified by the centuries of time than by the walls and gamekeepers. They weave an atmosphere about it. We bow the head and reverence the labor of time in smoothing the grass, mellowing the stone and the manners of the inhabitants.”
TWILIGHT IN ITALY-D.H. LAWRENCE-1916
D.H. Lawrence is a major novelist, known for Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love. His short stories, poetry, essays, even his paintings have gained world-wide acclaim. I find his travel essays especially inspiring. He wrote a trio of them, focused on his travels primarily in Italy: Twilight in Italy, Sea and Sardinia and Sketches of Etruscan Places. I was most taken by the first. 1912--a young man of 27 when he first started to write this work-- was a momentous year for him. He had just met and run off with a married woman, Frieda Weekly. He felt smothered in England then in Germany was taken for an English spy. This was the beginning of his perpetual wanderings until his death at age 44. Although none of his major works had yet been published, we can see in Twilight in Italy not just a listing of places and events but a profound writing style in which he philosophizes about what he encounters.
In Germany he sees sculptures of Christ on the cross; but their nature alters as he walks toward Italy. First this from the chapter “The Crucifix across the Mountains”:” It was an old shrine, the wood-sculpture of a Bavarian peasant. The Christ was a peasant at the foot of the Alps. He had broad cheek-bones and sturdy limbs. His plain, rudimentary face stared fixedly at the hills, his neck was stiffened, as if in resistance to the fact of the nails and the cross, which he could not escape. It wasa man nailed down in spirit, but set stubbornly against the bondage and the disgrace. He was aman of middle age, plain, crude, with some of the meanness of the peasant, but also with a kind of dogged nobility that does not yield its soul to the circumstance.”
By the time he reaches the Italian border, the appearance of Jesus has markedly changed: “But the tendency of the crucifix, as it nears the ridge of the south, is to become weak and sentimental. The carved Christs turn up their faces and roll their eyes very piteously, in the approved Guido Reni fashion. They are overdoing the pathetic turn. They are looking to heaven and thinking about themselves, in self-commiseration. Others again are beautiful as elegies. It is dead Hyacinth lifted and extended to view, in all his beautiful, dead youth.”
ALONG THE ROAD-ALDOUS HUXLEY-1925
A friend of Lawrence, Aldous Huxley too is a famous novelist: Point Counter Point, Brave New World, Eyeless in Gaza. He was from a well-to-do, noteworthy family: Thomas Henry Huxley, biologist; Julian Huxley, scientist; Elspeth Huxley, another writer famous for The Flame Trees of Thika. Huxley’s curiosity was omnivorous so he was compelled to track everything to its source. A story is told that when he and his wife traveled, they had special suitcases made to carry the Encyclopedia Britannica.
My favorite travel book by him is Along the Road. He visits many European places: Italy, Holland, France, etc. However, where I found him most incisive and entertaining was his personal evaluation of Baron Baedeker, one of the first compilers of travel books. From Huxley’s chapter “Guide-books”: “How often have I cursed Baron Baedeker for sending me through the dust to see some nauseating Sodoma or drearily respectable Andrea del Sarto! How angry I have been with him for starring what is old merely because it is old! And how I have hated him for his lack of discrimination! He has a way of lumping all old things of one class together and treating them as if, being made at the same period, their merit were exactly equal.”
In the same chapter Huxley explainswhy he likes travel guides which contain pictures: “The only satisfactory substitute for a guide written by oneself is a guide which is copiously illustrated. To know the images of things is the next best to knowing the things themselves. Illustrations allow one to see what precisely it is that the Baron is recommending. A reproduction of those luscious Sodomas would enable one to discount the asterisks in the text. A few photographs of the tombs at Tarquinia would convince one that they are incomparably better worth looking at than the Forum. A picture of the church of Brou would excuse one from ever going near it.” As you may notice, a travel writer’s sense of humor may run from the raucous to snide.
A WINTER IN ARABIA-FREYA STARK-1937
In the last two centuries many women have traveled the world: Mary Montague to Turkey, Hester Stanhope to the Levant, Mary Kingsley to West Africa, Gertrude Bell to the Near East, ad infinitum. The woman whom I prefer for her sensibility of writing is Freya Stark. Living to 100 (1893-1993!) she visited so many locations: Syria, Persia, Greece, Turkey. Her book titles warble songs: The Coast of Incense, Perseus in the Wind, The Valley of the Assassins.
