Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia by W. Somerset Maugham

What does it mean to travel? And isn't it fun reading a book on a Kindle?

Yes, it is fun, if I may answer the second question first. A travel book published by Somerset Maugham in 1905 is the sort of thing you might chance upon in an old library or a used book sale, or you might know about it if you are a student of Maugham. Still, the chances of such serendipity are slim, if you go about your book hunting in the usual way. Maugham's memory has faded and he has become known for only one or two things, Of Human Bondage primarily. The way to find Land of the Blessed Virgin now is to be given a Kindle as a surprise for your birthday, spend four nights figuring it out, and then use it to go to Project Gutenberg and start downloading free, obscure, out-of-copyright books. If you happen to browse through their collection by author's last name, choosing M at random, you will soon find Maugham -- and Mansfield, Katharine -- and there at your fingertips is the output of his career. And hers. The tide at full flood, as it were, proof of an author's stature when your great-grandmother was reading good books. There is Land of the Blessed Virgin, and there also Mansfield's travel book, In a German Pension.

A great deal of lovely prose is hidden away in the pages of these books and thousands of downloadable others like them, books which may never have been earth-shatteringly great, but which were well crafted by talented people still steeped in an educational system we don't remember; books which served as sophisticated and pleasurable diversions for a public that didn't have much else to do with leisure time except read. And read. And read some more. (And so get a taste of that education. Quick, when were the Moors in Andalusia?) When Somerset Maugham went to Spain in his twenties, he was capable afterwards of writing:

And presently I turned round to look at Seville in the distance, bathed in brilliant light, glowing as though its walls were built of yellow flame. The Giralda arose in its wonderful grace like an arrow; so slim, so comely, it reminded one of an Arab youth, with long, thin limbs. With the setting sun, gradually the city turned rosy-red and seemed to lose all substantiality, till it became a many-shaped mist that was dissolved in the tenderness of the sky.

Now, isn't that rather nice? Why not know it?

Apart from its lovely prose, Blessed Virgin is illuminating as a sort of workaday record of the way a young English gentleman saw Spain a hundred years ago. Incidentally, the title doesn't bespeak any coherent theme, although you might expect it would when you see that the reproduced frontispiece is a Baroque painting of the Virgin Mary. "Sketches and impressions," yes -- that's the bespoke theme. This workaday record of travel records things that I suppose shouldn't surprise us. We shouldn't be too awed, for example, by his going about on his own on horseback -- that was probably the equivalent of our renting a car for our needs today. The two circumstances which seem to have made his trip Adventure travel with a capital A were, first, that his time was open-ended. He was living in Spain, and when he moved on, he sailed for Africa, not home. Second, each day was often a solitary, native-style struggle to find food, shelter, and warm dry clothing, somewhere in the countryside. This was not the vacation we would expect when we travel. He saw interesting and famed sights, but he also simply wandered, because he wanted to go from this town to that on a particular road, or he wanted to approach this village from the north and not the south. He saw the Alhambra because you almost have to, but he also saw a prison and hospital because he wanted to. To be fair, he was also not a mere "Cook's" tourist but the young English literary gentleman no doubt thinking of material for future books.

His memoir, with all its word painting, returns us again and again to our first question, returns us more often and inescapably imperiously than our author likely intended: what does it mean to travel? What does the stranger ever really see or understand? (Mansfield's book is written from a far different perspective. She was staying in a German pension for her health, and confined her writing to a progression of mostly snarky, pompous sketches on the awful people -- "Herr Rat", and the like -- she was staying with. I bailed after the story of the Child Who Was Tired, all about an abused little servant girl who finally smothered the yowling, middle-class baby in her charge.) Only a hundred years ago, Maugham saw a Spain parts of which which come straight out of those medieval nightmare paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. Diseased and limbless beggars still asked alms outside the churches. Horses were still killed during bullfights, as Hemingway witnessed later. And Maugham took care to observe peasants plowing, and townspeople going to see tacky, screechy theatrical shows, because that was Spain. If travel means you are supposed to go outside your comfort zone and see something of the way other human beings live on your very own planet, then he certainly did so. Yet, the "seeing" of whole book is also hampered by his indulging throughout that ultimate cliche, and I'm sure, throughout, he knew it: the romance of the warm, leisured, poor but happy (and incidentally, exotically ex-Muslim) south versus the cold, grey, moneyed and soulless (boring Christian) north. At one point, the young gentleman traveler thinks he has seen enough to write this:

A farmhouse such as this seems to me always a type of the Spanish impenetrability. I have been over many of them, and know the manner of their rooms and their furniture, the round of duties there performed and how the day is portioned out; but the real life of the inhabitants escapes me. My knowledge is merely external. I am conscious that it is the same of the Andalusians generally, and am dismayed because I know practically nothing more after a good many years than I learnt in the first few months of my acquaintance with them. ...They have no openness as have the French and the Italians, with whom a good deal of intimacy is possible even to an Englishman, but on the contrary an Eastern reserve which continually baffles me. I cannot realise their thoughts nor their outlook. I feel always below the grace of their behaviour the instinctive, primeval hatred of the stranger.

From the layout of a farmhouse, he thinks he can judge the Spaniard's "Eastern reserve"? Are they not people much like any other people? But who knows, given precisely the way he traveled and his native brains, perhaps he's right. Then why go? What have you learned, about the world, about yourself -- or is the point of travel to have mere fun? Towards the end of his chronicle, he'll try his hand at answering our questions. Travel can be done well or badly, of that he is sure. To travel well, to not be a vulgar Cook's tourist who only admires a view and then eats lunch, "the comeliness of your life or the beauty of your emotion" must transform what you see. "When the old red brick and the green trees say to you hidden things, and the vega and the mountains are stretched before you with a new significance ... so as to make, as it were, an exquisite pattern on your soul, then you may begin to find excuses for yourself."

Excuses for having gone at all, apparently. But can't an exquisite soul also see significance at home? Leaving Spain, the thought occurs to him. "And then from Cadiz," he writes,

I saw the shores of Spain sink into the sea; I saw my last of Andalusia. Who, when he leaves a place that he has loved, can help wondering when he will see it again? ... The traveller makes up his mind to return quickly, but all manner of things happen, and one accident or another prevents him; time passes till the desire is lost, and when at last he comes back, himself has altered or changes have occurred in the old places and all seems different. ... and perhaps, notwithstanding all his passionate desires, he will indeed never return.

Of course the intention of this book is not to induce people to go to Spain: railway journeys are long and tedious, the trains crawl, and the hotels are bad ... It is much better to read books of travel than to travel oneself; he really enjoys foreign lands who never goes abroad; and the man who stays at home, preserving his illusions, has certainly the best of it.

The man who stays home and preserves his illusions has the best of it. Or perhaps, the woman who just goes to one place, and that for a practical reason, has the better of it even though she writes a poorer book. Of our two travellers I preferred Maugham, but I must admit, if humor in the recollection of a journey is a sign of anything -- of having traveled "well," perhaps -- then here Mansfield outshines him. While admiring the singing shepherds and the orange trees he apparently never overheard stuffy, front parlor gems like this:

" 'Do you know,' said a voice, 'there is a man who LIVES in the Luft Bad next door? He buries himself up to the armpits in mud and refuses to believe in the Trinity.' "

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