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D.H. Lawrence in Italy

“Comes over one an absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction. A double necessity then: To get on the move and to know whither.”

The opening sentences of D.H. Lawrence’s 1921 travel book, Sea and Sardinia. It is one of my favorite sentences ever, first because it expresses an impulse I share, but mostly because of the odd inversion of word order and the way it replicates the order of the impulse hits. 

What I mean is that when such a feeling “comes over one,” it is first unnamed. You don’t originally understand what this need is, just that it rushes your emotions. It is only second that you identify what it is that you are thinking of. To run the sentence in normal order — “An absolute necessity to move comes over one”— implies you understand what it is when it hits. It is a two-part process and the first part is non-verbal, almost primordial. Word order matters.

Lawrence is largely unfashionable these days. His novels — those “bright books of life” — can feel dated. Certainly his phallo-centric worship seem bizarre. It’s hard to read “Lady Loverly’s Chatter” without without laughing, or at least gasping. Of course, it’s not his best book. (Fashion is untrustworthy; you should read one of his novels or short stories to see just how good he is, despite his preaching). 

But in addition to his fiction, Lawrence wrote about his travels and singular writings they are. Do not expect objective recitations of fact, but rather what is left after being filtered through the author’s distinct sensibility. This makes them both more interesting and relevant many decades after they were published. Many travel books are written; most drop out of date within years; a few — a very few — transcend time and place to become, dare I use the word, “literature.” 

Such books are a joy to read, and give you insight not so much into a destination as into how an active mind can interact and react with place and turn its air and soil into words. 

Lawrence wrote four such books. In addition to Sea and Sardinia, there is Twilight in Italy, Etruscan Places and Mornings in Mexico, which includes essays he wrote about New Mexico also and a beautiful encomium to the Hopi Snake Dance. 

“How is man to get himself into relation with the vast living convulsions of rain and thunder and sun, which are conscious and alive and potent, but like the vastest of beasts, inscrutable and incomprehensible? How is man to get himself into relation with these, the vastest of cosmic beasts?”

Such books go back into antiquity. Few books are as readable, or as revealing of their authors, as the Histories of Herodotus. While the book functions mainly as a history of the Persian Wars, in it our gentleman from Halicarnassus takes us everywhere from Egypt to India, serving up travel tidbits that may be true, may be lies, or may be simple misunderstandings. 

His story of ants in India the size of dogs that go into the desert and bring back gold could perhaps be a mistranslation of a word for marmot rather than ant, and a further misinterpretation of Himalayan marmots who dig into the sand and catch gold-bearing sand in their fur. He never says he actually saw such ants, but only heard travelers tell of them.

Herodotus is sometimes called the “father of lies,” but he is always lively. 

There are other classical travels, too, such as the Anabasis of Xenophon and the Description of Greece by Pausanius. Xenophon is pretty straightforward, but others, such as Ctesias of Cnidus stretched the credulity of their readers. Ctesias wrote a book about India, called Indica (existing now only in fragments, but quoted often by other authors), in which he describes such things as a race of men with only one leg, and whose feet are so huge they can be used as umbrellas. 

In the Second Century, Lucian of Samosata ridiculed such outlandish claims in a book he called “A True Story,” in which he reported on “things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else; things, what is more, that do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all. So my readers must not believe a word I say.” In this, he says, he is therefore much truer than such liars as Ctesias or Herodotus because he admits his tales are all lies from the get-go. 

The most famous of questionable travel books is certainly Livre des Merveilles du Monde or “The Book of the Marvels of the World,” also called the Travels of Marco Polo, which appeared in the late 13th Century. (I say “appeared” rather than “was published” because there is no authoritative version. It sprung up in many languages in many countries at the same time, often with conflicting content.) It was ostensibly compiled by a Venetian hack writer named Rustichello of Pisa who shared a prison cell with Marco Polo in Genoa and transcribed Polo’s tales of his travels to China. 

