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Friday, May 30, 2014

Travel/Expat Books

I love Paul Fussell's books.  Yes, he is an arrogant SOB but he writes well and he is never more entertaining then when he is being condescending and cruel.  If Americans are widely reported to be "nice", Fussell takes great pride in being an exception.

I just finished Abroad:  British Literary Traveling between the Wars which was published back in 1980.  The book is ostensibly about the British Literary Diaspora between the two great wars of the 20th century:  Auden, Graves, Huxley, Russell and so many others who left England for France, Persia, China, Japan, and (lo and behold) the United States.

For at least part of the book he manages to stay on topic and I fed my to-read list with a number of titles I hadn't read.

But smack in the middle of the book is a polemic about people who travel.  There are three kinds, he says:  explorers, the "true" travelers, and the tourists.

"All three make journeys, but the explorer seeks the undiscovered, the traveler that which has been discovered by the mind working in history, the tourist that which has been discovered by entrepreneurship and prepared for him by the arts of mass publicity."

Which one of the three do you think he holds in the most contempt?

Is there really a "right" and a "wrong" way to travel?   Are those who do it "right" superior to those who do it "wrong"?

Ah, those human animals and their webs of significance.  We are such complicated creatures and we do indeed judge according to conventions that are all the more powerful because they are rarely explicit.  Like all such systems  which are man-made and expressed through cultural codes, most of the feedback is negative (we think we know what it isn't) expressed in such phrases as  "typical tourist", "playing tourist", and so on and so forth.  What does positive feedback look like?  Hard to tell.  Perhaps it is that moment when someone says, "You went to X?  How cool is that!" and you realize that you have just had some social capital conferred on you based entirely on a place you visited.

Fussell talks about "tourist-angst".  This is the deep anxiety that one's presence in a foreign place will be interpreted as mere tourism.  Clearly there is no social capital attached to that if you are middle-class.  I could be wrong but I doubt very much that solid upper upper class individuals care about such things. Having a great deal of social and financial capital already, they are more secure and their heading off to Paris for a weekend or on a road trip through the Amazon requires no particular justification.

I suspect that it's only the middle-class that must strenuously assert difference and advance a claim that their travels are broadening, morally uplifting, or even just more interesting then those of the hoi polloi or the global jetsetting class.    The problem is that the categories "traveler" and "tourist" have become so muddled that it really is simply a question of presentation and interpretation. I live just a few short kilometers away from the Versailles castle.  Are the people visiting it intrepid travelers looking for the "mind working in history"?  Or is this just a high-class Disney World?

The books Fussell chooses to reflect upon (and I've seen a few comments about his omissions) are the product of a particular time that are still a joy to read nearly a century later (and I do thank him for a fine bibliography). I'm hard pressed to tell you what I find most interesting in them - is it the well-written descriptions of the exotic locales that demonstrate a solid classical education? Or is it the personalities of the authors?  These were deliberately odd, offbeat people who took a certain pride in being eccentric, witty, and cruel.  When asked at a dinner party why he lived in the country, Evelyn Waugh was reported to have replied, "To get away from people like you."

What I do not find in these British travel/expat books written in the early 20th century is insecurity.  They don't seem to be at all concerned with being taken for tourists though Fussell points out that they had great fun mocking them (especially Americans). They didn't worry about "fitting in".  On the contrary they seem to revel in being outsiders. Or so it seems to me.

Fussell doesn't think much of modern travel tales.  He contends that travel as it existed in the early 20th century is simply impossible now.  He laments the demise of such things as grand passenger ships and the daring exploits of dashing men (women are conspicuously absent from his book).  

I think he's partially right  The problem modern travel/expat authors have is that it is very rare today to find a part of the world that hasn't already been seen, lived and written about by at least one Anglo-Saxon:  Brits in the South of France, Americans in Paris, retirees in hot countries, spiritual seekers in Indian ashram, expat spouses in Asia or South America.  There is already so much material written about these places that  the writer ends up working within existing frameworks and stereotypes about expats and natives and retelling a story that has already been told many times before.  As W.H. Auden said, "It is impossible to take a train or an airplane without having the fantasy of oneself as Quest Hero setting of in search of an enchanted princess or the Waters of Life."

Adam Gopnik's book Paris to the Moon is a great example.  Beautifully written, it still plays into every fantasy about the exotic French and the American expat who learns to live in the quirky, but lovable, Hexagon and then returns triumphantly home. There is a formula there that is every bit as powerful and confining as a Harlequin romance complete with HEA (Happily Every After).

