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Reflections of a Witty Traveler : HENRY JAMES: Collected Travel Writings, Edited by Richard Howard (The Library of America: two volumes, $35 each; 845 pp., 846 pp.)

January 23, 1994|Miranda Seymour | Miranda Seymour's most recent book is "Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Not the least astonishing thing about these two beautifully produced and edited books is how well they stand the test of time. Few writing markets have expanded so dramatically as that of the travel guide. There are books in the hundreds ready to tell you where to eat, shop, sleep and be seen; I defy you to name any which will provide better company than these two have given me for the last fortnight. And yet the last piece was written in 1912 and the first in the 1860s.

Henry James was not, in the usual meaning of the word, an adventurous traveler. Enthralled by Pierre Loti's accounts of Morocco, he would no more have gone there himself than to the moon. James, like his characters, was willing to absorb all that America and Britain could expose to his inquisitive stare but, even in westernized Europe, he drew the line sharply after Italy and France. Intensely social, he saw no point in going to a country where he could not communicate with confidence. His French and Italian were excellent. He had no other languages, which explains why there is nothing here to assist the visitor to Spain, Greece or Scandinavia. But do not, if you are contemplating a visit to Rome or the Adriatic, deprive yourself of the pleasure of being accompanied by such an observant, good humored and, unexpectedly, witty companion.

Many of the earlier pieces were written as part of commissioned series for American magazines. The intention, James declared, was only to offer a series of impressions, "immediate, easy and consciously limited." What gives them their singular charm is the character of the observer, as presented in his own gently self-mocking prose. In Britain, we see him scrambling stoutly up the wind-lashed side of a Welsh mountain, "very much in the attitude of Nebuchadnezzar," or rejoicing at having escaped the obligatory tour of Windsor Castle in a party envisaged as "shuffling in dull, gregarious fashion over the miles of polished floor." Who else would have seen gregarious as just the word for the ceaseless mumble of tour parties? The sober observer looks on, fascinated, in another, marvelously funny, account of a carriage of cockney revelers at the races, in which "opulent young men" and "exhilarated" girls with "gilded" hair (for which, in less diplomatic language read drunk and bleached), derive loud and unending pleasure from the plight of one of their friends, "a pretty young man so drunk that nobody can lift him off the ground." Who, James asks in a more serious vein, "shall resolve into its component parts any impression of this richly complex English world, where the present is always seen, as it were, in profile, and the past presents a full face?"

James is magnificent on England and connoisseurs of his work will enjoy identifying the scenery and characters of some of his best-known works. But anyone who imagines that the novelist spent most of his free time dispensing witty badinage in the drawing-rooms of the grandest families will be astonished to find out how much of the travel writing is devoted to life at a less exotic level. There are accounts of derelict country houses abandoned by ruined owners, of overworked porters and sad receptionists in dingy hotels, of the black procession of grime-soaked warehouses along the Thames. Less zealously public-spirited than, say, Dickens, in his response to poverty, James only attempts to romanticize it on one occasion, when he grieves that the picturesque country tramps cannot be tethered to the turf on which they sleep so colorfully. Even here, it is probable that the writer is gently mocking his own insouciance.

I would be sorry for anyone to miss the passage in which a sodden Henry James confronts the Palais des Papes from under his umbrella and roundly abuses it for being "a very dull monument." James on France, however, is no more illuminating than a packet of matches when set beside the brilliant fireworks display of images, responses and perceptions that he bestows on Italy. Earlier Americans had been unable to set foot in Rome without being overwhelmed by their horror of the Catholic faith, an aversion which had a dismal effect on their prose. But James, having poked fun at those of his compatriots who had been in the habit of remarking that the Colosseum "will be a very handsome building when it is finished" then dares to suggest that there is a lot more fun to be had at a Roman carnival than in praying for the sinful masqueraders. Demurely eyeing "a handsome, opulent-looking nun" as she listens to the choir in a particularly sumptuous church, he wonders if her thoughts are not more occupied by the mellifluous baritone than by God. Seated at the opera, he declares himself amazed that the audience should applaud when Othello shows his anguish "by seizing Iago's head and whacking it half-a-dozen times on the floor, and flinging him 20 yards away." Can this, he wonders, be what they consider a great performance?

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