The trustworthiness of Polo’s Travels has been questioned since it first appeared. Parts of it are surprisingly accurate, geographically and historically, but other sections are cribbed from other books written by Rustichello, ripped whole-cloth from his popular fictions. Scholars have been arguing over the book for hundreds of years. 

It is, however, and despite some tedious repetition, a good read, which is why it came out in six different languages and 20 different editions in just a few years. 

The discovery of the New World led to many journals, books and manuals. Perhaps the most famous is now just called “Hakluyt’s Voyages,” and was published in 1589 by Englishman Richard Hakluyt. His many books informed William Shakespeare’s sense of the world and its peoples. 

The title of his principal work is nearly a book all by itself. There was a fashion for long, descriptive titles back then. For instance, what we now call Shakespeare’s King Lear, was first known as the “True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters, With the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam: As it was played before the Kings Majestie at Whitehall upon S. Stephans night in Christmas Hollidayes.”

And so, Hakluyt, not to be outdone, titled his travel book: The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation: Made by Sea or Over Land to the Most Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of These 1500 Years: Divided into Three Several Parts According to the Positions of the Regions Whereunto They Were Directed; the First Containing the Personall Travels of the English unto Indæa, Syria, Arabia … the Second, Comprehending the Worthy Discoveries of the English Towards the North and Northeast by Sea, as of Lapland … the Third and Last, Including the English Valiant Attempts in Searching Almost all the Corners of the Vaste and New World of America … Whereunto is Added the Last Most Renowned English Navigation Round About the Whole Globe of the Earth.

And that’s why we now call it “Hakluyt’s Voyages.”

But it is in the 18th Century that travel writing went mainstream. It was the era of the Enlightenment, and learning about the other quarters of the globe became a part of what we were enlightening ourselves about. Scores of travel diaries and memoirs were published. 

Samuel Johnson wrote A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, which is about a country he had little affinity for, and his sidekick, James Boswell wrote about the same trip in his The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL. D. Johnson wrote about Scotland; Boswell wrote about Johnson. In one notable episode, they extolled a hearty dinner consisting entirely of cold butter and milk. Yum. 

Novelist Tobias Smollett wrote a popular Travels Through France and Italy, published in 1766, which is not much read these days, but in contrast, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, by Laurence Sterne, is a classic. Smollett didn’t much cotton to foreign ways and pretty well grumped his way through the Continent. Sterne, in his book, from 1768, took a much more amiable view. Sterne actually crossed paths with  Smollett in Italy, and satirized him and his pique as the character Smelfungus. 

HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan

In 1839, Charles Darwin published what is now known as The Voyage of the Beagle, which was his portion of the scientific and geographical expedition of the H.M.S. Beagle around South America and into the Pacific. 

The trip provided Darwin with much of the data that led to his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. But much of the book is just a good read, with the author’s reactions to what he discovers. 

Bahia jungle

In mid-summer the ship stopped at Bahia in Brazil. Darwin wrote: “The day has past delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration. A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervades the shady parts of the wood. The noise from the insects is so loud, that it may be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore; yet within the recesses of the forest a universal silence appears to reign. To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again.”

Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft

In 1844, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, published her Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843. The book combines memoir with political analysis and was widely praised at the time. 

It followed the path taken by her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark in 1796. In it, Wollstonecraft wrote that “The art of travel is only a branch of the art of thinking.” And she wrote that travel writers should have “some decided point in view, a grand object of pursuit to concentrate their thoughts, and connect their reflections.”

Mark Twain in the Holy Land

It is the point of view that distinguishes travel literature from mere travel writing. And you get that in spades in four books by Mark Twain. He published The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress in 1869 about a trip he took two years earlier to the Holy Land, with side excursions all through the Mediterranean. It was his best-selling book during his lifetime.  And the source of one of his most famous quotes:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

He followed it up a few years later with Roughing It, an account of his travels and travails in Nevada and California. Then in 1880, he followed with A Tramp Abroad, which details a trip he made through Germany and the Alps. In it, he included a screamingly funny pasquinade on the Teutonic tongue, called “The Awful German Language.” 

