Lonely Planet guides are not the only must-reads for a holiday
I often want, before going to a foreign city, to read literature set in that city. But between packing and scrambling for visas, there is little time for, say, the memoirs of Orhan Pamuk. So I usually travel as a literary blank slate.
This holiday to Rome, Venice, and Florence had been organised back in January, and I had planned to read Patricia Highsmith's “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” or the Venetian parts of “Brideshead Revisited.” But as the months crept up, I hadn't even flipped through a phrasebook, much less soaked in the history and atmosphere of Italy.
With just weeks to go, I scanned my shelves for what might be useful. Shakespeare is not. He wrote “Othello” and “Julius Caesar” on a London street, and it shows. But subsequent British writers saw the foreign places they wrote about. Mostly they showed English sensitivities clashing against Continental aesthetics, and they worked in plenty of scenery.
So, on her honeymoon in Rome, Dorothea of “Middlemarch” gazes unseeing on the marble Ariadne at the Vatican Museum while her husband shuffles to the library to grope after his “mouldy futilities.” The scene is about the gulf between the newlyweds and Dorothea's boredom with Catholic extravagance, but George Eliot reproduces balustrades and statues in their proper places.
Evelyn Waugh in “Brideshead Revisited” describes Venice intimately, but our narrator Charles Ryder must pretend to be bored with it, like his languid host Sebastian. Or he wanders dreamily about, not forming his own opinions but wondering what Byron might have seen. Eliot and Waugh are too skilled to write in travelogue style. They lay out art and architecture like a suave hostess putting out a perfect spread, and then leave us to eat as much or as little as we like, gracious even when we have skipped all their sweets.
To E.M. Forster, tourists are frankly a blot on the Continent. Lucy Honeychurch in Florence tries to look beyond her guidebook, to find the particular tombstone that impressed Mrs Ruskin or the bridge described by Dante. She stays in a pension run by an Englishwoman and filled with English people who must improve themselves on holiday rather than simply smell the air. I myself am guilty of taking notes while reading “Room with a View” (“Neptune fountain in Piazza Signoria” or “ooh, Machiavelli memorial near Santa Croce”). Of all Forster's tourists, only Mr. Emerson sees Florence for himself, not through Ruskin's or Dante's eyes. Standing in front of Giotto's “Ascension of St. John,” he says, “Look at that fat man in blue! He must weigh as much as I do, and he is shooting into the sky like an air-balloon.”
That's how I'll do it, then. I'll shelve Eliot and Waugh and forget about Dante, and even about Forster. The only printed matter in my bags will be my passport and a map. And I'll throw in my blank slate.