THERE are two reasons, it has been said, for reading travel books: the first is that you intend to travel, and the second is that you don’t. The armchair traveler, I believe, has suffered a loss in the increasing rarity of the old-fashioned personal travelogue, the genre from which the classics ol travel literature have come. To he sure, many of the old Wanderings In . . .” and “On Foot Through ...”— lovingly compiled by retired British Colonels and arid antiquarians — were monuments to man’s genius tor being a bore, lint at its best the personal travelogue has been a vivid, thoughtful, and diverting piece ol writing, agreeably flavored with individuality. Today’s travel books are predominantly utilitarian: and while many of them may be invaluable in the tourist’s equipment, few make exhilarating reading.
I have sampled quite a number of the year’s new travel titles, and the bulk of them full into one of two main categories— Dopebooks, which in effect are the how-to-do-it manuals of tourism; and Background Books, made of more scholary stuff, which dispense cultural enlightenment and do not concern themselves with the practical problems of the traveler.
Among the new Dopebooks, there are four additions to Fodor’s Modern Guides — Britain in 1951, France in 1951. Italy in 1951. and Switzerland in 1951. all edited by Eugene Fodor and Lawrence R. Devlin (Dav id McKay, $3.00 each); two additions to The New Europe Guides — All About Spain by Georgia Long, and All About Ireland by Virginia Creed (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, $2.,50 each); The Good Time Guide to London (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00) edited by Francis Aldor: and Ontario in Your Gar (Rinehart, $2.75) by John and Marjorie Mackenzie.
The Fodor guides are shabbylooking books. Each is written by a team of contributors, and they vary considerably in quality from chapter to chapter. All follow approximately the same plan -first, “Practical Advice" on transportation, hotels, lipping, sporls facilities, and so on; then a thorough coverage of the capital city (sightseeing, shopping cues, restaurants, night life); essays on the national character and “way of life”; a chapter on gastronomy; a section by section tour of the country; and a list of handy phrases.
The New Europe Guides to Ireland and Spain — tidy jobs of bookmaking — are roughly similar in pattern to the Fodor series. Their special merit is a twenty-page appendix which tabulates all sorts of “useful information"; and they include a chapter of history. Ontario in Your Gar is a book I would be grateful for if I were planning to tour Ontario in my car. The Good Time Guide to London is remarkably comprehensive and thorough, and exceptionally sound in its pointers to restaurants and shopping (it even gives the addresses of inexpensive “little dressmakers”). The editor has had the bright idea of including a chapter on London pubs and a map of the subway system. All in all. this is a book which would be an asset even to the visitor who knows his London well. The scores of color illustrations, however, struck me as something of an oddity. At least half of them would be marvelously evocative in a guide to France; none of them suggest Clement Attlees England.
The previous paragraphs have, I hope, indicated the services rendered by these handbooks. The bill of complaints which follows does not apply in toto to all of the titles mentioned, but most of it applies to most of them — and indeed to a good many other Dopebooks I have seen on the market in the past few years.
The cardinal sin of so many of the travel dopes!ers is a leaning towards outright press-agentry, which does a singular disservice to the tourist. Glamour phrases such as “exclusive, “crowded with celebrities, “colorful haunt of artists and writers,”are dispensed with stultifying prodigality. A restaurant which is merely sound is apt to be cited as a culinary Mecca. Where low-budget travel is discussed, lodgings which it would be effusive to call “rugged" are described as “modest but quite acceptable.’ Where there is criticism, it is apt to be mealymouthed; the travel dopesters are often more zealous apologists than the local patriots when dealing with such dismal matters as English cooking or the Spanish railways (which officials of the Spanish Tourist Department earnestly enjoined me to avoid).
The historical chapters are often marred by a naïve chauvinism, which, in All About Spain, reaches utter grotesquerie. This guide to Spain — a country where the tourist can fare poorly if he is not honestly briefed — is a glaring example of the total “puff.” It is wickedly misleading, for instance, to say that English is spoken “ in nearly every hotel,” or that in Madrid in summer “only a few days are hot.” In fairness, I should like to note that All About Ireland is more innocent of ballyhoo, and on occasion is refreshingly outspoken.
One does not expect to find literary distinction in a travel handbook, but even decent descriptive prose is rather a rarity. Of the two prevailing styles, one is ruthlessly bouncy, smartalecky, and hopped-up with bonhomie; the other is soggy with clichés and portentous banalities. One, in fact, represents the full flowering of writing for teen-agers; the other is hack writing in its purest form. There is a minority style which is flatly pedestrian.
