on August 8, 2007
Paul Fussell is universally famous for his extensive studies on the cultural impact of the Twentieth Century Wars. In this 1980 book instead he dedicates his attention to a topic that appears as a serene hiatus between massacres: British travel literature of the 20's-30's. Fussell has no shame in affirming that the books published in this period are the best travelogues ever written, since from the 1930's on "travel" degenerated into "tourism".
The reason of the escape from England of the young literate, witty people of the WWI generation, is identified on one hand in the loathing, disgust and angst due to the terrible experiences of those that had fought in the trenches and on the other of those that bore the meagre economical war situation and restriction of liberty at home. This imperative pulsion to fuge Fussell identifies in the phrase "I Hate it Here", which recurs often as the leitmotif of his work. What writers wanted to flee was England, home, the bad weather, the poverty, so the South and in particular the sunny Mediterranean was elected as a putative home for the body and soul. However travel in the Nineteenth Century was becoming more difficult due the introduction of some limitations, like the passport in the 20s, that posed a practical and psychological problem, forcing people to realize their age, aspect and economical status together with the passing of time due to the photographs always at hand. The "passport nuissance" was accompanied by the formal identifications of many before unrecognized and unmapped frontiers, that caused other problems and reasons for reflexion.
In a long chapter, which reads almost as a bitter moral essay, the Author decribes the evolution from the Nineteenth Century exploration, to travel and to modern tourism, and the influence of this passage on travel books. In this section Fussel's nostalgia of the past is palpable and somehow displeasing, because as all travel narrative addicts know, good books have been written also after the '30's. Following the analysis of the psychological conditions of the travel writers are the practical considerations of the cheapness and sexual freedom of living abroad, that must not be forgotten. Homosexuality, pederasty, irregular unions were a major drive to living abroad.
The following chapters are devoted to the indepth rereading of the Authors Fussell thinks the most influent of the period: the never forgotten and much cried over Robert Byron (this chapter owes much to Christopher Sykes' essay on Byron in "Four Studies in Loyalty"), the cultivated, perverse and irrequietous Norman Douglas, the sun-lover and place seeking and preposition plethoric D.H. Lawrence, the moral anomaly-searcher Evelyn Waugh. Ample excerpta are quoted and commentated to explain each Author's peculiarity and importance.
The conclusive remarks are on the structure and the literary value of travel books, diction which is preferred over "travelogues" or "travel logs". Actually Fussell points out how travel books were the only acceptable way at those times of getting essays (that had passed out of fashion as literary forms) published, together with a mixed bag of poetry, impressions, adventures and anedotes. Essays were not articles in the modern sense of the word, because they had a moral or opinionated connotation. In the travel literature of this period they are joined together with memoirs, comic novels, quest, picaresque and pastoral romance and served to an eagre "exotica" seeking public.
This book is truely a treasure trove. More that deserving to be read and enjoyed, I would say, it must be studied. Anyone loving British travel narrative must have it in his library. Analyzing such a wealth of material from that age it draws out the ideas that join together these Authors and explaining them to full degree consents us to enjoy with greater insight these marvelous works.
One small notation however I must make. British travel literature of the 20s-30s has the characteristic of researching esthetic accomplishment and often this reaches exquisite climaxes. Today we still read some of these books for their sheer beauty. Never in his extensive critique Fussell draws our attention to this not secondary aspect.
Enjoy above all!
on December 19, 2011
Paul Fussell can be intimidating. It's not that his writing style is "difficult." On the contrary, it never loses its conversational tone and after a while the reader begins to envy the seemingly effortless, breezy way in which Fussell descants upon everything from literary criticism to European history to Islamic architecture to weighty philosophical matters. Indeed, it is not long before one finds oneself envying Fussell on many different levels. His breadth of knowledge, the ease with which he traverses academic disciplines, his disgusting erudition - these are the things which make him so intimidating, but also such a brilliant writer. In "Abroad," he is examining travel writing as a genre, specifically British travel writing between the two world wars. In outlining his case that travel writing has been unappreciated and is just as deserving of critical attention as novels or poetry, Fussell draws upon so many different books, from so many different fields, that one begins to panic, thinking, "I have read NOTHING. I need to quit my job immediately and devote the rest of my life to catching up on my reading. I also need to build my miserable vocabulary and develop a new, Fussell-esque writing style." Fussell has that effect upon people.
