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Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars Paperback – 17 Jun 1982
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A text about the meaning of travel, about how important the topic has been for writers for two and a half centuries, and about how excellent the literature of travel happened to be in England and America in the 1920s and 30s.
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The author states, "before tourism there was travel and before travel there was exploration." As travel writer Paul Theroux has observed, travel writing is a funny thing, as "the worst trips make the best reading." In this book, Paul Fussell looks at some of the greatest travel writers of this period, such as Graham Greene, Robert Byron, D.H. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh. It was a time when travel was slower - trains and ships, rather than flying, was the norm. There were places to be explored that were truly different and remote. This book muses on travel companions, romance and travel books themselves. Apart from being an interesting read, this book also made me think I must explore some books I have not yet read and re-read some favourites. A real pleasure and highly recommended.
Fussell explains that the First World War left a lot of writers in search of the exotic, desiring escape. He quotes Max Plowman's poem "When it's Over" to set up this background theme: "I shall lie on a beach/ Of a shore where the rippling waves just sigh,/ And listen and dream and sleep and lie/ Forgetting what I've had to learn and teach/ And attack and defend."
Memories of trench warfare and the dreariness of post war life for many - Fussell lists a long run of depressing adjectives used by Orwell to describe conditions at the time - sent squadrons of writers to distant shores. He goes through the stories of DH Lawrence, Graham Greene, Norman Douglas, Evelyn Waugh and Robert Byron, touching on the works of Conrad, Patrick Leigh Fermour, Edith Wharton and many others.
There's a sense of the romance of travel in their various tales that seems gone these days, Fussell reflects. His examination of the literary output of the period is a kind of "elegy" to a more evocative time, he admits at the end. This elegy is done well but it's also a reminder of the sad drop-off in travel writing of late. And, when you think about it, all literature on all levels is left worse off as a result. The excitement and romance of travel enhances novels, films, plays, poetry... a pity to think that senses may have been dulled by the easyjet-Internet age.
Anyway, it's extremely thought provoking - a great book.
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The reason of the escape from England of the young literate, witty people of the WWI generation, is identified on one hand in the loathing, disgust and angst due to the terrible experiences of those that had fought in the trenches and on the other of those that bore the meagre economical war situation and restriction of liberty at home. This imperative pulsion to fuge Fussell identifies in the phrase "I Hate it Here", which recurs often as the leitmotif of his work. What writers wanted to flee was England, home, the bad weather, the poverty, so the South and in particular the sunny Mediterranean was elected as a putative home for the body and soul. However travel in the Nineteenth Century was becoming more difficult due the introduction of some limitations, like the passport in the 20s, that posed a practical and psychological problem, forcing people to realize their age, aspect and economical status together with the passing of time due to the photographs always at hand. The "passport nuissance" was accompanied by the formal identifications of many before unrecognized and unmapped frontiers, that caused other problems and reasons for reflexion.
In a long chapter, which reads almost as a bitter moral essay, the Author decribes the evolution from the Nineteenth Century exploration, to travel and to modern tourism, and the influence of this passage on travel books. In this section Fussel's nostalgia of the past is palpable and somehow displeasing, because as all travel narrative addicts know, good books have been written also after the '30's. Following the analysis of the psychological conditions of the travel writers are the practical considerations of the cheapness and sexual freedom of living abroad, that must not be forgotten. Homosexuality, pederasty, irregular unions were a major drive to living abroad.
The following chapters are devoted to the indepth rereading of the Authors Fussell thinks the most influent of the period: the never forgotten and much cried over Robert Byron (this chapter owes much to Christopher Sykes' essay on Byron in "Four Studies in Loyalty"), the cultivated, perverse and irrequietous Norman Douglas, the sun-lover and place seeking and preposition plethoric D.H. Lawrence, the moral anomaly-searcher Evelyn Waugh. Ample excerpta are quoted and commentated to explain each Author's peculiarity and importance.
The conclusive remarks are on the structure and the literary value of travel books, diction which is preferred over "travelogues" or "travel logs". Actually Fussell points out how travel books were the only acceptable way at those times of getting essays (that had passed out of fashion as literary forms) published, together with a mixed bag of poetry, impressions, adventures and anedotes. Essays were not articles in the modern sense of the word, because they had a moral or opinionated connotation. In the travel literature of this period they are joined together with memoirs, comic novels, quest, picaresque and pastoral romance and served to an eagre "exotica" seeking public.
This book is truely a treasure trove. More that deserving to be read and enjoyed, I would say, it must be studied. Anyone loving British travel narrative must have it in his library. Analyzing such a wealth of material from that age it draws out the ideas that join together these Authors and explaining them to full degree consents us to enjoy with greater insight these marvelous works.
One small notation however I must make. British travel literature of the 20s-30s has the characteristic of researching esthetic accomplishment and often this reaches exquisite climaxes. Today we still read some of these books for their sheer beauty. Never in his extensive critique Fussell draws our attention to this not secondary aspect.
Enjoy above all!