The kind of felicity to which the Blue Train conveyed you, as it let you off at Marseilles or Toulon or Cannes or Nice or Monte Carlo, whence you coulThe kind of felicity to which the Blue Train conveyed you, as it let you off at Marseilles or Toulon or Cannes or Nice or Monte Carlo, whence you could go on to the Italian Riviera, to Rapallo and all the way down to the Amalfi Coast, seemed novel in the 20’s. It seems novel no longer because those places have provided the model for the décor and atmosphere of successful international tourism ever since. Wherever exported and transplanted out of Europe—to Turkey, Mexico, even the USSR—the style is the same, involving beach and sun, bright colored aperitifs at little tables outdoors, copious fish and shellfish to eat, folk or popular music played on string instruments, cheap drinkable local wine, much use of oil (olive for cooking, suntan for browning), all in a setting of colored architecture and “colorful” street markets. A maximum exposure of flesh guarantees a constant erotic undertone, and a certain amount of noise (Vespas, children shouting on the beach) provides a reassurance of life and gaiety. There must be colorful fishermen and boat-people, playing boules or something like it. There must be love on top of the sheets after the large wine lunch, with occasional hints of Roman Catholicism (processions, the locals attending early mass, the public blessing of fishing vessels) just sufficient to lend the whole frivolous operation a slight air of wickedness. - Paul Fussell
At the brighter end of my shabby, dark, westerly block of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, the great ship’s horns of enormous ocean liners could be heard on Sundays, disturbingly deep and resonant, signaling imminent departure in waves of subterranean bass fundamentals. This was in the early 1980’s. Without the slightest indication of direction or itinerary, this sound conveyed untold potential, an uncharted world of possibility, a signal that the high seas awaited and might carry you away if you would only step aboard in time. Where to, exactly? Well, somewhere distant, places perhaps confoundingly hard to understand, perhaps clinging to another era-- somewhere abroad.
I’m not sure it would work that way, or so well, for someone not immersed in the Travel literature with which we’re concerned in this book. Period Travel. Something like distilled spirits that have to remain in the cask until old and nearly forgotten.
”Probably, as Thomas Pynchon never went to Valletta or Kafka to America, it’s best to imagine your own foreign country. I wrote a very good account of Paris before I ever went there. Better than the real thing.” - Anthony Burgess
Abroad was always a little further away yesterday than it is today, and yet we yearn for it to be much further tomorrow. Our relation to somewhere-far-away is always receding, it seems. It’s worth considering that at one time, only about a century or so back, most of the people on the planet had never travelled anywhere at all. Before that, tales of adventure and mishap in distant places were nearly always magical tales of enchanted spells. The Odyssey seems nicely emblematic of that pattern; and a convenient place to begin. Paul Fussell’s book takes the long view into account before delving into the specifics of his topic, namely the genteel, writerly traveler’s books that came out of Britain between the wars in the last century.
“Arrived Venice. Streets full of water. Please advise.” - Robert Benchley
The travel book of the twenties and thirties fairly marked the trail for the genre, and arguably set up templates for the era that really couldn’t be surpassed in the decades to come; a jaunt to far-flung worlds back then was nearly a 5o-5o bet on returning at all, at least in any kind of health or wealth that resembled the traveler’s original condition. Subsequent decades would shrink the world, down to safe or no-go zones, down to spheres of influence, avenues of commerce or security. It would never again be safe for someone like Peter Fleming to set out on a trek to deep Sinkiang in the wastes of Chinese Turkestan-- as if it ever really was. At least in the twenties there was No Man’s Land, rather than everything everywhere being a Disputed Territory.
Fussell argues that intuitive travel writers were so very disenfranchised by the First World War that ‘abroad’ would at very least offer an alternative to the England that wasted a generation of its youth in the trenches. W.H. Auden seems a fair example.
””In your early works, there seems to be a fierceness towards England. There’s a sense of being at war with where you are.” To which Auden answered crisply, “Yes, quite.””
But the anxieties of world conflict were only formalized after the war, as international travel became possible once again; the significance of redrawn borders and uneasy new frontiers was now underlined, everywhere significant of the fracturing of the modern outlook. Fussell finds irony in that the search for certainties outside the boundaries of the home country only exaggerated the disjointed, dissociated world of the dawning Twenties. The Modern era was on, and jarring juxtaposition was no longer the notable exception, but was now nearly the rule.
“The taste for quotations, and for the juxtaposition of incongruous quotations—is a Surrealist taste.” - Susan Sontag
What were charming anomalies—the adults here stay up all night in bistros, then sleep away the afternoon!--the children here dive off the cliffs!-- that could be brought home as travel tales of the ‘foreign scene’--had become collages or quotations that clashed, even reflected inconsistencies in the traveler’s own ethos. Probably what we’d call mash-up, where high meets low and new conceptions undermine accepted ideology. In fiction, think perhaps of A Passage To India, or Brideshead Revisted; not travel tales, but of a similar design to what Forster or Waugh or Maugham were also doing with travel books. Culture clash and oblique or cubist perspective would concern literature more than travel books, but frequently the writers were the same, and the concerns were too. The writers who simultaneously produced both-- Greene, Isherwood, Auden, Maugham, Waugh—were held by the same forces, or force fields, inherent in both. The novels were informed by the travel, the trips taken under auspices of writing travel books along the way.
