August 04, 2011

Summer Reading While Traveling: Henry James, Agatha Christie, and Thoreau

After the American Century

I did not plan it, but my short summer vacation was made even more pleasant by the reading I happened to do while on trains and planes and in idle moments when not walking around or eating in France. This was the first time I took along an entire library, via an Ipad and also a Kindle, so I did not have to doggedly plow through books that I had brought along, but rather could browse and select what suited my fancy. I ended up reading three quite different books, two of them about travel in the nineteenth century, and all set in places distant from both home and the part of France near Switzerland where we spent most of our time.

I had no intention of reading Agatha Christie, but one of her books was in the Ipad -- The Mysterious Affair at Styles -- and it turned out to be one of the early Poirot stories, quite enjoyable on two levels: as a puzzle (who did it and why?) and as a period piece whose language was redolent of another world of manners and conversation irretrievably lost. This was quite distinctly a journey in time as much as it was a whodunit, and I enjoyed it far more than I would have expected. 

Henry James wrote a short work in 1879, "A Bundle of Letters," which amused me in quite a different way. As the title indicates, it consists of a series of letters. Several different people, all of whom are staying at the same high-class boarding house in Paris, write home. Each has disparaging remarks to make about the others, but indicates preference for someone as well. There are two American young women, a young American man, an impecunious Frenchman, an Englishman and his sister, and a German who is surprised and disappointed, even irritated, that the French seem scarcely upset by the recent war in which Prussia soundly defeated the French armies and laid a successful siege to Paris. 

The two American young ladies do not get along, the English do not much like the Americans (whoseverely disapprove of inherited titles and the class system). The Frenchman gives language lessons to them all and preys upon the young ladies in his spare time, and so on. The American from Boston proves to be a ludicrous aesthete whose feet barely touch the ground. The German feels superior to all, certain his nation must triumph over such effete cultures as the others represent. Humorous stuff, but not fully worked up into a novel as it might have been. Instead, the potentially complex situation simply ends when the young American woman whose letter initiated the story decides to move on to another country. When a graduate student, I would have analyzed it as an early example Jamesian experimentation with point-of-view, and the abandonment of an omniscient narrator. But on this trip the fascination for me was how each person was defining themselves against other nationalities. Each thereby became both a voice and the "other" for several other people. To read the story with any thought forces a reader to ponder not so much national differences (as the characters do) but the process of self-definition through opposition.

Finally, I read a good bit of Henry David Thoreau's The Maine Woods, which I did read once before, but long ago. Thoreau studied the landscape from a birch-bark canoe and botanized as he went. He was also fascinated by the Native American guide, reporting carefully his dress, opinions, behavior, and admirable knowledge of the region they were passing through. My trip was not long enough to complete his journey, too, so I left Thoreau slapping at mosquitoes in a bog. He seemed happy there. Some day I may get back and get him out of woods into civilization, but then again I may just leave him there. It was 160 years ago and by now he is used to it.

This reading was not only enjoyable, but it helped me forget the tiresome administrative work I did for the last year, the book that I must rewrite by January, and much else I have now managed to repress, at least temporarily. These readings, each in a different way, offered a displacement. The first and most potent escape, or displacement, was that of going where I had not been before. But in moments of idleness, how useful and pleasant to keep the work world at bay by the simple device of reading about distant places and times. It was not a plan, but it surely worked better than the reading I did in guidebooks and histories of the places I was passing through. Such things tend not to be well written, and they usually repeat one another. As James once complained, tourist information assimilated before arrival will "annihilate surprise." Read the guide afterword, to see if you agree, not beforehand. Killing the immediate future by reading guide books is likely to push one back into the very past that one is trying to take a break from. Better to have both the surprise of novels and travel narratives, as well as the surprise of new places, freshly seen.