In A Winter in Arabia she discusses the qualities of a good traveler: “If I had to write a decalogue for journeys, eight out of the ten virtues should be moral, and I should put first of all a temper as serene at the end as at the beginning of the day. Then would come the capacity to accept values and to judge by standards other than our own. The rapid judgement of character; and a love of nature which must include human nature also. The power to dissociate oneself from one’s own bodily sensations. A knowledge of local history and language. A leisurely and uncensoriousmind. A tolerable constitution and the capacity to eat and sleep at any moment. And lastly, and especially here, a ready quickness in repartee.”
Here is how she depicts that foreign land where she says a traveler must be able to accept values and to judge by standards other than his own: “In the dust of the valley, amethyst evening tufts of smoke were rising. Shepherdesses trailed home with the patter of their flocks behind them. This was perhaps the best joy of the journey, to come at evening to your unknown resting-place. However many the disillusions you have left behind you, no habit blunts the thrill of this unknown. Thelittle village, swathed in its own life as in a veil, lies waiting there like a bride before you; and one cannot but feel that it is a passion for mystery chiefly which explains the optimism of human beings toward both polygamy and travel.”
ESCAPE WITH ME-OSBERT SITWELL-1940
The brothers Sitwell, Osbert and Sacheverell, were wealthy like the Huxleys. They were great lovers of the Arts, sponsoring lavish poetry readings and art exhibits, and financially aiding musicians like William Walton. Sacheverell became an art critic and poet; he wrote eight tomes he deemed “Fantasias.” For example, in the volume Journey to the Ends of Time, he moves in one section from Berlioz to gypsies to Bosch to fish to Chartres to airplanes.
The elder brother Osbert successfully published novels, as Before the Bombardment, and five volumes of autobiography, Left Hand Right Hand. People of means of course traveled, if for nothing else to say that they had been somewhere different. Osbert journeyed to Beijing, China, then known as Peking, where Harold Acton, a friend of both brothers from Oxford University days, lived from 1932 to 1939. Out of this trip came the delightful Escape with Me.
On his way to China Osbert stopped at Angkor Wat. This passage is from the chapter “The City of the King of the Angels”: “Meanwhile the great works of this culture still remain. In the jungle are nearly sixty square miles of ruins, centring round Angkor; artificial lakes and basins and pools, moats and bridges, for this was a Narcissus-like beauty that loved to admire its own reflection in cool, flat mirrors of water laid upon the surface of a burning land. The four walls of whole citiesnow form a ‘hortus conclusus,’ full of giant trees in blossom, of monkeys, and of animals more strange and ferocious, lurking in the tangled growth, nesting in the vast stones which everywhere lie submerged under the force of the vegetation that coils like a spring about to leap up.”
When Osbert Sitwell arrives to live in Peking for several months, what he writes in his Preface nicely captures his overall view of Chinese life accumulated slowly: “That metropolis I came to know and love, in similarly watchingits aspect change through the seasons from winter to full summer. On arrival there, all save the Forbidden City seemed a bare, Breughel-like world of brown lanes, squat and narrow, of ribbed brown roofs, and of tall, naked trees posing their neat but web-like intricacies above them against a deep-blue sky . . . , and of figures in padded blue robes, or patched blue canvas, and crowned, many of them, with triptychal fur hats that framed faces in a new way.”
THE COLOSSUS OF MAROUSSI-HENRY MILLER-1941
I have had a hate/love relationship with Henry Miller’s writing. Yes, his writing was energetic and dared to probe areas of life most writers would not. But for me it was also crude, long-winded and terribly prejudiced. And yet, when I came upon The Colossus of Maroussi, I could not believe Miller had written it. It was still energetic prose but also beautiful. It was about his only trip to Greece, one that he and Lawrence Durrell had been planning for years. And the meeting with what for Miller was the ultimate Greek man Katsimbalis, who lived inMaroussi.
In Part One Miller says of this man: “But despite the bad arm, the dislocated knee, the damaged eye, the disorganized liver, the rheumatic twinges, the arthritic disturbances, the migraine, the dizziness and God knows what, what was left of the catastrophe was alive and flourishing like a smoking dung-heap. He could galvanize the dead with his talk. It was a sort of devouring process: when he described aplace he ate into it, like a goat attacking a carpet. If he described a person he ate him alive from head to toe. If it were an event he would devour every detail, like an army of white ants descending upon a forest. It wasn’t just talk he handed out but language—food and beast language. He always talked against a landscape, like the protagonist of a lost world.”