In the 1920s and `30s, British writers wanted to be anywhere but in Britain. The "British Literary Diaspora," as Fussell calls it, began as a reaction to WWI. Soldiers mouldering in trenches at the front had consoled themselves with dreams of sun-lit lands, and when the war ended the last place they wanted to be was England. Civilians, unable to travel for more than four years thanks to the Defense of the Realm Acts of 1914 and 1915, were just as eager to escape. Fussell writes: "The war was widely blamed for ruining England...Four years of repression, lies, casualty lists, and mass murder sanctioned by bishops (had) done their damage." E.M. Forster's comment about England-- "I do think that during the war something in this country got killed" -- is typical of post-war sentiment, and Fussell notes that "an insistent leitmotif of (British) writers between the wars...is I Hate It Here." As far as Osbert Sitwell and other writers were concerned, the national character had changed. Sitwell felt that war "always intensifies the innate philistinism of every race." Post-war England was perceived as anti-intellectual, anti-art, ugly, industrialized, pedestrian, narrow-minded and stuffy. Even the weather suddenly became intolerable as England was imaginatively transformed into a damp, dark, oppressive bog. Fussell notes that whereas before the war, "one had been rather proud of the fogs and damps and pleased to exhibit staunchness and good humor in adapting to them...after 1918 it is as if the weather worsens to make England all but uninhabitable to the imaginative and sensitive." Disgust with England, combined with a pound that was much stronger than Continental currencies, drew British writers southwards to the Mediterranean. Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Cyprus...the sun-drenched lands beckoned. The years between the wars represent the golden age of traveling.
It was also the golden age of travel writing. Travel books were very popular in those years, not just first-person accounts but the little volumes of the Travelers' Library and the Baedeker guides. Regarding the latter, Fussell writes, "What seems to make the Baedeker guides so clear an expression of the period is their emphasis on seeing and learning, rather than, as in such successors as Fodor and Fielding, on consuming." Fussell contrasts traveling, which he laments as a lost art, with tourism, driven by consumerism and the desire to "(pose) momentarily as a member of a social class superior to one's own, to play the role of a `shopper' and spender whose life becomes significant and exciting only when one is exercising power by choosing what to buy." Fussell believes that true traveling is no longer possible. Many factors contributed to its demise: grand ocean liners were replaced with cruise ships; romantic trains were replaced with airplanes, with the result that people only visit "big places with big hotels and big airports served by big planes." The most important factor, according to Fussel, is the loss of an independent spirit and the willingness to endure some discomfort in pursuit of a unique experience. Fussell, never a big fan of this modern age, sees the replacement of traveling with tourism as in keeping with "other `replacements' characterizing contemporary life: the replacement of coffee-cream by ivory-colored powder, for example, or of silk and wool by nylon; or glass by lucite, books by "bookstores," eloquence by jargon, fish by fish-sticks, merit by publicity..."
In "Abroad," Fussell provides mini-biographies of great travelers of the age and critiques their works, with special attention paid to Robert Byron, Norman Douglas, Graham Greene, D.H. Lawrence, and Evelyn Waugh. Along the way, he presents a panoply of writers, poets, and literary hangers-on of the first half of the 20th century, using quotes and anecdotes to enliven travel-related essays on such diverse subjects as passports, frontiers, tourist angst, the Englishness of traveling, the romance of traveling, and the sun as a symbol of freedom. The chapter about D.H. Lawrence, with its awkward attempt to connect Lawrence's use of prepositions with travel themes, is a conspicuous failure and seems out of place - I suspect that it's a recycled grad school paper - but the rest of the book is a delight. My very favorite paragraph in the book is Fussell's description of the anti-tourist, a person who manages to be both a snob and a tourist at the same time, a difficult feat:
"Perhaps the most popular way for the anti-tourist to demarcate himself from the tourists, because he can have a drink while doing it, is for him to lounge - cameraless - at a café table and with palpable contempt scrutinize the passing sheep through half-closed lids, making all movements very slowly. Here the costume providing the least danger of exposure is jeans, a thick dark-colored turtleneck, and longish hair. Any conversational gambits favored by lonely tourists, like `Where are you from?' can be deflected with vagueness. Instead of answering Des Moines or Queens, you say, `I spend a lot of time abroad' or `That's really hard to say.'"
