Our books today – one old favorite and one I believe a new mention here at Stevereads – provide a warm-reminder reading experience that only gets warmer as the weather turns colder and the years go by: they’re both anthologies of travel-writing. The first, A Taste for Travel, was edited by John Julius Norwich in 1985, and the second, The Norton Book of Travel, was edited by Paul Fussell in 1987, and although they have basically the same goal – bringing the world of travel to your library – the routes they take to get there are different enough to be complimentary; in fact, not only is each of these volumes an indispensable addition to any travel-writing library, but the two of them make a tandem necessity.
John Julius Norwich organizes his book thematically, presenting excerpts from the writings of some of history’s greatest travelers grouped around certain hallmarks of all travel, headings like “Beginnings,” “Motivations,” “First Impressions,” “Architecture,” “Nature,” “Hardship,” the ever-popular “Health and Hygiene,” and “Homecomings.” After a bit of swanning about the fact that an anthology’s editor has a kind of duty to reflect his own personal favorites (why he felt the need to include this swanning, I’ll never know – Norwich has always done exactly what he wanted on assignments like this, and everybody who’s ever worked with him knows that – but maybe he was feeling self-conscious during the hour it took him to bash out his Introduction), Norwich then includes choice excerpts from a long roster of greats: Lawrence Durrell, Freya Stark, Evelyn Waugh, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Mark Twain, John Ruskin, Patrick Leigh Fermor, etc.
It’s a glorious assemblage, bringing readers right into the changing face of travel’s staples, the getting ready, the getting there, the getting about, and the getting home. The editorial approach here, relying as it does on what Norwich himself considers to fit each category, is necessarily fussy, but the tone of the Introduction will prepare you for that; it’s a fantastically mandarin mini-essay that manages to exalt the past in the most Norwichian manner possible: by pooh-poohing the present. Essentially, in His Lordship’s view, all modern travelers are doing it wrong:
There is no doubt about it: the easier it becomes to travel, the harder it is to be a traveller. Half a century ago, any young Englishman prepared to venture beyond the shores of Western Europe could lay claim to the title; patience, resourcefulness and robustness of digestion were the only qualities he needed. A year or two later he could return, the pride of his family, the envy of his friends; a trail-blazer, a hero. Alas, those days are over. Everybody goes everywhere – or nearly everywhere – buying their air tickets with their credit cards and being met by airport buses, secure in the knowledge that their hotel reservations have been confirmed, that the rent-a-car firm is expecting them, and that it will be perfectly safe to drink the Coca-Cola.
(His sense of proportion seems very faintly to pull at him; in full throat about the lost glories of roughing it, this most indefatigable and most pampered of world travelers is willing to grant “we are fully aware that these excitements were never without their disadvantages” – yes indeed, having enough telecommunications to prevent yourself from showing up at a full inn – or walking into a war zone – you know, “disadvantages” like that – can sometimes be to the good)
Fussell’s book likewise breaks the whole experience of traveling into broad categories like “Beginnings,” but he means it literally, not thematically: his book’s excerpts trace the history of travel, from Herodotus to the 18th century to the “heyday” that occurred, naturally, just before Fussell’s readers were old enough to pack a footlocker and hit the road. This bad timing half-lights the book with a thin glow of wistfulness, and in his own Introduction, Fussell addresses it directly:
But the irony of traveling can sometimes end in melancholy. Flaubert observes how sad it is to experience a foreign place that is wonderful and to know that you will never return to it. All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicitly in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time. The melancolies du voyage – Flaubert’s term – are as much a part of travel (but never, significantly, of tourism) as its more obvious delights.
The essay is every bit as delightful as Norwich’s, and just under the surface of their differences is the enormous similarity they share: both our editors, way back in the 1980s, were assuring their readers that traveling, the genuine item, doesn’t happen anymore, that it’s been replaced by credit cards and hotel reservations, that its great loss is signaled in its morphing into that dreaded word, tourism. Most tourists think they are traveling; both Fussell and Norwich would like to disabuse them of that idea.
It’s frustrating, in a small way, to encounter that prewar certainty so firmly embedded in both these wonderful books, but it’s their only frustration, and it has a charm of its own. I won’t have been the only reader to come to these books and think, “Tourism is a plague, you’re right about that – but travel, real travel, is still possible for the adventurous.”
And as to Flaubert’s melancolies du voyage? Well, as usual, Flaubert was spot-on about the reality of such a thing, and Fussell is likewise right that it’s something tourists aren’t likely to feel – why should they, when their travel experience was bought and paid for in a packaged way that can be bought and paid for identically the following year? And as is the way with syrupy sentiment, the melancholy doesn’t end when the traveling does; instead, the erstwhile traveler, now halted by age or infirmity (or, as is more often the case, the age and infirmity of loved ones, our true home ports), feels an entirely new level of it when reading and re-reading books like these. And that makes them sweeter, in an odd way.
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