I recently took a trip through the Panama Canal. It is an engineering marvel built a century ago that is about to be duplicated in January when a second set of locks starts moving even larger boats across the 50-mile Isthmus of Panama. During the cruise, I read Abroad, which was written by Paul Fussell in 1980. He says in his Preface that the book is about both “travel” and “travel writing,” and it was the latter that really caught my attention.
It turns out that my concept of “travel books” was all wrong–“guidebooks” is a more appropriate description for those occasional tomes about the pyramids or the Great Wall of China I’ve read and found lacking. According to Fussel, travel books are not about “travel” at all. Oh, the author is usually going somewhere, but the journey and destination(s) are only a framework he drapes with satire, criticism and out-and-out fiction. Many great writers (Graham Greene, D.H. Lawrence, W.H. Auden) wrote in this genre, but it was Fussel’s suggestion that one of my favorites, Evelyn Waugh, was a top travel writer that caused me to go to Waugh’s page on Amazon.
I’ve read all of Waugh’s novels several times. Scoop, Brideshead Revisited and The Loved One are just a few of the wonderful books he wrote. The notion that his “travel books” are really platforms for more of his acerbic wit and cutting satire (often saved from sarcasm only by style and word-play) meant that there were new worlds for me to discover.
Accordingly, I’ve ordered them all: A Tourist in Africa, Labels: A Mediterranean Journal, Ninety-Two Days: A Journey in Guiana and Brazil, Waugh in Abyssinia and Remote People: A Report from Ethiopia and British Africa. None are on Kindle, and some of the newer print editions are pricey, so I bought them used. I’ve just begun Remote People, Waugh’s account of the coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930 and, sure enough, the jaundiced but insightful point of view presented in his novels is apparent from the very first page.