For instance, linguistic gender baffled him. “Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; … In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”

Finally, he went around the world, including to Hawaii and and India, and wrote about the trip in Following the Equator, published in 1897. The heat in India got to him: “I believe that in India ‘cold weather’ is merely a conventional phrase and has come into use through the necessity of having some way to distinguish between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy.”

I wish I could mention all the wonderful and quirky travel books I have read: Travels with a Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Alhambra by Washington Irving; Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (yes, it’s a travel book, of sorts). 

And those I wish I had read: A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling by Ibn Battuta; Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt; Travels With Myself and Another: A Memoir by Martha Gelhorn (the “other” is Ernest Hemingway); The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara. 

But there are finally three more that I have read and recommend to everyone: 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho, which recounts a journey he made, mostly on foot, around the wilder parts of the north of Japan in the spring of 1689. It is a haibun, a combination of prose and poetry — mainly haiku — and functions as both a travel diary and a poetry anthology. It also has profound things to say about life, time and consciousness.

“Months and days are travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float off on ships or who grow ancient leading horses are also forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them.”

Voyage autour de ma chambre (“Voyage Around My Room”), published in 1794 by French writer Xavier de Maistre. He wrote it while under house arrest, and managed to turn his confinement into a pilgrimage, as he wandered around the room, 36 paces in circumference. 

“I have just completed a 42-day voyage around my room. The fascinating observations I made and the endless pleasures I experienced along the way made me wish to share my travels with the public; and the certainty of having something useful to offer convinced me to do so. Words cannot describe the satisfaction I feel in my heart when I think of the infinite number of unhappy souls for whom I am providing a sure antidote to boredom and a palliative to their ills. … 

“When I travel through my room,” he writes, “I rarely follow a straight line: I go from the table towards a picture hanging in a corner; from there, I set out obliquely towards the door; but even though, when I begin, it really is my intention to go there, if I happen to meet my armchair en route, I don’t think twice about it, and settle down in it without further ado.” 

—Finally, I want to offer George S. Chappell’s 1930 Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera: A Fascinating Trip to the Interior. The title seems self-explanatory, but the book antedates Raquel Welch’s breakout film Fantastic Voyage by three and a half decades. 

Our hero, along with an ornithologist, botanist and cameraman, first enter the mouth, do some spelunking and climb the cliffs of the molars. As they explore the innards of the human corpus, they escape from an enraged Amoeba, and discover the Heeby-Geebies that infest the Nerve Forests of the Lumbar region. Pausing only to carve their initials on the spinal column, the four brave souls reach Lovely Livermore and search for the source of the river Bile. Scarcely have they had time to shoot the rapids at the conjunction of the Gall and the Spleen and view the dance of the Hemoglobins when a violent upset in the interior forcibly ejects them.

What can I say? It isn’t only travel that is fatal to bigotry, but so is reading, especially reading about travel.  

Our education is judged as much by the books we haven’t read as those we have. It’s a sad fact that no matter how well-read we try to be, we simply cannot read everything. Not even close. 

My reading includes many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. I have read Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around my Room, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis of the Deified Claudius (Alternately, the Pumkinification of the Divine Claudius, antedating the apocolocyntosis of Donald Trump by two millennia), Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho.  

That tendency to seek out so many obscure books has meant that I read Melville’s Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile long before I ever finished Moby Dick. In fact, I have read almost all of Melville, from Typee to The Confidence Man to John Marr and Other Sailors, and his poetry, in Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War. The problem with Moby Dick was not the book, but me. I love the style of Melville so much, that every time I picked up Moby Dick, I started again from the beginning. Over and over. I must have read “Loomings” 50 times. I have since gotten through the whole thing, and I love the book dearly. Reading Melville is like eating a meal as rich as foie gras. 

I mention all this because, while I have read Xenophon’s Anabasis, and enjoyed the hell out of it, I have to confess, I have never quite been able to finish Thucydides. Herodotus charms the heck out of me; I can’t count the number of times I have gone back to his Histories, but old Thucydides always feels a bit turgid, dense and humorless. I feel I gain as much from reading a summary of his Peloponnesian Wars as from trudging through the full-length. I may be mistaken in that belief, I grant. But the fact is, I have limited time on this planet, and of the making of books there is no end. 