The material on the arts usually ranges from lifeless to laughably bad. In Italy in 1951 (the poorest title in that series), Fodor’s expert on the beauties of Rome pays his respects to the Piazza del Quirinale with the matchless comment, “strictly ancient.” The Fodor book on France (excellent on Paris restaurants, night life, shopping) solemnly informs us, in its chapter on “The Creative French,” that Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantayruel is a very great book; and much of the chapter trembles on the verge of unconscious burlesque.
In sum, all too often the Dopebooks give the impression of being addressed to oafs, and compiled by authors who are salesmen rather than real connoisseurs of what they are writing about. Most of them belabor the obvious; they miss out on vital tips, and they run to an unconscionable amount of blah — sententious disquisitions beginning, “Rome [or Paris or Madrid] is the symbol of . . and flat-footed sermons to the effect that the English (or French or Spanish) are nice people when you get to know them. It seems to me that this type of travel book could be halved in size and doubled in value by cutting most of the cackle and going all out for concrete information, presented wherever possible in straight reference form. The Guide Michelin to France follows this principle, and it is worth half a dozen of the other handbooks put together.
Of the new Background Books, three of the most worth-while are Florence (McGraw-Hill, $5.00) by Edmond-René Labande, translated and adapted by Janet Hamilton; The Pariswe Love (McGraw-Hill, $0.50) by Doré Ogrizek; and In Search of London (Dodd, Mead, $4.00) by H. V. Morton. M. Labande’s Florence is a superior handbook for ihe art-lover; its 150 magnificent gravure photographs are a vitalizing complement to the sober, scholarly text. The book on Paris —the latest addition to the World in Color Series — represents the collaborative effort of a group including Jean Cocteau, André Maurois, and Jules Remains. The lexi (translated from the French) is sometimes a bit awkward and sometimes gushing; but the contributors really know their stuff, and most of the time I found the going agreeable and instructive. There is a chapter for the epicure and one on Paris amusements. Like the previous titles in this series, the book is lavishly and entrancingly illustrated.
H. V. Morton, whose “In Search of” books have enjoyed great popularity, is one of the finest living travel writers. His In Search of London should perhaps have been described as a travelogue: writing in the first person singular, Mr. Morton narrates twelve exploratory trips through London, describing the city of today, evoking t he changes of half a century,
interjecting many anecdotes, and ranging back through history. Here is an admirably written book, full of fascinating lore — an item for the armchair traveler no loss than for visitors to the Festival of Britain.
For the armchair traveler, so long as he isn’t a stickler for timeliness, there are 550 pages of good reading in a new anthology, The Golden Age of Travel (Twayne, $5.00), edited by Helen Morrison — a collection of short pieces about Europe by authors and artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is a misnomer, I think, to call that period the Golden Age of travel: pleasure travel, pioneered by Thos. Cook & Son, did not get properly started until the eighteen-lift ies. (We are currently living,
I should guess, in the Bronze Age of travel; jet propulsion and rocket s may usher in the Iron Age, and it will not be time to talk ol a Golden Age until frontiers and customs officials have withered away.) But the fact that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, travel was rapidly expanding while still remaining something of an adventure made those centuries the Golden Age of travel writing. Almost everyone who traveled automatically pul pen to paper; and writers who traveled automatically became travel writers.
That situation has enabled Helen Morrison to draw on a legion of illustrious contributors, among them Audubon, Balzac, Beethoven, and Byron; Chopin, Coleridge, Dumas, Emerson, and Benjamin Franklin; Gibbon, Goethe, Hawthorne, Heine, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the James brothers, and Jefferson; Macaulay, Melville, Metternich, Mozart, Rousseau, Ruskin, Shelley, and Schiller; Talleyrand, Tchaikovsky, Voltaire, and Wagner. Mark Twain supplies, among other delightful things, an amusing account of taking the cure at Marienbad. Dickens narrates a hairraising ascent of vesuvius. Thackeray tells of being refused a good room in Ghent because he was traveling with only one suitcase. This ant hology has humor in abundance and masterly descriptions, originality, insight, and learning — all the qualities that make good travel writing durable however much travel may change.