In Part Two Miller glances a young Greek girl who symbolizes for him the essence of the Greek woman, ultimately all women: “She was child, virgin, angel, seductress, priestess, harlot, prophetess all in one. She was neither ancient Greek nor modern Greek; she was of no race or time or class, but unique, fabulously unique. In that slow, sustained smile which she gave us as we paused a moment to gaze at her there was that enigmatic quality which da Vinci has immortalized, which one finds everywhere in Buddhistic art, which one finds in the great caves of India and on the facades of her temples, which one finds in the dancers of Java and of Bali.”
THEIR HEADS ARE GREEN, THEIR HANDS ARE BLUE-PAUL BOWLES-1963
Paul Bowles was a multi-talented man. He studied music in Paris with Aaron Copeland. He collaborated with Orson Welles and Tennessee Williams on music for stage productions. He worked as a drama critic under Virgil Thomson at the New York Herald Tribune. An opera he wrote was performed with choreography by Merce Cunningham and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. His translation of Sartre’s No Exit, directed by John Huston, won a Drama Critics Award. However, after World War II while still in his twenties, Bowles decided to move to Tangier, Morocco where he lived for the next fifty years. That is when his writing of hair-raising fiction as well as travel books throughout the Mediterranean area began.
The following passage is from the chapter “Baptism of Solitude”: “Immediately when you arrive in the Sahara, for the first or the tenth time, you notice the stillness. An incredible, absolute silence prevails outside the towns; and within, even in busy places like the markets, there is a hushed quality in the air, as if the quiet were a conscious force which, resenting the intrusion of sound, minimizes and disperses sound straightway. Then there is the sky, compared to which all other skies seem faint-hearted efforts. Solid and luminous, it is always the focal point of the landscape.”
In “A Man Must Not Be Very Moslem,” Bowles takes his friend Abdeslam, a devout Moslem, with him on a trip to Istanbul. Being such good friends they could disagree with levity: “At the beginning of the 16th century, Selim the Grim captured from the Shah of Persia one of the most fantastic pieces of furniture I have ever seen. The trophy was the poor Shah’s throne, a simple but massive thing made of chiseled gold, decorated with hundreds of enormous emeralds. I went to see it today at the Topkapi Palace. There was a bed to match also of emerald-studded gold. After a momentof looking, Abdeslam ran out of the room where these incredible objects stood into the courtyard, and could not be coaxed back in. ‘Too many riches are bad for the eyes,’ he explained. I could not agree; I thought them beautiful.” Again, the tongue-in-cheek humor adds zest to the style.
THE OFFENSIVE TRAVELER-V. S. PRITCHETT-1964
V. S. Pritchett is known around the world as a writer of mostly short stories about English life. His literary criticism is excellent and his series of memoirs poignant, opening with Midnight Oil. Yet, when he was a young man, he lived in Spain writing for The Christian Science Monitor. I thoroughly enjoyed his Tramping Spain (1928) but had the opportunity to read alater collection of essays, The Offensive Traveler, to learn what he noticed in Spain over thirty years later. By “offensive traveler” Pritchett means that he realizes, like Freya Stark, that he is in someone’s homeland and really has no right to be there. He feels that tourists must be extremely heedful of foreign waysand be courteous when abroad.
He writes in the chapter “Madrid”: “By the rest of Spain, Madrid is also called the parasite. Tourists who travel too fast and who look for the standard Spanish clichés think the city dull. Once they have seen the Prado, the Royal Palace, and the 17th cntury Plaza Mayor and looked for antiques in the Rastro or flea market, they move quickly on. For them it is a comfortable centre from which to visit more interesting places. Yet Madrid is one of the most livable cities in Europe for those who believe in the untroublesome pleasures of life. With its shaded boulevards, its Metro, it is something of an imitation Paris shut off from Western Europe by Spanish stubbornness, but it is not electric, it is not perfumed, it is not feminine, intellectual, or modish.”