I call them fantasies or fairy tales but Fussell uses the word "romance" and he makes the link between travel/expat books (quest romances) and Joseph Campbell's monomyth:  "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

Nothing wrong with re-telling an old story using a formula that the reader feels comfortable with.  Nothing inherently wrong either with using the social capital an individual acquires living abroad to earn a living or explore one's writing talents.  I think where I am all too often disappointed by modern travel/expat books is that I look in vain for the one element that will always be original and makes or breaks the book for me:  I want to know what's going on inside the author's head - that combination of personality and "a brain worth exploring."   It's not so much intellectual ability as it is awareness of the self and a willingness to expose it even if it forces the author to stray from the Life Abroad formula in ways that might disturb or destabilize the reader.  Art, not reporting.

To write that kind of travel or expat book, an author would have to cast away his or her own insecurities, lose the idea that somehow his journey has to be morally uplifting or have something to teach, and perhaps be financially and socially secure enough to not care whether what he or she has to say sells.

I honestly think that there are darker, richer and more complex tales to be explored that come straight out of the traveler's/tourist's subconscious (perhaps even published if anyone dared do so). I'd like to see some of the uncomfortable tales told, not in order to discourage people from moving abroad (or to find material to denigrate the Other) but as inspiration, a more nuanced view of "the people who move around" and a glimpse of what is going on inside their heads as they experience the incredible dissonance of trying to cope with life on life's terms in another land.

“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.”
-Ray Bradbury


MK said...

A European colleague explained the difference between American travel and European travel for me once. He said, in Europe it's all about the journey; in the US it's about the all about destination. Not sure if it's true but that generalization made things a lot clearer for me.

Unknown said...

"The River of Doubt" by Candice Millard is an excellent the true story of Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing exploration of one of the most dangerous rivers on earth in the uncharted Amazon Jungle. definitely in the Explorer Category.

Catheine said...

I love your description of the author in your opening sentences. "He is an arrogant SOB but he writes well and he is never more entertaining then when he is being condescending and cruel." I love it, so honest.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thanks, James - another one for the to-read list.

@MK, Not sure either. Most of my friends and family in France when they take their vacation it's to shake off work and RELAX.

@Catherine, :-)

tccomments2013 said...

dear Victoria,

I once worried about being cast as "and ugly American", the traveler/tourist who takes little account of the culture, language, customs, etc. and can appear rude and lacking in grace and appreciation for the differences experienced with an attitude of distain. as I ponder future travels, some of which will be on my own, even if I only make it up to the rung of "tourist" in the author's eyes, I simply do not care. I will be the quintessential wide-eyed, delighted, grateful, excited and savoring every detail traveler, enchanted and overwhelmed with wonder for each aspect that helps me see things with new eyes and a thankful heart. I might bumble and stumble because I haven't had much experience the last five years with all the technicalities of getting about, but for me, taking baby steps to get to see new places and feel the joy and accomplishment of meeting new people and happily immersing myself as an inexperienced guest trumps trying to be something I am not (sophisticated and bold. yet.) as more seasoned travelers are busy judging and categorizing other travelers, perhaps they will be kind and a little more understanding of those of us who may unknowingly make a few faux pas simply because we are climbing a learning curve, albeit, ardently wishing to be accepted and welcomed by those we encounter with the best of intentions of showing our gratitude, respect, and genuine interest in whatever setting we land in. I expect to read and learn all I am able about the cultures, the values, the customs, but if I makes mistakes I do hope I am not the baby cast aside with the proverbial bath water!

lovely and insightful post - thank you!

much love,

Karen xoxox

Northerndar said...

Being more than half deaf without a hearing (got one later when near 30 yrs old) I spent a lot of my time in the library "traveling". How I yearned to travel and see the things I saw and read about in the National Geographic, Look and Life. My family never went further than 2 hours drive when I grew up. I was considered weird because I read. When I was in 3rd grade we studied Marco Polo who I was fasinated with. I wrote my essay as if I was traveling with him. My teacher chose it as the best one. After I met my husband we traveled and lived in the Florida Keys and made our way to live in Canada. We traveled the East coast of the USA and Canada . After he died I went to the US west . I visited 40 states. I visted UK and Ireland for 6 weeks in 2012. I love it. I loved the travel books of Motorcycle Dairies written by Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and recent one he Hunt For Puerto Del Faglioli by Irishman Paddy Tyson.. My boyfriend has a Harley Davidson bike so I loved reading those books. Another favorite novel I read long ago is Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Stienbeck.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Karen, I LOVE your take on it. Yes, retaining a sense of wonder. Of course you will make mistakes. We ALL make mistakes and that's how we know that we're alive and still learning a thing or two.

I read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird on the airplane and I really took to heart what she said about perfectionism.

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life... I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.”

@Northerdar, Damn, more titles for my to-read list. :-)