Guidelines for Literary Traveling Companions

September 30, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki.

Have I mentioned before how important it is to pick a good book for traveling?  Going all the way to Seattle last week (thanks, Spiff!), with a side trip to Vancouver, I really thought hard about what I wanted to take.  I tend to better remember books that I read while traveling — something about the sensory connection of a fresh setting around the page, I think — so I want to pick something I’ll actually want to remember. I came up with this, and if I do say so myself, it was a great choice.  Here’s what I look for in a travel book:

Plot-driven.  You need something that can both take you away from the horror of being trapped in a metal tube miles above the earth for hours and give you a pleasurable read in a coffee shop while everyone else is working (if you’re traveling for pleasure rather than work, anyway).  This book involves demons, cabbalists, possibly haunted inns in the mountains of Spain, bandits, life stories, etc., etc.  It’s plot-tastic.

Episodic.  Partly this is just personal taste, but I also think episodic narratives nicely mirror the experience of traveling on vacation: a variety of incidents, different settings, small experiences.  Plus I tend to get bored with just one book while on vacation, so it’s nice to read a shortish episode and then move on to another book for a while.  TMFIS is divided into 66 days, and those days are further subdivided into stories and stories within stories.

Comedic elements.  No one wants too much angst while traveling, or on vacation.  It doesn’t have to be a laff riot, but a little humor helps.  Potocki has a somewhat peculiar, but very definite, sense of humor; much of this, as I’ll discuss later, is rather complexly self-referential.  There’s some broad humor in the plot itself, as well.

Long — epic, even. Because when else are you going to get around to it?  TMFIS is a doorstop: over 600 densely-printed pages.

Long-awaited.  Something I’ve meant to read for a long time; often a classic nicely fits this bill.  I’ve been drooling over TMFIS for years.

Easy to transport, no big deal to damage. Cheap, easily replaced paperbacks are good.  Expensive first editions, not so much.  What I’ve got here is a Penguin Classics edition which got beat to hell on the trip, but survived.

So I picked a real winner this time.  Judging by these criteria, Don Quixote is probably the all-time champion of vacation lit.  I took Tom Jones to Denmark and that was also great, although not quite as episodic as I might have liked.  This is also full of stories within stories, all within plot-based and form-based framing structures.  Enough to make me swoon.

Speaking of DQ, Potocki clearly loved it, and the book often reads like an amalgam of Boccaccio and Cervantes, with some Ann Radcliffe thrown in (the Gothic was so hot in the 1810s!)  The framing device is strongly reminiscent of Cervantes, with the supposed manuscript of the title being found in a box some 40 years after its apparent writing, then dictated to its finder from its original Spanish into French.  A transcript of a spoken translation of a manuscript of unknown credibility: way to destabilize the text, Jan!  (There’s all kinds of weirdness around Potocki’s own manuscript and the publication of the book, too, which I won’t go into, but which is equally fascinating and destabilizing.)

The Art and Science of Travel

July 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Autonauts of the Cosmoroute.

Reading now: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I’ve been traveling a lot this spring and summer (hence my very, very intermittent posts) — some for work, some for fun.  Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is a great travel book, although it’s made me itch to do the kind of travel I rarely get to anymore: the unhurried, meditative, purposefully digressive kind.  (Only Revolutions, which so far as I’ve been able to glean is more or less a centuries-long allegorical road trip to no particular place, is not really helping to ease this itch, either.  Come to think of it, The Savage Detectives was also singularly unhelpful.)

In Autonauts, Julio Cortázar and his wife Carol Dunlop spend a month in a VW camper van driving down the French “autoroute,” stopping at every rest stop along the way, two per day, and doing nothing else — seeing “the other autoroute,” the one that does not exist for those who just use it as a means of quickest-possible transport.  It’s the book’s playful, idiosyncratic, and finally bittersweet tone that makes it such a great read.  It’s made up of photos and captions, “travel logs” of meals eaten, “observations” made of the rest stop flora and fauna, short essays on the nature of travel and time and dreams and their journey, and flights of fancy in the style of a  scientific expedition.

