Our book today is Aldo Buzzi’s 1996 composite travel book Cechov a Sondrio e altri viaggi, brought out by Random House in a very good translation by Ann Goldstein and titled Journey to the Land of the Flies (poor Chekhov gets the heave-ho). Buzzi’s formal training was as an architect, but for most of his life he made his living as a deadline hack. He generated an enormous heap of literary journalism – columns, book reviews, interviews, and the like. And somewhere along the way, he discovered that for a lucky few writers, there are editors out there who’ll pay good money to send a person on vacation. It’s a golden Elysium entered by only a handful of writers, and Buzzi knew a good thing when it happened to him. He took his notebook and toothbrush, he kept his receipts, and over the course of half a century, he wrote a small body of some of the most wry and almost dreamlike travel writing of the 20th century.
In the little pamphlets reprinted here, we follow our author to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Palermo, Jakarta, London, Milan, and lots of much smaller and more interesting places in between, like a little town in Sicily, not far from Messina, where Buzzi uses so many specific details you’d think they’d crush the delicate beauty of the scene he’s painting, and yet they don’t:
After dinner we went to sit in front of the house, chatting, smoking, dozing, meditating on the more extraordinary dishes brought that day to the table, as they do in Sicilian nobles’ clubs. The sun shown gently on the lion-colored earth of the flower beds an among the hundred different greens of the plants, all evergreen: cedars of Lebanon, palms, eucalyptus, pines, silver firs, figs, a pepper tree (false pepper) attacked by ivy, olives, carob trees, holm oaks; and myrtle, rosemary, asparagus, bamboo, oleander, mimosa, hibiscus, jasmine, and capers, which are flowers, like jasmine, or, more precisely, edible flowers, like cauliflower and artichokes.
At the heart of Buzzi’s knack for atmosphere-creating, I think, is his talent for indirection – and he knows it. So often in these books he eases up to his subjects lazily and obliquely, and the descriptions are usually the more memorable for it. And at a couple of points, he actually talks about the approach:
I return for a moment to what I was saying about the beautiful girl of Crescenzabo – that is, to the best way of describing a person. The meticulous enumeration of physical characteristics, used so much in bad novels, serves no purpose. Every new characteristic, rather than blending with the preceding ones and little by little completing the portrait, cancels them, so to speak, and increases the fog that forms between the page and the reader. On the other hand: when Gide says of Claudel, “As a young man he had the look of a nail; now he seems a pestle,” Claudel is immediately present, vivid, even though we do not know if he is tall or short, or what color his eyes are.
Buzzi’s also an indelibly Italian writer, happy to revel in sensory details, happy to inventory food and drink, and, shall we say, prone to enthusiastic appreciations of the women he encounters – or, in a couple of instances, in classic dirty-old-lecher style, specifically their feet:
… rounder than any solid revolution or any circle traced by a compass – and because of its inscrutable mixture of the human and divine, can be considered one of the most convincing proofs of the existence of God, certainly more convincing than the ontological arguments of Saint Anselm.
I recently found this Journey to the Land of the Flies paperback as part of the wonderful old “Steerforth Italia” series with the little postage-stamp pictures in the center of their covers. And it was a lazily joyful experience, giving an hour to Aldo Buzzi again after all this time. It made me inclined to fish out more travel-writing from my bookshelves, and who knows? I just might.