And in the chapter “Seville” he experiences olfactory delight: “Now he is walking or driving no longer, but is being lifted or wafted towards the city on air that has ceased to be air and has become a languid melting of the oils and essences of orange blossom and the rose, of jasmine and the myrtle. And although in the city itself he will meet again the strong native reeks of Spanish life—something compounded of olive oil, charcoal, cigar smoke, urine, horse dung, incense, and coffee--the flowers of Andalusiawill powerfully and voluptuously overrule him, the rose and the orange blossom will blow hotly upon his face from walls and street corners, until he reels with a nose-knowledge of Seville.”
SUNRISE WITH SEAMONSTERS-PAUL THEROUX-1985
As a novelist Paul Theroux has had some best sellers: The Mosquito Coast, Half Moon Street, Saint Jack, The Black House, The Consul’s File, Picture Palace. Almost as soon as he started to publish novels, he began his world journeys, writing books with wondrous names: The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, The Kingdom by the Sea, Riding the Iron Rooster, etc. My favorite book of his is Sunrise with Seamonsters; a fascinating collection of reviews, memoirs, pet peeves, but mostly travel. Here are two representative excerpts, one foreign, one domestic.
In “Discovering Dingle” he and his family take a small boat out to the deserted island of Great Blasket: “I think I have never seen an eerier or more beautiful island. Just beyond the village which has no name is a long sandy beach called White Strand, which is without a footprint; that day it shimmered like any in Bali. After our picnic we climbed to Sorrowful Cliff and discovered that the island which looked only steep from the shore was in fact precipitous . . . And the rest of the family had wandered singly to other parts of the silent island, so that when I sat up I could see them prowling alone, in detached discovery, trying—because we could not possess this strangeness—to remember it.”
In the chapter “Summertime on the Cape,” from England where he has been working, Theroux has come home to vacation where he grew up: “The Cape in the summertime is a resting place for the imagination, a release from the confinement I feel in London, and a way of verifying that the excitement I felt during childhood summers was not illusion. I hope my children will have the same fond memories . . . I am reminded again that I am a refugee for the winter. I have always associated leaving the Cape with going back to school, and now that I think of it, it was probably my pleasant summers that made me hate school so much. As for the Cape: I’ll come back to you some sunny day.” It was a pleasure to observe for a change a world traveler take his family along.
BETWEEN THE WOODS AND THE WATER-PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR-1986
This is an unusual book, not the contents nor style but in the rendering. At the age of nineteen (in 1934) Paddy Fermor walked from Holland to Hungary and wrotea book about it, A Time of Gifts. He continued to walk to his intended goal, Constantinople, but that book was never written. Not until 1986--fifty years later—when he could get around to it, and even then it was not complete! Fermor was an adventurer his entire life. He was a professional journalist who settled permanently in Greece, fought bravely in WWII receiving numerous decorations; and as we come to realize he must have had a photographic memory.
Observe the people’s attire from the chapter “Triple Fugue”: “Clothes were still emblematic, and not only among peasants: an expert in Rumanian and Hungarian symbols, looking at the passers-by in a market-place—a couple of soldiers, a captain in the Rosiori, an Ursuline prioress, a sister of St. Vincent de Paul, a Poor Clare, an Hasidic rabbi . . . and above all, women from a dozen villages and ploughmen and shepherds from widely scattered valleys and highlands—would have been able to reel off their provenances as swiftly as a herald glancing along the flags and surcoats of a fourteenth-century battle.”
This is how Fermor interprets musical sounds: “Gypsies bore down on the guests like smiling crows bent on steeping everything in their peculiar music. Badly played, this can sound like treacle and broken bottles and the tunes may not be authentically Hungarian—Bartok and Kodaly are firm about their Gypsy and thus non-Magyar origin—but they deceived Liszt and enraptured me. In the slow passages, the hammers of the czembalom fluttered and hesitated over the strings and the violins sank to a swooning languor, only to rekindle with an abrupt syncope when the hammers and the bows broke into double time and the czembalist went mad as the leading violinist, with his fingers crowding the strings in adark tangle, stooped and slashed beside one listener’s ear after another.” Patrick Leigh Fermor died just last year in 2011. His publisher has stated that this book will be added to by 2013, so the younger Paddy will inevitably reach Constantinople!