(A digression: I’ve always wanted to travel around the country and live out of a homey little camper.  When I was maybe 13 or 14 I read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley mostly because I found the idea of traveling around in an apartment-truck with your dog more or less irresistible — and the section of the book about Steinbeck getting his truck ready is one of the few things I still remember about it.  That was before I — or most people, really — thought about MPGs or carbon offsetting.)

It’s a book purporting to document the science of travel, but really it’s very much about an art: the art of memory.  If we think of the historical art of memory as Frances Yates examined it, with its imaginary theatres and palaces filled with rooms of memories, travel is like a kind of very elaborate landscaping: the decoration upon which the inhabitants of the palace gaze.  Isn’t travel a kind of device for making and recovering memories?  We all remember vividly our favorite vacations, road trips, destinations.  And while we’re traveling, can’t we see more perfectly than when we inhabit them our homes, and don’t we recall incidents from our lives with greater clarity?

I don’t know about you, but I also remember what I read when I travel much better than things I only read at home.  It must be something about being mentally absorbed in a different place, in unusual surroundings.  Some of my favorite memories are of reading something I love elsewhere: Ray Bradbury on a boat, Tom Jones in a Danish restaurant.  My choice of reading material always seems more important to me if I’m going on a trip.

Memories and Specimens

April 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory and The Wet Collection.

A serendipitous pair, these two. I’m enjoying bouncing back and forth between them. The Wet Collection, at least so far, is all about memory, nature, travel, personal codes of conduct, and the connections among these things. In more obscure and historical ways, The Art of Memory is about the same things, or at least how they were seen in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The most interesting thread in TWC so far deals with memories and impressions of travel. “A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory” records “specimens” found in nature: a damselfly “like a Christmas ornament,” a spider’s silky web encountered “One night, walking through the woods” (a nice mystery packed into that scene-setting), black opals owned by a couple in Oregon, retrieved from a mine in Nevada, a Costa Rican butterfly. There’s a nice paragraph then, transitioning to echoing memories of travel: “The iridescence of memory happens when one image (physical) illuminates another (imagined): not quite a reflection, but a refraction. These visions, these flashes of color come again and again. How then must I live?”

This juxtaposition, of memories and specimens, so nicely illuminates The Art of Memory. I’ve been reading about the art’s transformation by the thirteenth-century thinker Ramon Lull, often thought of as a magician, mystic, or alchemist (Yates disabuses me of most of my preexisting ideas of Lull, although he still seems something of a magus and was certainly seen that way during the Renaissance). As Yates explains it, Lull “introduces movement into memory.” He created this incredible system, intended to encompass all possible knowledge, based on Kabbalistic ideas of the names of god and medieval theories of the hierarchies of life and human knowledge. By linking God’s traits or “names” to the levels of being (angelic, celestial, human, animal, etc.) and the forms of human learning in mystical wheels-within-wheels which could be spun to match any of the three names with any of the levels, Lull devised a memory system he thought could be used to unlock the mysteries of the universe and, as a special bonus, reach out to Jews and Muslims and show them the truth inherent in Christianity, since aspects of his art drew on their own theological teachings.

(As a bookish aside: Lull’s books were among the first to use volvelles, those toy-like discs found in some early books, for a non-astronomical purpose.)

As Yates explains it, there’s a shift here from the eminently static art of memory encouraged in the ancient world and by rhetoricians, in which images were placed on sites to be recalled through the impact of the images and the familiarity of the sites, to Lull’s emphasis on memorization through repetition and the use of mnemonics which could be moved to keep one’s memory of the levels of knowledge sharp, and to move one up the “ladders” of the mystical Lullist art toward knowledge of the Trinity. Isn’t it interesting, then, how Joni Tevis contrasts the term specimen, with its connotations of pinned butterflies, taxidermied trophies, and precious stones, all eminently dead, with the fluidity of memories, always shifting as our perspective changes, as they recede or are “refracted” off of other experiences, other memories? (Interesting, too, but perhaps misleading, how Tevis also writes, in the section of this story entitled “What I Want,” “To know what it means to live a biblical life, uncloistered every day. This is my book of new ritual…”)

The arts of memory persist, in ways profound and banal. Since it’s so much on my mind lately, advertising occurs to me as an obvious (if lame) application. Aren’t most commercials intended to provide a mnemonic — a jarring, memorable image which carries a “message” embedded within it? There’s a truck campaign on the air now that is based on the placement of figures embodying one truck trait, like “smooth,” with a place that embodies another, like “rough.” (Here’s one example.) Perhaps this is one reason why Lull seemingly disapproved of the use of powerful mnemonic images, preferring memorization and contemplation of symbols: images are very, very powerful, but easily misused and misunderstood.