The number of books I know I should have read is immense. Yes, I have read Tristram Shandy (the funniest book I have ever read), but I have never read Jane Austen. I hope to get around to it some day. I have read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I have not yet read Proust. (I have a similar problem with Swann’s Way that I had with Moby Dick: I have read the first 50 pages several times, and each time, I start anew.) 

I only got around to Tolstoy’s War and Peace last year. I don’t know why it took me so long. It may be the greatest book I’ve ever read. I still haven’t tackled Anna Karenina, although many years ago I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata. 

The holes in my erudition are wide enough to sail an icebreaker through. Yet, I count in this world, as a fairly well-read man. 

Sometimes we feel guilty for things we should not. The guilt hangs over us like a dark cloud, and we live our lives believing that everyone knows. I am confessing my guilt here, and the obvious fact that I am a fraud. 

Among the books I haven’t read are: The Aeneid (it bores me every time I pick it up); Don Quixote (I’ve tried, believe me, but it just goes on and on and never seems to get anywhere); Les Miserables; Sons and Lovers; The Tin Drum; Lord Jim; Rabbit, Run; Orlando; The Handmaid’s Tale; Dr. Zhivago; Jude the Obscure. I could go on. 

There are whole authors I have managed to avoid: Aside from Austen, there are: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, J.R.R. Tolkien. All of them worthy and important. Among the writers I have avoided because of being forced to read them in high school, and therefore destroying my ability to even bear them are Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Forcing kids to read books well beyond their ability to understand them can only ruin those books for life. 

From the list of the so-called greatest books on the website thegreatestbooks.org, I have read 19 of the top 25 volumes on the list and 31 of the first 50. That seems decent, but it leaves off too many books that I should have read. 

Prominent among them are more recent writings. I have read the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Tao Te Ching and Beowulf many times in different translations, I have somehow managed to miss Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Khaled Hosseini, Annie Proulx, and Jeffrey Eugenides. 

Shakespeare & Co., Paris

I swear, I know this is a horrible confession. I am one ignorant S.O.B. Yes to Suetonius, no to Dio Cassius; Yes to Longinus and Lucretius, not so much for Josephus or Livy. 

What I blame is not so much my waywardness, but the fact that it is impossible to read everything. The last person to do that, according to his biography, was John Milton, who took several years off after university to read everything ever written in a language he could read, and that included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Italian and, of course, English. But much has been published since then, and even a specialist cannot read everything just in his or her own field. So, we pick and choose.

And if, like me, you choose not to be a specialist, and not get a post-doctoral degree in the subspecies of Malagasy dung beetle, so as to become the world expert in such, the purpose of reading is not to master a particular field, but to take as wide a view of everything as possible. 

One could certainly find a list — such as the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf — of those books deemed by consent of the educated to be the most important and slog your way through them one by one so as to round out your erudition. But I have chosen a more desultory strategy, picking those books that appealed to me. After all, I read primarily for pleasure, not by obligation.

And let’s face it, the five-foot shelf of a hundred years ago is now rather dated and fails to include much that would now be considered mandatory. Things change. 

So, I make my own list, and if it includes H.L. Mencken and doesn’t include Fenimore Cooper, so be it. Although I did get huge pleasure from reading Mark Twain’s exploration of Cooper’s “literary offenses.” I recommend it. 

hisitory mosaic

History is endlessly fascinating.

If I were restricted to one class of reading, history would be it. I am not alone. Whenever politicians are asked for their favorite books, they seem to be history and biography (even as you suspect that the list was actually compiled by an aide), and the busiest corners of used bookstores seem to be the history sections.

When I was a boy, devouring the school library, I avoided fiction. “I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true,” I told my parents — misunderstanding the nature of truth, as one is likely to do in the second grade.