OFF SEASON-KEN McALPINE-2004
Like Edward Thomas in England, Ken McAlpine travels in his own homeland, the U.S. His first book Islands Apart recorded his visits to the Channel Islands, like Catalina, off the California coast where he lives. In this book Off Season he journeys to the East Coast with a unique mission: to travel from Florida to Maine during non-summer months to see if life there changes with the season. His style might not be the most artistic, but he is vivid in creating tension in his narrative.
Here is a close call from the chapter “Maine”: “As Thoreau, Henry Beston, and countless other Nature lovers have discovered, being truly alone provides the opportunity to observe delicate nuances that are overlooked in ordinary life’s
clamor. Pausing beside a bare pine twig, I watched a lovely parade of tiny water droplets, perfect crystal balls, move slowly, single file, down the twig’s length before dropping, one at a time, off the tip like polite shipwreck victims. I noticed something else, fog. The raindrops that had run down my raincoat earlier were now bouncing off like popcorn. I hiked back to the van as fast as I could, but I wasn’t fast enough. The freezing rain had spread an icy glaze over Goose Cove Pond. On the first hill I encountered, the tires spun vainly for purchase. For a brief spellbinding moment I was driving backward. Then the van’s back end performed a sickly swing and plunged firmly into a ditch. In a blink, solitude went from enervating to unnerving.”
From “Retreat and Revival on the Jersey Shore,” the crux of off season living is given ona visit to Strathmere: “The town draws close in winter. They share common troubles, and they look out for one another. If a regular doesn’t come in for their mail, someone checks on them. Not that all is utopian. I was told that once, in a first-aid class, one matron offered to apply a tourniquet to the neck of a local realtor. The days could be long, lengthening as slowly and soundlessly as shadow, gray wind wandering empty streets, but everyone I talked to liked it that way. ‘I hate the summer,’ Greg Bennett, a local artist, told me amiably. ‘I hate the heat, the people, and the bugs. I don’t even like the light. It’s too green. The gray of winter is much more beautiful.’”
INNOCENCE AND WAR-IAN STRATHCARRON-2012
Ian Strathcarron has had an adventurous life like Patrick Leigh Fermor. Strathcarron was a journalist for Time-Life in the Orient for ten years. He built racing cars, forming his own company. He qualified as a yacht instructor. He has written two spy novels. Then he had the idea to follow in Byron’s footsteps, writing the travel book, Lord Byron’s Grand Tour Retoured, which won very favorable reviews. He is now in the midst of a trilogy following Mark Twain’s journeys. Innocence and War has the sub-title “Mark Twain’s Holy Land revisited,” based on Twain’s bestseller Innocents Abroad (1869). We should remember that long before that blockbuster Tom Sawyer (1873) Twain first wrote short stories and travel books.
In the chapter “Beirut” here is an urban description: “Beirut would be completely unrecognizable. What was once a sleepy coastal town, barely one-up from a fishing village and even then one of the least significant ones in the Holy Land, is now a fully blown commercial experience. Nearly two million humans endeavor tirelessly, swaggering from deal to deal; patience is a pre-war memory, the relentless sound of endless car horns is punctuated by high revving earthmovers, short-tempered cement mixers and the bepp-bopp-bipp-bupp of PIN numbers on a spending spree.”
From the chapter “Bethlehem then Home,” Strathcarron finally finds serenity in a monastery: “Living in the peace of having nothing to do, nowhere to go, no need to plan, no one to talk to, no questions to answer, no reason to rush, no past to recall and no future in which to escape; just being here, sitting quietly, doing nothing. Ding-dong-ding-dong; ding-dong-ding-dong. The sleep is deep, the ringing is urgent and from high above the cell. When we [meaning Ian and the monks each in his separate cell] first wake up our different faculties wake up in turn: first the universal feeling of existence, then the memory, then the shared intelligence and then the egoic mind . . .The Orthodox tradition is still with purpose another world, one beyond the analytical mind to dissect and justify, an artificially created parallel universe which invites devotees to forsake their egos and join the Godhead in a state presence leading to transcendence.”
I find this a very suitable way to conclude. Ian Strathcarron’s two other books in the trilogy have been issued: Mark Twain’s India Revisited (based on Following the Equator) published in 2013; Mark Twain’s Mississippi ( based on Twain’s Life on the Mississippi) published in 2014. So you see, travelers and travel books never end!