To return to TWC. Tevis is very good on Janus-faced travel. “Travelling Alone,” a very short piece, captures the time-murdering that happens in airports every day (I’m especially interested in this, having written a story some time ago setting a man’s personal purgatory in the Phoenix airport), but also the magic of air travel, the strange mixture of non-being and deification to be experienced in an airplane: “The moon burns cold behind my ear.” A couple of stories later, in “Everything but Your Wits,” revisits memories of past travel destinations, each marked as a “Gate/Platform.” There’s a gorgeous memory of growing up in South Carolina, cleaning up a movie theater after closing and watching a passenger train roll through town: “I wondered about the people on the train, where they were going, if they felt the excitement I did, whether any of them looked out their windows at the town, my town, that must have looked nondescript, to them.” This might seem pedestrian or boring to some readers, but if you grow up in a small town — mine was in Nebraska — you know the complicated texture of memory and emotion evoked by the sound of a night train rolling through town: its loneliness, its wanderlust, its nostalgia, and its promise. It is all a matter of perspective: likely none of those passengers have the memories to unlock the beauty and importance of that small town, likely a young girl in that small town does not have the experiences to know the feeling of being in transit, at the mercy of a train’s speed. But she will, we’ve already learned: she will. We are reading her own art of memory in this book.

Crosses and Pyramids

March 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

What I’m reading here is a cheapo Penguin Classics edition of a 14th-century travel narrative/guide to the Holy Land/catalog of marvels and tales written (supposedly) by an English knight. Mandeville was really, really popular in his time and up through the Renaissance: tons of manuscripts survive in most European languages, there were a lot of printed editions, and the work was heavily anthologized, plagiarized, criticized, etc.

A lot of it is intended to be practical advice on geography, sight-seeing, and travel etiquette. But Mandeville’s digressions are most interesting, with their typical medieval tendency to filter everything possible through the Biblical narrative, folklore, and symbolism. So I’ll be jotting down some of the stories I thought most interesting here. To wit:

Chapter 2: Did you know Christ’s cross was made of four different types of wood? Mandeville did! The foot was cedar, to keep it from rotting (in case it took a long time for Jesus to die; apparently the thinking was that this was a kind of Jewish bet-hedging, in case Jesus was a bit divine and took days and days to die). The upright was cypress, which smells good, to keep the b.o. down. The cross-piece was palm wood, as an ironic fulfillment of an Old Testament statement that a victor should be crowned with palm. The INRI sign above Christ’s head was made of olive, which symbolized peace, which the Jews thought they would have once Christ died. And of course the symbols embodied by the woods, the choice of which Mandeville assigns to (unnamed, unidentifiable) Jews, can be neatly reversed to symbolize Christ’s power, perfection, victory, and peaceful reign.

Later in this chapter Mandeville claims to own a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns. If there was, indeed, an actual John Mandeville, this is a nice piece of self-promotion.

Ch. 7: Did you know the Pyramids were actually the barns which Joseph (the Old Testament Joseph, Pharaoh’s right-hand man) had built to store grain in during the seven lean years he correctly prophesied? As Mandeville says, “it is not likely that they are tombs, since they are empty inside and have porches and gates in front of them. And tombs ought not, in reason, to be so high.”

Mandeville (to assume there was such an actual person, and not a fictional construct, a handy name for a compilation by many writers, or a mythical being) actually seems to be a fairly free thinker, as medieval Westerners go: he says he’s served in the army of the Sultan of Egypt, and carefully presents alternative views to his own (see above). While he argues that the Holy Land should be under Christian rule, he also thinks that Christians have been unsuccessful in maintaining their hegemony there because they are unworthy of it, both in smarts and in sanctity. He seems genuinely interested in other places and peoples, and in their perspectives, even though he can’t break out of seeing Christ, the Bible, the dominant worldview in everything.

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