Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsLands

A Taste for Travel by John Julius Norwich (Knopf: $22.95; 495 pp.)

March 22, 1987|William Murray | Murray writes frequently from Italy for The New Yorker

"A good traveler does not much mind the uninteresting places. He is there to be inside them, as a thread is inside the necklace it strings," Freya Stark, one of the best travel writers, observed in one of her books some years ago. It is this "living participation," she adds, that distinguishes the traveler from the mere tourist, whose idea of a trip today is a guided breakneck jaunt by jet and air-conditioned bus through the picturesque ruins of at least 12 world capitals in three weeks. It is not to commemorate the heroics of the latter that John Julius Norwich has assembled this interesting anthology of fragments from the writings of famous wanderers, from Homer and Herodotus to Graham Greene, Lawrence Durrell and Paul Theroux. A world traveler himself, Norwich's purpose is to share with us the excitement and drama that the simple act of going abroad can still arouse, "the endless fascination of the unknown," as he puts it. And what better way to do that than by regaling us with excerpts from accounts of journeys hither and yon over the centuries by explorers, clerics, soldiers, adventurers, doctors, scientists, ladies of rank and the idle rich, all of whom have one talent in common--the ability to write well, sometimes brilliantly, about their experiences in foreign lands.

Norwich divides his writers into two main categories, the nobility and the valley-dwellers. The former are those who, like Stark, Richard Burton and Patrick Leigh Fermor "know and love and respond almost psychically to the lands of which they write"; the latter, a much larger grouping, is comprised mainly of amateurs, the innocents abroad, who remain outsiders and content themselves merely with reporting what they see and hear.

I have to confess that my own preference is for the bumblers, who blunder into foreign lands, sometimes by accident, and then proceed to write brilliantly, often hilariously about what has befallen them. Their comments on the food, fauna, architecture, local customs, sex lives and hygiene are priceless. Two of the best in this category are Evelyn Waugh, whose wanderings through Africa produced not only delicious travel books but several of the funniest novels in the English language, and Mark Twain, whose clear, skeptical American eye compared things European and Middle Eastern to his own native brands, usually to the detriment of the former. Another writer Norwich quotes at length is Peter Fleming, whose "Brazilian Adventure," first published in 1933, has become a classic, written with economy, style and wit. Not the least of the merits of this entertaining anthology is that it introduces us to writers we may not have encountered before and makes us want to read them in full.

It is not by accident that the majority of the writers quoted here are British. The extensive reach of their empire set them to wandering the globe for many decades, and most of them at least kept journals or liked to write long letters home full of stories and observations about their wanderings. Some, like Burton and Stark, went native, and their reports have an authenticity that springs from not only an understanding of the foreign cultures in which they immersed themselves but from love of the people they wrote about. Others, like James (now Jan) Morris and Norwich himself, write so well that the pleasure in reading them becomes an aesthetic experience. There are some lovely bits in here by Morris on Spain, and a description by John Ruskin of St. Mark's in Venice that is nearly as stunning as the sight of the great cathedral itself.

The book is admirably organized under such headings as "Traveling Companions," "First Impressions," "Bad Moments," and progresses chronologically and logically from "Advice to Travelers" to "Homecomings," the shortest chapter because, Norwich points out, "all homecomings are in a sense the same." The experiences, however, are very different and the accounts included vary greatly in tone and outlook. I found myself wanting much more of many authors and somewhat less of others, especially Hilaire Belloc and Noel Coward, whose brittle snobbisms end by irritating. Indeed, some accounts tend to make you never want to leave your hearth again. "Harbin (in Manchuria) has been called the Paris of the Far East, but not, I think, by anyone who has stayed there for any length of time," Peter Fleming wrote in "One's Company." That should be forewarning enough. The English have a gift for understatement.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|