Panic-inducing and ego-deflating though it may be, reading Fussell's work is inspiring. It inspires one to expand one's book collection. His "The Great War and Modern Memory" led me to Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That." My first encounter with "Abroad" made me seek out Norman Douglas' "South Wind" and, after a second reading, I have compiled a huge list of books and poems I want to read: Alec Waugh's "The Loom of Youth"; Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley"; Robert Byron's "The Road to Oxiana"; Rebecca West's "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon; Sacheverell Sitwell's "Southern Baroque Art"; John Dos Passos' "Orient Express"; and Edith Wharton's "Italian Backgrounds," to name just a few. Any time an author's work inspires the reader to read more (and to read more widely), it's a good thing. I highly recommend "Abroad."
p.s. Wikipedia tells me that Paul Fussell is still alive (he's 87 years old now). I'm confident that he has already read more books in 2011 than I've read in the last ten years.
on March 19, 1998
Time was when travel was as memorable an adventure as a stunning love affair, a divorce, a personal catastrophe. That time was between the wars -- the Great War and WW2 -- and no group of observers was better positioned to write of it than the great British travel commentators. You will think differently about the activity and meaning of travel after you read this captivating, if occasionally slow-going book by one of the finest observers of the 20th century at work today. And not least of all ABROAD takes you back into the world of T. E. Lawrence's time, when ships were the only way to cross the seas.
on September 13, 2011
Tired of crowded planes, sitting alongside of intolerable neighbors, having eaten tasteless meals served by pushy stewardesses, well, read this book to see what was the world like when mass and world travel was just beginning. Not a care in the world. The book describes what was it like to have no TSA and no passport requirements for traveling far and away. Written in a swift prose, Paul Fussell's book is real literature and with a long sentence like 'He who travel fastest travels alone, to be sure, but he who travels best travels with a companion if not always a lover' your curiosity will take you through descriptions of places and things that only your grandmother can remember. This book is a joy and is also great way to brush up on your British literature.
on November 20, 2013
I enjoy travel books. This book is a book about travel writers and their books. By necessity it is usually superficial but it still interests me. Subsequently I have purchased some of the books referred to and looked for other books by the authors. It explains more about a world that is mostly gone. I enjoyed it. I recommend reading it!
on February 7, 2015
Fantastic book. If you, like me, believe travel today is commercial and shallow, read it. It's full of wonderful writing, facts (for example, i had no idea that during WWI ordinary citizens in England could not obtain passports to travel anywhere! Even my wife, who is English didn't know this) and the kind of experiences one would rarely encounter now.
This wonderful and evocative book looks at British travel writing between the wars; taking in the period just after WWI, to the darkening mood in the late 1930's as another war loomed. After the first world war, those who had either been stuck in the freezing trenches, or just unable to travel because of the wartime restrictions, dreamt of the freedom of going abroad. Warmth, liberation and sheer pleasure beckoned a generation that had spent years dreaming of simply being somewhere else. However, there were changes - for example, passports were a novel instrument, by which England restricted travel during the war. Before 1915, no European states, except Russia and the Ottoman Empire, requited a passport for admittance. It was a wartime emergency regulation which was convenient for the government and not repealed after the war. Also, European frontiers had been redrawn to reward the victors and humiliate the losers. Yet, into this changed Europe - and beyond - travellers ventured.