Zealots and conspirators
For the past two decades, journalism has been making increasing inroads into the novel. The “proletarian ” novels of the thirties; the novels about race hatred and anti-Semitism: the novels of “contemporary history”; the exposes of the literary, magazine, and advertising worlds — many of these books have been essentially fictionalized journalism with an editorial slant. The subject mailer, of course, is not ihe issue but the way in which it is handled* The great masters of the novel have often concerned themselves with topical problems, but their deepest concern has always been with character and the inner truths of human experience. In the journalistic novel, the author’s overriding interest is the topical issue for its own sake; the characters are molded and manipulated to make his point, and the “truth” is a public truth, which could be stated, though with less emotional force, in an editorial or an essay.
There have always, of course, been novels with a high journalistic content; and their appeal in the days before mass communication is readily understandable. But today—when the newspapers, magazines, radio, television. lecture bureaus. Committees, Leagues, and Associations subject us to a saturation bombardment of reportage, debate, and interpretation it would seem logical for the novelists to keep away from journalism. It would seem more logical for the novelists to try to be poets than reporters and editorialists. The novels we get, however, are precisely the novels we deserve; and if so much contemporary fiction is a form of journalism, it is because of a widespread feeling that there is more “significance” in a journalistic novel about, say, the “loyalty” investigations in Washington, than in the timeless insights of the genuine novel.
These notes are prompted by Irwin Shaw’s new book, The Troubled Air (Random House, $3.50), which has to do with Communists and Communist-hunters in the radio business. It is an ably written and very skillfully plotted piece of fiction, charged with ascending tension and a strong element of surprise. It dramatizes the social issue in its full complexity, with intelligence and balance. But it draws its life entirely from its topicality, from the urgency of the social problem il explores. Its people, though deftly sketched and credible, do not capture the imagination as fictional creations: they interest, us because, so to speak, we have read something about them in the newspaper and now we are getting the low-down. The Troubled Air, in short, is highly accomplished fictional journalism.
Shaw’s hero, Clement Archer — a middle-aged producer of a popular radio show — is told by the advertising agency that he must replace five members of his cast: a sheet called Blueprint has warned the agency that it is going to expose the five as Communists, and will get the show boycotted unless they arc dropped, Archer manages to obtain a two-week stay of judgment in which to investigate the charges. It seems incredible to him that any of the five, one of them his closest friend, could be Communists; moreover, he firmly believes that an entertainer’s politics are his own business.
As the truth about the five is unfolded, Mr. Shaw keeps two motifs in the foreground. The first is Archer’s slow, horrified discovery of his naivete, and of the inadequacy of his tender-minded liberalism in the face of Communist conspiracy; his recognition that the fanatical Communisthunters sometimes call their shots accurately and help to awaken people like himself. The second motif is that the superpatriots and black-listers, though they sometimes perform a useful service, are of much the same ugly, absolutist stripe as the Communists, and often do appalling damage to people who are innocent. Mr. Shaw does not tip the scales in either direction. His novel is a rounded and perceptive statement of the dilemmas that confront the liberal conscience.
There is no living writer of short stories who so unfailingly delights me as Frank O’Connor, now represented by a third collection, Traveler’s Samples (Knopf, $2.75). Though perhaps a bit slighter than those in The Common Chord, these tales are, to my taste, close to perfection. They have action — but they are never mere anecdotes. They have a warm heart — but they are never mawkish. They are steeped in humor — but they are never simply frivolous or quaint. Fvery bit of speech, every move in the action, is so unerringly right that the general effect isofartless simplicity. Each story makes its point, with unobtrusive sharpness. Each is colored with an amused tenderness for that foolish, errant, and sadly bedeviled creature, man, and with an impregnable faith that life is worth living.
As in the prev ious collect ion, O’Connor’s favorite themes are religion, which he treats with gentle irreverence; sex, which he approaches with gaiety; and the Irishman’s dim view of the English, which he presents with the subtlest of irony. A small boy goes to his first confession and recounts in terror how he tried to knife his sister; a mazed ly he finds the priest an entertaining friend, who absolves him with three Hail Marys and the present of a bag of sweets. A young boy is sent by his mother to a funeral to see that dad stays sober; and he does his job so dutifully that he comes home roaring drunk. An Irish romantic, working in a British war plant, is much disturbed by his English doll’s apparent lack of inhibitions — an entrancing case of Anglo-Irish misunderstanding which, fora change, is cleared up happily ever after.