“He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. Residence as tourism in its most concentrated form? Perhaps not, but staying home and smelling the roses seems like an increasingly attractive alternative to hunting down airfares, enduring the misguided enthusiasms of security staff and venturing abroad at a time when instability corrodes order everywhere from Pakistan to Paris.
How Proust Can Change Your Life author Alain de Botton may not be as fierce an advocate of going nowhere as Thoreau, but to judge by his latest endeavour, The Art of Travel, neither is he on the brink of buying an around-the-world ticket and chronicling his adventures for us. And yet, despite his unassailable intentions, one wishes he might. Chiefly because his central premise – that we ought to learn to see the stuff around us before jetting off to foreign parts, the better to appreciate the latter – is as wholesome as it is lacking in novelty. The very title is more prosaic than modest, and a fair indicator of the staid if sweet sentiments expressed in the thin chapters that follow.
Sentiments or strategies? Perhaps it is a case of the former feeding the latter, as de Botton holds forth on such things as gas stations, airport signage and the nature-worshipping poetry of William Wordsworth – topics presented to advance the author’s cause of making travel a more enriching experience for all. De Botton’s observations are refracted through a curious assortment of artists, writers and explorers, the designated guides through his mannerly riffs on anticipation, travelling places, the exotic and so on. Sometimes the results are rewarding, such as an unlikely pairing of Charles Baudelaire and Edward Hopper to demonstrate the allure of “the liminal travelling place,” or in terms less lyrical, hotel rooms and modes of transport. Other choices, though plucky, seem out of place in a book nominally about travel:
Edmund Burke and Job (yes, that Job) as guides to aspects of sublime landscapes as exemplified by the Sinai Peninsula. Here as elsewhere in The Art of Travel, one yearns for less scholarly rumination and at least some mention of what it is actually like to wander about this desolate place in the year 2002 – but like water in the Sinai such description proves elusive.
I don’t want to make the book out to be bleaker than it is. One bright spot is de Botton’s evocation of the errant episodes in the life of Gustave Flaubert, whom he selects as his guide to “the Exotic.” Alternating between the ornery Frenchman’s experiences in Egypt and his own impressions of modern Amsterdam, de Botton leaves us as convinced as Flaubert was that the fewer preconceived ideas travellers have about a place going into it, the less prone they will be to disillusionment when leaving it. We are also treated to a scene of Flaubert in bed with an Egyptian courtesan and snippets of his acidic Dictionary of Received Ideas. Sample entries:
A) Hotels – are first-rate only in Switzerland. B) (under the heading “Faith in Progress/Pride in Technology”) Railways – Enthuse about them, saying, ‘I, my dear sir, who am speaking to you now, was at X this morning. I took the train to Y, transacted my business there, and by Z o’clock was back here.’ A book about travel as opposed to a travel book is a risky undertaking. Here, in a chapter called “On Possessing Beauty,” we are introduced (many of us for the first time, probably) to John Ruskin and his adherence to drawing as a way of seeing things truly. The lesson – for it reads like one – raises a few questions about the merit of travel photography in this era of video cameras and digital picture-taking, but it borders on esoteric. Reading about one of the author’s few actual experiences (as opposed to impressions) in a chapter called “On the Country and the City”, as he encounters a sheep in England’s Lake District and wonders “What makes me me and him him?”, I found myself formulating alternative titles for the chapter, starting with “Mysteries of the Petting Zoo.” The author is reaching, though for what exactly I’m not quite sure.
Oddly enough it is this very act of pinning travel under the microscope that distances de Botton from the cool thrill that, at bottom, is what paying good money to render oneself temporarily homeless is all about. That, and the inescapable fact that he prefers people (philosophers, mainly) to places, which cannot be said to be among the world’s most compelling to begin with: Barbados, Amsterdam, the Hammersmith neighbourhood of London. In one chapter we find Mr. de Botton waxing poetical on travel by jet plane. In making such pronouncements as “Food that if sampled in a kitchen would have been banal or even offensive acquires a new taste and interest in the presence of the clouds” he simply articulates what every thinking airplane passenger has thought at one moment or another during a long and boring flight. Perhaps I am being harsh. But as he croons about the beauty and transformative power of mechanized flight, one wonders if he’s ever experienced turbulence.
Or worse. After the initial shock of September 11 wore off and the heart-stopping sound of one of the world’s most emblematic tourist attractions collapsing receded to memory’s horror file, I started like many others to rethink travel. A book like this might have looked more elegiac than instructive long before September 11; after all, the relegation of travel to two-week doses or strings of three-day weekends has been a reality for a long time now. But today, when many destinations as well as the process of getting to them is fraught with once unthinkable perils, to make no mention of how the act of travel has been blackened by circumstances – and the undeniable impact that this has made on the art of it – is nothing less than remiss.
But that complaint is almost peripheral. The main one is that despite an interesting structure and some exceedingly elegant turns of phrase, The Art of Travel too rarely elicits the exhilaration that is journey-making at its finest. Perhaps if de Botton had simply travelled more, or struck out more often on his own than in the company of his boring girlfriend, we would have a more gripping read. As it is we are presented with a dry treatise on travel by a sensitive and astute observer whose receptivity to new experience is nevertheless in question.
Just as most would-be nomads would sooner sink their teeth into a good meal than look at a painting of one, so they would be advised to dig into Paul Fussell’s Abroad or anything from Jan Morris’s geographic arsenal, and savor not just the contours but the flavour of travel. That is a surer way to discover just how deliciously contagious wanderlust can be.
Reviewed by Anthony Grant