The Art of Travel: Reviews

Colin Thubron in The Times, 15 May 2002 

No rules exist about how to travel, and this book — despite its title — does not prescribe them. Its attention is turned inward on the traveller, not outward on the journey. It is a foray into consciousness. The questions it attempts to answer are not about social or ecological impact. Rather they are: What can explain our love of a particular place? How can we avoid the feelings of loss when we leave it? What is the psychic significance of landscape? Why does movement induce thought? If there is a ghost presiding over The Art of Travel, it is not that of Marco Polo, but of Marcel Proust.

Each of the book’s nine essays comprises the author’s experience linked to the thoughts of a past traveller (or anti-traveller). So the chapters unfold through Amsterdam, Provence, Sinai, Madrid, or the Lake District, where men (they are all men) as various as Job, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Edward Hopper, Flaubert and von Humboldt induct us into diverse aspects of journeying.

In Barbados, for instance, de Botton — inspired by a stay-at-home character in one of Huysmans’s novels — contrasts the anticipation of travel with its reality, exploring (with some exasperation) how the distractions of minute-by-minute consciousness exclude the seamless peace suggested by the tourist brochure. Experience cannot be pure. Anticipation, like memory, is a state of simplification and omission.

On this interplay of past and present journeys — his own and others’ — the author hangs ideas on restlessnes, illusion, solitude. His own travels are less engagements with the Other than with the self. So a familiar nostalgia creeps in. Should he (or we) be somewhere other than we are? “People are not always of the country in which they are born,” wrote Gautier, “and, when you are prey to such a condition, you seek everywhere for your own country.”

De Botton’s chosen exemplar for this malaise is Flaubert. In 1849 the novelist fled bourgeois France for the exoticism of Egypt, and never lost his fascination for the country. “My native country is for me the country that I love,” he wrote, “that is, the one that makes me dream, that makes me feel well. I am as much Chinese as French, and I don’t rejoice about our victories over the Arabs because I am saddened by their defeats. I love those harsh, enduring, hardy people, the last of the primitives, who at midday, lie down in the shade under the bellies of their camels, and while smoking their chibouks, poke fun at our good civilisation, which quivers with rage about it . . .”

De Botton understands this sense of displacement, but he recognises, too, that the real trouble may lie in the country of the self. He is not himself a happy traveller. He arrives grudgingly, perhaps for some conference; he oversleeps, is too shy, hopes to go home. The living jumble of a city is sometimes too much for him; he is scared to go into downtown Madrid restaurants. His only journey beyond Europe is made within the safety of a group.

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