The Art of Travel: Reviews

Sarah Wheeler in the Literary Review, May 2002

This is a provocative book by a young writer who rocketed to fame in 1997 with How Proust Can Change Your Life. Alain de Botton went on to consolidate his reputation as a dashing media egghead de nos jours with his television series The Consolations of Philosophy.

The Art of Travel consists of a series of essays on a theme, a bold attempt by the author to set himself up as the modern Montaigne. Five sections, arranged by category (Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art, and Return), are subdivided into a total of nine chapters, each a ruminative examination of a place through the eyes of the author, and each engaging one or more writers, painters or explorers as ‘guides’. The chapters are illustrated with full- or double-page photographs of the landscapes and paintings described.

The first chapter postulates travel as a metaphor for life: not an original idea, but one that merit reconsideration and is well fleshed out here. De Botton goes on to press the idea that many things ‘are easier to experience in art and in anticipation than in reality’. Sitting in a deck chair on a perfect Caribbean morning, contemplating sparkling ocean and azure sky, he is struck by the ghastly truth that ‘I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.’ Horace put it more succinctly: but I suppose one has to discover these things for oneself. Often the thin between banal truism and important universal truth is perilously thin.

As a philosopher de Botton is straightforward and eminently sensible. ‘We may best be able to inhabit a place’, he suggests, ‘when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there.’ This has been my experience. The Antarctic I have lived with since I left the ice has infinitely more meaning than the glaciers I crossed. Huysmans summed it up, as de Botton points out, when he said that ‘the imagination could provide a more than adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of the actual experience’. It is useful to hear all this again.

The pages in which de Botton introduces his ‘guides’ are wonderful. The usual suspects crowd in: Ruskin, Baudelaire, Wordsworth. In one of the best chapters, the author learns to look at the dusty Provencal landscape through the eyes of Van Gogh. He brilliantly descries the painter’s willingness to sacrifice a naïve realism to achieve a deeper truth. ‘The part of reality that concerned him’, de Botton writes, ‘sometimes required distortion, omission and substitution of colours in order to be brought to the fore, but it was still – “the likeness” – that interested him.

Familiar historical figures are agreeably interspersed with less obvious choices: the author of the book of job, or Xavier de Maistre. In 1794, de Maistre gave the world a travel book called Journey Around My Bedroom (he followed it up with Nocturnal Expedition Around My Bedroom). As works of art these fail, but they allow de Botton, for the climax of his book, to extemporise on the issue of what constitutes a fruitful journey. This is a key consideration for the future of travel literature. The device of the bogus motif has recently been taken to its logical conclusion In Tony Hawks’s bestselling Round Ireland with a Fridge. Henceforth, writers who excel in the genre will be obliged to take a simpler, more straightforward approach (simpler, but more difficult), and de Botton, setting out to explore the streets near his house in Hammersmith, tentatively suggests how this might be achieved. To make the point in an image, he includes a double-page photograph of his bedroom. I found all this gripping.

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