Paul Fussell can be intimidating. It's not that his writing style is "difficult." On the contrary, it never loses its conversational tone and after a while the reader begins to envy the seemingly effortless, breezy way in which Fussell descants upon everything from literary criticism to European history to Islamic architecture to weighty philosophical matters. Indeed, it is not long before one finds oneself envying Fussell on many different levels. His breadth of knowledge, the ease with which he traverses academic disciplines, his disgusting erudition - these are the things which make him so intimidating, but also such a brilliant writer. In "Abroad," he is examining travel writing as a genre, specifically British travel writing between the two world wars. In outlining his case that travel writing has been unappreciated and is just as deserving of critical attention as novels or poetry, Fussell draws upon so many different books, from so many different fields, that one begins to panic, thinking, "I have read NOTHING. I need to quit my job immediately and devote the rest of my life to catching up on my reading. I also need to build my miserable vocabulary and develop a new, Fussell-esque writing style." Fussell has that effect upon people.
In the 1920s and `30s, British writers wanted to be anywhere but in Britain. The "British Literary Diaspora," as Fussell calls it, began as a reaction to WWI. Soldiers mouldering in trenches at the front had consoled themselves with dreams of sun-lit lands, and when the war ended the last place they wanted to be was England. Civilians, unable to travel for more than four years thanks to the Defense of the Realm Acts of 1914 and 1915, were just as eager to escape. Fussell writes: "The war was widely blamed for ruining England...Four years of repression, lies, casualty lists, and mass murder sanctioned by bishops (had) done their damage." E.M. Forster's comment about England-- "I do think that during the war something in this country got killed" -- is typical of post-war sentiment, and Fussell notes that "an insistent leitmotif of (British) writers between the wars...is I Hate It Here." As far as Osbert Sitwell and other writers were concerned, the national character had changed. Sitwell felt that war "always intensifies the innate philistinism of every race." Post-war England was perceived as anti-intellectual, anti-art, ugly, industrialized, pedestrian, narrow-minded and stuffy. Even the weather suddenly became intolerable as England was imaginatively transformed into a damp, dark, oppressive bog. Fussell notes that whereas before the war, "one had been rather proud of the fogs and damps and pleased to exhibit staunchness and good humor in adapting to them...after 1918 it is as if the weather worsens to make England all but uninhabitable to the imaginative and sensitive." Disgust with England, combined with a pound that was much stronger than Continental currencies, drew British writers southwards to the Mediterranean. Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Cyprus...the sun-drenched lands beckoned. The years between the wars represent the golden age of traveling.
It was also the golden age of travel writing. Travel books were very popular in those years, not just first-person accounts but the little volumes of the Travelers' Library and the Baedeker guides. Regarding the latter, Fussell writes, "What seems to make the Baedeker guides so clear an expression of the period is their emphasis on seeing and learning, rather than, as in such successors as Fodor and Fielding, on consuming." Fussell contrasts traveling, which he laments as a lost art, with tourism, driven by consumerism and the desire to "(pose) momentarily as a member of a social class superior to one's own, to play the role of a `shopper' and spender whose life becomes significant and exciting only when one is exercising power by choosing what to buy." Fussell believes that true traveling is no longer possible. Many factors contributed to its demise: grand ocean liners were replaced with cruise ships; romantic trains were replaced with airplanes, with the result that people only visit "big places with big hotels and big airports served by big planes." The most important factor, according to Fussel, is the loss of an independent spirit and the willingness to endure some discomfort in pursuit of a unique experience. Fussell, never a big fan of this modern age, sees the replacement of traveling with tourism as in keeping with "other `replacements' characterizing contemporary life: the replacement of coffee-cream by ivory-colored powder, for example, or of silk and wool by nylon; or glass by lucite, books by "bookstores," eloquence by jargon, fish by fish-sticks, merit by publicity..."
In "Abroad," Fussell provides mini-biographies of great travelers of the age and critiques their works, with special attention paid to Robert Byron, Norman Douglas, Graham Greene, D.H. Lawrence, and Evelyn Waugh. Along the way, he presents a panoply of writers, poets, and literary hangers-on of the first half of the 20th century, using quotes and anecdotes to enliven travel-related essays on such diverse subjects as passports, frontiers, tourist angst, the Englishness of traveling, the romance of traveling, and the sun as a symbol of freedom. The chapter about D.H. Lawrence, with its awkward attempt to connect Lawrence's use of prepositions with travel themes, is a conspicuous failure and seems out of place - I suspect that it's a recycled grad school paper - but the rest of the book is a delight. My very favorite paragraph in the book is Fussell's description of the anti-tourist, a person who manages to be both a snob and a tourist at the same time, a difficult feat:
"Perhaps the most popular way for the anti-tourist to demarcate himself from the tourists, because he can have a drink while doing it, is for him to lounge - cameraless - at a café table and with palpable contempt scrutinize the passing sheep through half-closed lids, making all movements very slowly. Here the costume providing the least danger of exposure is jeans, a thick dark-colored turtleneck, and longish hair. Any conversational gambits favored by lonely tourists, like `Where are you from?' can be deflected with vagueness. Instead of answering Des Moines or Queens, you say, `I spend a lot of time abroad' or `That's really hard to say.'"
Panic-inducing and ego-deflating though it may be, reading Fussell's work is inspiring. It inspires one to expand one's book collection. His "The Great War and Modern Memory" led me to Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That." My first encounter with "Abroad" made me seek out Norman Douglas' "South Wind" and, after a second reading, I have compiled a huge list of books and poems I want to read: Alec Waugh's "The Loom of Youth"; Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley"; Robert Byron's "The Road to Oxiana"; Rebecca West's "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon; Sacheverell Sitwell's "Southern Baroque Art"; John Dos Passos' "Orient Express"; and Edith Wharton's "Italian Backgrounds," to name just a few. Any time an author's work inspires the reader to read more (and to read more widely), it's a good thing. I highly recommend "Abroad."
p.s. Wikipedia tells me that Paul Fussell is still alive (he's 87 years old now). I'm confident that he has already read more books in 2011 than I've read in the last ten years.