BookMarks October 2019: Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars

bookmarks craig storti october 2019 travel travel writing Oct 15, 2019

Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars by Paul Fussell. 1980 Oxford University Press, 246 pages. Reviewed by Craig Storti

Many books are more or less one-trick wonders; you read them, enjoy them, set them aside, and pick up something different. When they’re over, they’re over. Other books start something; you enjoy them, but they also introduce you to their friends. So when you finish one, you pick up a related book they put you onto. Abroad is like that; if you start reading Abroad and enjoy it, you’ll almost certainly move on to some of the books and authors it will introduce you to—and be the better for it.

So who are these folks? The list is impressive, a who’s who of some of the greatest British writers of the 20th century, who just happened to also write travel books: —Anthony Burgess, Cyril Connolly, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, D. H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, and Evelyn Waugh. And then there are the great British travel writers: J. R. Ackerley, Robert Byron, Bruce Chatwin, Norman Douglas, Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Peter Fleming, and Freya Stark, among others.

The book, broadly speaking, is intellectual history, a presentation and examination of ideas about travel and how it has evolved. But don’t let that put you off; Fussell is so wry, trenchant, and amusing that even when he is talking concepts, his tone delights and will keep you reading. And then, suddenly, you find yourself in Sicily, Tahiti, Tibet, Mt. Athos, Liberia, Kabul, or the French Riviera, where you are mightily entertained.

So what is this book about? That’s hard. Here is what Fussell says it’s about in his preface: “This book is about travel writing, but it is also about travel, so I have dealt not just with books but with ships and trains, passport photographs and national borders and small French seaport towns, hotels and cafes and beach resorts, architecture ancient and modern, food and drink, nude sunbathing, and sex, both procreative and recreational. I have dealt with icy trenches and sunny patios, West African and Brazilian chiggers, touts of all nations, suntan oil, oranges and palm trees…. I have done all these things to imply the context of travel writing from 1919 to 1939, to suggest what it felt like to be young and clever and literate in the final age of travel.” 

The greatest joy of the book, at least for this reader, was the other books it sent me to, most especially Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, an account of a journey Byron and Christopher Sykes took in the 1920s through the Middle East to Oxiana, the country of the Oxus, the river that is the border between Russia and Afghanistan. Byron is Fussell’s personal hero as a travel writer, mainly on the strength of this book but also one other, Mount Athos, which contains a wonderful description of a classic cross-cultural faux pas. Byron is staying at an Orthodox Christian monastery in the Sinai:

My first shock came when I was requested, politely but firmly, by the guest-master to remove a pair of underpants then fluttering happily from the line. This, he pointed out, was a monastery; shirts, socks, handkerchiefs, even vests, might be dried with propriety within its walls. But underpants were a shameful abomination and could on no account be permitted. Meekly, I obeyed; but worse was to come. I woke the following morning at dawn...and made quietly for the wash-house.  Its principal furnishing was a huge stone trough; and into this I now clambered, covering myself from head to foot in a deep and luxurious lather. At this point the guest-master appeared. Never have I seen anyone so angry. For the second time in twelve hours I had desecrated his monastery. Having already offended God and the Mother of God with the spectacle of my underpants, I was now compounding the sacrilege by standing stark naked under the very roof of the Grand Lavra. I was the whore of Babylon, I was Sodom and Gomorrah, I was a minion of Satan sent to corrupt the Holy Mountain. I was to put on my scabrous clothes at once and return with all speed to the foul pit whence I had come.

Cross-cultural encounters and the insights they produce are everywhere in these pages. How could they not be? This is a book full of the impressions of some of the most sensitive observers of the 20th century. When these people encounter culture, they feel it—and then they talk about how it affects them.  

Abroad came out almost 40 years ago, so finding a new copy may be difficult (I just saw 7 on Amazon), but used copies abound, both in hardcover and paperback. 

(Paul Fussell died some years ago so there is no author interview this month.)