The Art of Travel: Reviews

Tom Adair in The Scotsman, 18th May 2002

At first I thought De Botton’s treatise no more than an opportune successor to his bracing and entertaining, The Consolations of Philosophy. It begs the question: is travel artful? Does it involve application of skills? Does De Botton’s title imply an “art” we can all bone up on, something erudite, something accessible, something replete, with its bunch of hard tips, advice, and secrets to be yielded to the reader? A treatise to ponder perhaps, on the beach, between gusts of sand, while snacking lightly on Jeffrey Archer or Jackie Collins?

The book is slim – there are many blank pages – points of rest and contemplation, providing silences, which punctuate the slabs of densely honed print. Its text is lavishly interspersed with black and white pictures. It speaks its mind in lovely, sinuous, lucid sentences. Even when irritating me greatly, which he did from time to time, I was always beguiled by De Botton’s prose style.

A triumph of syntax over sentiment – for his sentiments, and bons mots, his observations, seemed often freighted with glower and depression. In Barbados his mind and body are his enemies. “The body,” he writes, “found it hard to sleep, it complained of heat, flies and difficulties digesting hotel meals. The mind meanwhile revealed a commitment to anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and financial alarm.”

De Botton plays the victim, seduced and deceived by the holiday brochure. His welling anticipation of pleasure, spurred on by thoughts of imminent travel, had not been fulfilled. His guide, in this doleful opening downwards tilt, is the novel À Rebours by J-K Huysmans in which the misanthropic Duc des Esseintes plans and aborts a trip to London, convinced that all he will discover, should he travel, are fresh disappointments.

Was this my cue, should I follow suit and abort the book? For, already its artifice was clear, its schema followed similar lines from start to finish. In each of five sections, from “Departure”, through “Motives and Landscape” to “Art” and “Return”, we encounter a series of featured locales, with each comes a literary guide.

Thus within “Motives” he ventures to Amsterdam, exploring the exotic, referring to Flaubert’s sojourns in Egypt for amplification of his theme, maintaining the mood of disaffection by often reminding us of Flaubert’s scorn of Rouen. Change and novelty – not as facts, but as ideas – are, De Botton suggests, the wellspring of exoticism’s power.

In “On Curiosity” (part two of his section on “Motives”), the location is Madrid, the guide von Humboldt who spent five years in South America being curious about everything, the elucidated proof of which (much referred to by De Botton), was his Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. Whereas for von Humboldt all was new, for De Botton Madrid is terra cognita. He walks the streets assailed by facts and footnotes gathered from his guidebook.

With mounting anxiety he wonders what he should do, what he should think. At this point I screamed: Throw the guidebook away! Assume nothing! Follow your nose! Be your own von Humboldt. His dilemma is partly self-induced, part comic-opera, quite deliberately staged for his own discomfort and our amusement. Wherever he goes he snacks on chocolate bars and crisps – no fish for the brains, nor carrots to aid essential powers of observation. But provide him with comfort food and his balefulness enters bliss.

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