The author states, "before tourism there was travel and before travel there was exploration." As travel writer Paul Theroux has observed, travel writing is a funny thing, as "the worst trips make the best reading." In this book, Paul Fussell looks at some of the greatest travel writers of this period, such as Graham Greene, Robert Byron, D.H. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh. It was a time when travel was slower - trains and ships, rather than flying, was the norm. There were places to be explored that were truly different and remote. This book muses on travel companions, romance and travel books themselves. Apart from being an interesting read, this book also made me think I must explore some books I have not yet read and re-read some favourites. A real pleasure and highly recommended.
ABROAD by Paul Fussell is an enjoyable, rather short (227 pp. of text), surprisingly overpriced, yet not wholly satisfying look at the "I Hate It Here" phenomenon of British (and occasionally American) writers who fled their native countries post-World War I in favor of Europe in the Twenties and more exotic lands in the Thirties. This period of about 1919-1939, the so-called "Interwar" period, was for Fussell the last efflorescence of "travel" in the sense of independent-minded, inwardly-directed solo voyagers (sometimes with companions) who studied the history and culture of their destinations, made their own arrangements, and were willing to suffer the inconveniences and discomforts when the inevitable if occasional breakdowns occurred. (In the modern era, says Fussell at rather too much length, "travel" has been replaced by "tourism" -- more comfortable perhaps, but a mass phenomenon whereby hordes of tourists from the wealthier countries fly on pre-booked charter flights to pre-reserved "International" hotels in order to view tourist clichés in countries they know little of, except the visual. And, of course, transatlantic ship crossings have been replaced by mass tropical cruises.)
When Fussell is good, he can be very, very good, as his accounts of D.H. Lawrence and wife through Italy attest, and his rapturous accounts of Robert Byron's many travels in the Mideast and Central Asia. In fact, Fussell's plumping for (and subsequent re-discovery by armchair travelers of) Byron's outstanding 1937 travel-and-architectural account, THE ROAD TO OXIANA, may be the worthiest cultural residue of this 1980 book. Fussell even calls Byron a "Saint," and certainly Byron's perseverance in locating and touring architecturally significant (and tumescent) medieval towers in the middle of nowhere that were hitherto closed to "infidels" is inspiring if not downright epochal. When Fussell is not so engaged, though, his writing suffers, as witness his treatment of Christopher Isherwood, a born traveler if ever there was one, in a chapter so brief it resembles annotation rather than discussion. Fans of the late Paul Fussell, who are well acquainted with the man's unusual combination of erudition and iconoclasm, may well want to read ABROAD (Hint: used versions are much cheaper than the going rate). Newcomers to this remarkable writer and academic should probably head first to Fussell's award-winning book of World War I poets in the cultural milieu of "The war to end all wars," THE GREAT WAR AND MODERN MEMORY (1975), or his prickly but very funny brief look at the American status system, CLASS (1983), which is known in the U.K. as CASTE MARKS: STYLE AND STATUS IN THE USA.
on February 18, 2013
I was set to really enjoy this book. Its theme was fascinating. But as I read it, the author could not keep himself from going back again and again to his favorite pet peeve: Tourists who are merely tourists, and who don't understand the truly deep and mystical nature of real travel, because they're only vulgar tourists, who are vulgar, and tourists, and they just make him so sick. Because (of course) he understands and appreciates true travel.
He would get back to describing the English abroad, and then...right back to the "here's another thing I don't like about vulgar tourists" angle.
I don't disagree with him, I have no desire to get on a tour bus that takes you to a dozen pre-appointed gift shop tourist traps either, but I didn't buy the book to keep reading that over and over. So I gave up after maybe 50 pages.
on May 22, 2013
do British readers read Fussell as British? certainly to the American ear, he seems steeped in some 19th century conception of things, elegant, verbose, verbal, and far-ranging. an example of the "ultra-stylist," each page is steeped in literary reference, mostly to books you've never heard about. Fussell was a gem.