Other writers were also combining two professions in one itinerary. The author acknowledges the fact that the splintered world between the wars offered more than a few opportunities for Britain’s Secret Service to send their hunter-gatherers out on the world circuit, both to write witty travelogues on critical locations as well as to bring back maps and actionable intelligence, in case of conflict. Fussell writes, “One assumes [Peter] Fleming was, for he was a loyal, philistine, and uncomplicated young man with an impenetrable façade, perfect material for MI-5, as his subsequent success in intelligence work in China and India during World War Two would suggest...” Maugham had been an intelligence agent too, and of course Fleming’s younger brother Ian also had two careers. But this is another story.
”The reader of traveler’s tales is a curious fellow, not easily fooled. He is never misled by facts which do not assort with his knowledge. But he does love wonders. His faith in dragons, dog-headed men, bearded women, and mermaids is not what it used to be, but he will accept good substitutes.” - H.M. Tomlinson
What characterized the Brit travel narrative of the 2o’s and 3o’s was no mere collection of cultural anomaly, nor was it the paradox of culture-clash they found, from Rebecca West in Black Lamb Grey Falcon to Patrick Leigh Fermor in his A Time Of Gifts, but the parallel elucidation of what they compared it all to, what kind of understanding or empathetic reaction they could bring. And layered underneath was first and crucially an England on the verge of transformation. Losing its empire through benign neglect or anachronistic colonial mania, looking to understand itself and the new century through which all nations would be changed. For an empire that spanned the globe, on which the sun never set, the intuitive writers that travelled in the early century were writing a “coming of age” account, even though they might not know it. And the coming of age, of course, was turbulent and embittered the participants. The empire would vanish, but the signs and portents are already there years ahead, in the books.
Fussell’s book would seem a light read, comprised as it is of quotes, italics, and an overample supply of erudition. There is nowhere near the amount of behind-the-scenes detail that might have been. (But the reader wonders how there could be, the books are out there, locked in, forever. For this reader, that is their beauty, their period-precise nature.) He concentrates on Robert Byron, D.H. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh pretty heavily. “Abroad” is more a survey than a study, though; and while the author wants to be as panoramic and breezy as the original writers, a little more depth would have done no harm. For the sweep, the breeze and view of the horizon—we can go to the originals.
By the conclusion, Fussell manages to pull it out of the vague-overview category, though. It’s not really a stretch to say that by opening up the category’s concerns, he gets to the heart of it.
”To emphasize the presence of the essay element in the travel book is to risk not noticing sufficiently this genre’s complex relation to adjacent forms which also require two words to designate them: war memoir, comic novel, quest romance, picaresque romance, pastoral romance... [each having] something of the same “travel” element attached to it, the same obsession with topography and the mystery of place... ...Successful travel books effect a triumphant mediation between two different dimensions: the dimension of individual physical things on the one hand, and the dimension of universal significance on the other... The travel book authenticates itself by the sanction of actualities—ships, trains, hotels, bizarre customs, odd people, crazy weather, startling architecture, curious food. At the same time, it reaches in the opposite direction ...” ...more
The post shows up four or five times a day, envelopes served on platters by noiseless houseboys. Grand motorcars glide along quiet streets. Just roundThe post shows up four or five times a day, envelopes served on platters by noiseless houseboys. Grand motorcars glide along quiet streets. Just round the corner from the Forbidden City, the noise and dust settles, and it's rubbers of bridge in the British Legation, clinking cocktail shakers and roundabout references to the murderous t'ai-pings just outside the city gates.
Ms Bridge gives us the full Empire On Parade, complete with a jolly little outing that will take our ensemble cast up-country for what's called a picnic. In the event it involves hampers of appetizers and liquor, carried on ahead by mules, with camp-beds and linens, whilst the main party struggles forward riding in estate cars and aboard ferries. It's the familiar gathering of military and embassy, love-crossed youth and wiser elders, the odd American authoress and Cambridge don, you know the drill. Their destination is the rambling and otherworldly Chinese Temple city situated against rolling Asian hills. Where half the way into a pretty standard, cocktail-drenched weekend of dalliances and sunset strolls, the t'ai pings attack.
If this begins to sound a little familiar, it certainly is. Basically we have A Passage To India in 3os China, which merges and morphs with bits of Wings Of The Dove and Up At The Villa, depending on where you look in. But it doesn't feel formula or boilerplate; there is a certain leeway in using the colonial setting, in that the British Empire covered the whole known world at certain points, and every kind of narrative can be stitched into the scenery.
