Thursday, July 15, 2004

139 The travel writing genre

Lakeside, from which I’m writing, is a Chautauqua community and offers classes and programming on many topics--and there was a travel writer on the program list this week. I didn’t go for two reasons, I don’t travel much, and I’m not interested in publication (usually a topic within writing classes). Actually, three reasons; I don’t read travel literature. But I thought this observation about Evelyn Waugh’s newly reissued travel writing was interesting at First Things. Waugh Abroad: Collected Travel Writing
“For the most part, Waugh’s books are not really about travel at all. True travel writers work upon the assumption that their task is, primarily, to see and to describe, and where possible to enter into as profound a sympathy for their subjects as they can; Waugh proceeds upon the (subversive) assumption that his business is to evaluate and to comment, and to avoid sympathy as assiduously as circumstances and good taste permit. For all his considerable prowess as a stylist, in these books he rarely troubles to convey any image or experience with appreciable vividness or pungency (except where an opportunity for mockery presents itself). Any reader of his novels knows that he was quite capable of painting pictures with words when necessary; but his genius lay elsewhere. His prose is urbane, unsentimental, and economical, hospitable to moments of purple abandon but at its best when its controlled and even flow allows him to pass from delicacy to savagery and back again without any visible effort. It is, in short, a prose of personality, not of scenery; of irony, not of anecdotes. And so it is in these books.”
The author did list some travel writers he enjoys and did cite the redeeming qualities in Waugh’s books--always about the author, not the travel. For example:
“[British Guiana] If there is any more unprepossessing expanse of earth upon the globe, one cannot imagine where. This book is an unremitting account of misery, privation, and pointlessness in a world of dun landscapes, tormenting insects, malnutrition, and cultural stagnancy. What makes it fascinating, though, is the almost demented composure of the author; it demonstrates with remarkable poignancy how, in its way, British equanimity can constitute a kind of emotional extremism.”

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