History provides at least four important things for the growing brain. In order of ascending importance, they are:

Entertainment — A well-written history is fun to read. When you are reading Barbara Tuchman or Edward Gibbons, you are reading a page-turner. As one history lover has written on his Web page: “It’s not the facts or dates we want. We want, for a time, to be the person who rode out of Paris to go on a Crusade, and rode past serfs tilling the land, dressed in browns and blacks because they were forbidden to wear bright colors by law. We want to feel the pride of being French, thinking that we could defeat the German army because, we are French! But alas, the Germans crush us anyway. What did we feel then? Tuchman tells history as a story, and makes us feel the wonder of the connection we have with all the myriad, strange, and beautiful humans who have lived and died to bring us to where we are today.”

Guidance — Reading history shows you what other people have done when faced with situations similar to those you may find yourself facing. You can benefit by their mistakes as well as their successes. It is also useful to know history to recognize the prospects for current policy choices made for us by government. Should we get into this war?

Before entering Syria, we might want to re-read our Herodotus. We wish to god George W. Bush had read it before going into Iraq.

But you don’t have to go all the way back to the Persian Wars. You have a different view of it if you know the history of the division of the Mideast into mandates after World War I. If you want to really understand the recent presidential elections, you must know the organization of the Roman imperial and republican governments and the sway they held over this nation’s founding fathers. The roots are that deep.

The saddest truth of all — after Jean Renoir’s quote from Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons” — is that, pace Santayana, it is not those who don’t learn from history who are condemned to repeat it; those who have learned their history are the ones who see it repeated endlessly. To those who know nothing of history, it’s brand spanking new each time it happens.

Humility — More important than reading popular histories, though, is attempting to do some actual history, yourself. Few people ever give much thought to what a historian does. I suppose if you asked the man on the street, he would say a historian reads a lot of books and then writes his own. But history is altogether more difficult and tenuous. For what is history? (I know Gibbon himself gives one answer: “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”) No, history is the tentative answer to the puzzle of missing parts. history tondo

A historian sifts through the extant records of a time long extinguished and attempts to piece them together in a way that makes convincing sense. He reads letters, court records, newspaper accounts, bank statements, weather records, church chronicles and royal edicts; he attempts to put them in chronological order and reconcile the inconsistencies; he has to weigh which records to trust and which to doubt; he has to be familiar with the biases of the times, to know what “code words” mean — and each age has its code words.

You can do some genuine history for yourself: Attempt to write the story of your grandparents, for instance, using your parents’ recollections, old family Bibles, family snapshots, birth and marriage certificates. You will be astonished at two things: how difficult it is to make it all coherent, and how fascinating it is to make the attempt. And that leads to the fourth and most important thing history can bring us.

Respect — If there is a single sin that is most widely committed by the public, it is that of presentism — the belief that people in the past thought and acted just as we would, only without the benefits of modern technology.

In fact, those in the past not only thought differently, they lived in a world differently defined: Things which were manifest to them are ignored by us; things we find self-evident, they never gave a thought to. What we learn is a different kind of humility. Not just the humility of the historian knowing what effort it takes to recreate the past, but the humility of knowing that there are other ways to organize and value the world than those we currently take for granted.

We wander into church in shorts and shirts; our grandparents wouldn’t have dared. They lived in a more formal world, in which the formality expressed respect. We live in a culture that values independence and individuality. Other cultures valued group cooperation more highly.

History shows us that we aren’t always “right” and the past isn’t always “wrong,” but that at all times, we are seeking to know and do what is real and just, but are blinded or frustrated by the biases of the day.

I’m not talking about excusing our slave-owning founding fathers but understanding how they believed the world to be organized by the divinity they believed in. Understanding is different from judging. If we recognize the sincerity of Thomas Jefferson, and not just the hypocrisy, we may allow the possibility that we, living now, may be just as guilty of another sin, which we ourselves cannot see clearly.

History makes us less self-righteous. And the less smug, the less likely we are to make evil on our fellow human beings. This is why the last aspect of reading history is the most important.