Bridge creates a fascinating heroine here in her older-woman head of household Laura Leroy, who centers the story and gently draws out the other characters as she goes. (Oh and by the way, it's about 37 years that gets you the 'older woman' niche in this 3os drama.) Self-disparaging but nervy and empowering, as the only Chinese-speaker and quickest on-the-draw, Laura is the spine of the novel, and suffers no fucking around once the going gets dodgy.
Nothing is too surprising if you've been on this sort of picnic before, but Bridge has done a nice little bait-and-switch. By giving us a novel of character dressed in period-travel clothing, an insightful outing where a lesser author would have gone strictly for the t'ai-ping-at-the-gate theatrics... we're in Forster or Maugham territory, which is intricate and nuanced. ...more
Here in Part II we're carried along with the journey begun and paused at the edges of the Danube in Fermor's A Time Of Gifts. There are most of the asHere in Part II we're carried along with the journey begun and paused at the edges of the Danube in Fermor's A Time Of Gifts. There are most of the aspects of that volume here, too, and with a far more exotic landscape, that of Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria rather than the preceding western and central Europe.
Make no mistake, though, any of this completely willful and enigmatic journey is a fascinating story, taking place as it does in the pivotal era that was 1934 and freely, unconcernedly being the early impressions of a very young man just seeing the world. What a world it was, and Fermor valiantly tries to bring it back alive.
What isn't immediately apparent here is how the distancing (lists, explanations, updates and overall a lot of what couldn't have been known by the young author) effects arise, and for that we are glad to have the introduction by veteran travel writer Jan Morris. Whereas A Time Of Gifts relies on journals and ready, firsthand memories, this volume wasn't published till the eighties, and is cobbled together from fragmented or secondary sources. So inescapably we have the informed, worldly reflections of the elder author in his seventies re-assembling this account, and while the fact-checkers may be much happier here for that reason, the voice, and the stay-up-all-night-in-the-magic-spell-of-europa spirit ... is nearly gone.
We have here a strange brew of the young man's pathways and adventure, as filtered through the older man's better knowledge and reflection. Even still, occasionally the sheer outrageous scale of the endeavor will break through, as when, coming down out of the wolf-ridden Carpathians, we encounter the 'Baths Of Hercules', a posh spa hideaway in the mountains where formal wear for dinner and waltzes on the terrace are the norm. Or as Fermor is getting thru yet another later-life listing of what he might have seen, the present of the narrative crashes through and a Perseid meteor shower rains down above the high Balkans. Immediately, the old-man author has shut up and we gaze enraptured with the young man's eyes again.
In his defense, Fermor makes oblique apologies that note lost journals and notebooks, and we do seem to have more wine and women in this act of the play, too. I'm giving this four stars even though it doesn't deserve it, as much to say that Time Of Gifts... or the grand, fearless, reckless nerve of the whole project... deserved much more. And as with that first volume, sometimes the planets just align for Fermor, and we are carried right along :
It was getting late. The sun left the minaret, and then the new moon, a little less wraith-like than the night before, appeared on cue in a turquoise sky with a star next to it, that might have been pinned there by an Ottoman herald. With equal promptitude, the hodja's [muezzin's] torso emerged on the balcony under the cone of the minaret. Craning into the dusk, he lifted his hands, and the high and long-drawn-out summons of the izan floated across the air, each clause wavering and spreading like the rings of sound from pebbles dropped at intervals into a pool of air. I found myself still listening and holding my breath when the message had ended and the hodja must have been half-way down his dark spiral ...
Let's not forget that the object of this long walk across Europe in 1934 is the former Byzantine capital, Constantinople, the gate to the mysteries of The Orient. Here by the end of book two of three, we've only gotten near the goal, and we leave off there, with Book Three still not published here in May of 2013. Fermor has passed away, and there are all kinds of rumors about whether he ever finished Book Three. But there are also some indications that something will be published by Fall 2013. It has a name, The Broken Road, and it has, needless to say, interested readers ...
A bit light on period detail (of which there can't be too much if you're really reading for that) but there is enough here to transport the reader toA bit light on period detail (of which there can't be too much if you're really reading for that) but there is enough here to transport the reader to a different world, that of 1914. A world where cannon and horse fought world wars, weather and season were uppermost on the minds of the warriors, and in which the idea of "spy" wasn't quite set as a genre.
This is apparently direct documentary reportage, and suffers (a little bit) by comparison to it's fictional competitors, Erskine Childers, say, or John Buchan. But the fact is that this is a template for those kinds of narratives, an outline of the strange events and the nagging goblins that inhabit men's minds when the world is at war. Geoffrey Pike's voice in the book is kind of endearingly chipper and defiantly blasé in the closest of calls; he's a kind of Great War teenage ancestor of future Clandestine Britannia, ala Mr.Bond.
So not a Thirty Nine Steps or a Riddle Of The Sands but a forerunner of same. The harrowing chase across the moor, the forced-march across frozen night-landscapes, the endurance tests where the protagonist must swear to a fraudulent claim and appear nonchalant... We'd never get to Eric Ambler or Ian Fleming without the originals like Mr Pike. ...more