The Art of Travel: Reviews

John Preston in the Sunday Telegraph, 19 May 2002

Read at the Telegraph website

Near the beginning of his book on what prompts us to travel and what benefits we hope to get from it, Alain de Botton cites the case of the Duc des Esseintes, the hero of J. K. Huysmans’ 19th-century novel, A Rebours.

The Duc lives in a large villa on the outskirts of Paris that he seldom ventures out of, mainly because he can’t stand being reminded of the ugliness and stupidity of his fellow humans. One day, however, while reading Dickens, he is seized with a desire to visit London. He books himself a ticket, buys himself an umbrella and a bowler hat and goes to an English cafĂ© in Paris. There, he eats roast beef and gazes entranced at the English women present – some with teeth as big as palette knives.

But then, just as his train is about to depart, he changes his mind. What’s the point of going to London when he has already been there in his imagination? Surely the real thing can only be a disappointment? So the Duc goes back to his villa with his umbrella and his bowler hat – and never leaves home again.

The reality of travel, as de Botton points out, seldom matches our expectations. But then how can it, when those expectations are so high? When we go on holiday, we don’t just expect to leave our normal lives behind for a while, but our normal selves too. We want our heads to be swept as clean as the beach – with anxiety banished and happiness sweeping in.

It doesn’t quite work out like that, of course. On holiday with a girlfriend, “M”, in Barbados, de Botton gets up on his first morning there, puts on his complementary flanelette dressing gown, sits looking out at the turquoise sea and tries to work out why he isn’t feeling better. Then a terrible realisation strikes him: “I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

Far from being swept clean, he is just as twitchy and anxious as he was before he left. What’s more, M too has brought her real self – along with her deeply disturbing choice of holiday reading: Emile Durkheim’s On Suicide. Soon de Botton is learning another unwelcome lesson; that there’s no gloom quite like the gloom of feeling miserable in a beautiful place. In a restaurant, he and M have an argument about who has been given the larger portion of creme caramel. From such small beginnings do sudden realisations of incompatibility spring – all the more glaring for being illuminated by blazing sunlight. That evening in their cosy cabana, the scent of sun cream is mixed with the smell of tears.

Perhaps the trick with travel is to savour the getting-there and forget all about the destination. “Journeys”, as de Botton says, “are the midwives of thought . . . It is not necessarily at home that we encounter our true selves.” The joys of being in motion, of unfamiliarity, can set our minds haring off to places they might never normally go. Travel tests us, enriches us and helps teach us who we are.

Flaubert, who fell in love with Egypt when he travelled there in 1849, proposed a new way of classifying nationality – not by one’s country of origin, or wherever one settled, but according to which places you were attracted to.

The big problem with contemporary travel is that all too often it doesn’t teach us anything. The guide books we lug about usually end up blunting our curiosity rather than whetting it, burying it beneath a deluge of facts and figures. When we travel “we feel obliged to admire a sequence of things without any connection to one another except a geographical one . . . We are asked to be curious about Gothic architecture on one street and then promptly Etruscan archaeology on the next”.

But while he’s not exactly consumed with wanderlust, de Botton is far from being a misanthropic stay-at-home type like the Duc des Esseintes. He likes to travel, but more importantly he likes to think about why he is doing so. As a result, the pleasures of this book are twofold. There is the quality of his observations about travel itself, which constantly cast new light on a well-worn yet oddly unexplored subject. And then there are his observations about the places he visits. Here de Botton proves himself to be a very fine travel writer indeed; richly evocative, sharp and funny.

In the “naked alps” of the Sinai desert, he discovers what Edmund Burke meant when he wrote that sublime places make us feel “a power greater than human beings”. In Provence, he has his eyes opened by Van Gogh; and in the Lake District he shares in Wordsworth’s pantheism while staying – again with “M”, who’s on slightly better form this time – at an inn called the Mortal Man.

But in the end, as de Botton points out, travel means nothing unless you’re prepared to open your mind as well as your eyes. He ends with the case of another Frenchman, Xavier de Maitre. Like The Duc des Esseintes, de Maitre didn’t get out much, finding quite enough to excite his curiosity at home. In 1790, he embarked on a journey round his bedroom, and wrote a book about his travels, following it up with a sequel in which he ventured a little further afield – as far as the window-ledge.

The lesson is clear: “Xavier de Maistre was gently nudging us to try, before taking off to distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen.”

Comments are closed.