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Getting Away From It All

ISSUE:  Summer 1981
Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. By Paul Fussell. Oxford. $14.95.
Ways of Escape. By Graham Greene. Simon & Schuster. $12.95.

Paul Fussell is master of a particular genre of literary intellectual history. The Great War and Modem Memory traced the imaginative impact and literary effect of World War I on succeeding generations. Abroad is a logical extension of that prize-winning book, for Fussell finds the heyday of travel and travel writing in the 20 years between the First and Second World Wars and the stimulus to travel originating in the cramped, noxious trenches. Abroad, as might be expected, is a more lightweight, entertaining book than its predecessor. Fussell distinguishes among exploration, travel, and tourism, assigning each to a particular age: “exploration belongs to the Renaissance, travel to the bourgeois age, tourism to our proletarian moment,” although they overlap. He defines exploration as concerned with strenuous discovery, travel with mental and physical inquiry, tourism with mere relaxation and consumption. Travel is a mean. “If the explorer moves toward the risks of the formless and the unknown, the tourist moves toward the security of pure cliche. It is between these two poles that the traveler mediates, retaining all he can of the excitement of the unpredictable attaching to exploration, and fusing that with the pleasure of “knowing where one is” belonging to tourism.” It was entre deux guerres that the going was good. Fussell laments we are all tourists now, for travel implies independence of mind and variety of means of travel. Nowadays to travel as and where one wills requires ingenuity and intrepidity to evade the network of jumbo jets, charters, cruise ships, package tours, Hiltons and Sheratons, and crowded resorts the travel industry has flung across the globe. The author of Abroad prefers travel of the nonconsuming, “unladen, intellectual” kind and believes no tourist can be independent. Of course, tourism began in the 19th century; a Victorian Englishman deplored the newly hatched enterprise of Thomas Cook, invoking the characteristic independence of the English and hoping this would “revolt against a plan that reduces the traveler to the level of his trunk and obliterates every trace and trait of the individual.” Fussell dislikes the placelessness of modern means and modes of travel, epitomized in the monotonous uniformity of airport architecture and air travel. He evokes such placelessness well. “Locked in this flying cigar where distance is expressed in hours instead of miles or kilometers, the tourist is in touch only with the uniform furniture and fittings and experiences the environment through which the whole nonplace is proceeding only as he is obliged to fasten or loosen his seat belt.” Tourism, unlike travel, separates or isolates the tourist from the environment in which the traveler would immerse himself.

Surveying a diaspora of literary travelers straying out from England to the uttermost ends of the earth between the wars, Fussell observes the special qualities of the English as travelers. He notes that both history and geography have inculcated in the English a strong sense of place, expressed in their insularity and elaborate class system. One would think insularity an unpromising trait in a traveler; the British are not noted for their tolerance abroad or for an ability to blend in with the landscape. But they are curious (in both senses of the word) and observant, and class-consciousness makes them keen observers of social manners and distinctions, so that British travel literature often has the density and specificity of detail to be relished in the 19th-century novel. English individualism, not to say eccentricity, gives their travel writing its special flair and flavor. Fussell believes the British desire to travel, to visit and prove different places on the pulses, is part of their empirical tradition. A pragmatic Anglo-Saxon passion for sun and the south is easily understood by anyone who has lived in the British Isles for any length of time. It has resulted in a protracted English love-affair with the Mediterranean. In the twenties and thirties there was a myth that the sun was the source of sincerity and a cure for the hypocrisy bred in the British by the cloudiness of their climate. As Fussell remarks, “To sketch the history of the British imaginative intercourse with the Mediterranean in modern times is virtually to present a survey of modern British literature.”

After the Armistice in 1918, some demobbed survivors of trench warfare were able to realize dreams of abroad nurtured in the freezing mud; and many civilians, confined to a tight little island for four years, headed for sunny, golden climes and exotic vegetation. The twenties’ penchant for travel was part of the explosive expansiveness of a decade that lifted many lids. Travel can be liberating and uninhibiting, and Fussell rightly emphasizes the erotic undertones of wanderlust. An interest in journalism during the twenties and thirties paid for a considerable portion of the travel literature of these decades. Writers were commissioned to travel and often traveled in pairs and teams: Norman Douglas with his many companions; Robert Byron and Christopher Sykes; Maugham and Gerald Haxton; Auden and MacNeice; Auden and Isherwood, Evelyn Waugh and Patrick Balfour. Travel was delightfully cheap, the pound and the dollar both stronger after World War I than continental currencies. Hemingway observed that in the twenties a couple could live comfortably in Europe and travel on five dollars a day.

Abroad is a Baedeker to the travel literature of the period, reviewing the output of such celebrated travel writers as Norman Douglas, Peter Fleming, D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender. Fussell resurrects for particular attention Robert Byron, author of the undeservedly neglected The Road to Oxiana, which Fussell hails as worthy of occupying the place in travel literature of the interwar years that The Waste Land does in poetry or Ulysses among novels. Byron is a choleric traveler and satirist of Waugh’s stripe. Here are his reflections on Baghdad.

It is a mud plain. . . . From this plain rise villages of mud and cities of mud. The rivers flow with liquid mud. The air is composed of mud refined into a gas. The people are mud-colored; they wear mud-colored clothes, and their national hat is nothing other than a formalized mud-pie.

It is too bad that The Road to Oxiana (1937) is available only in English paperback.

Travel literature is a complex genre occupying a borderland between fact and fiction. Thus, many travel books have been classified as fiction, while some fiction has been classified as travel. (Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is considered a novel, Greene’s The Lawless Roads, travel.) Fussell observes travel writers have traditionally fictionalized, sometimes in the interests of structure, often to capture an air of the marvelous, but sometimes to render facts credible. Truth can be stranger than fiction, as we know. Distinguishing travel from guidebooks—guidebooks are written for those who plan to follow in the traveler’s footsteps; travel books are not—Fussell comes up with this generic definition. “Travel books are a subspecies of memoir in which the autobiographical narrative arises from the speaker’s encounter with distant or unfamiliar data, and in which the narrative . . .claims literal validity by constant reference to actuality.” Travel books are written for those “who require the exotic or comic anomalies, wonders, and scandals of the literary form romance which their own place or time cannot entirely supply.” For all who enjoy exotica, Abroad will prove an enjoyable reading experience; it whets the appetite for travel literature and for travel.

One of the writers to whom Fussell devotes a chapter is Graham Greene, who certainly agrees with him that travel is a metaphor for life itself and hence appeals powerfully to the imagination. Greene also believes World War I gave an impetus to travel. He comments on his generation, “We were a generation brought up on adventure stories who had missed the enormous disillusionment of the First World War, so we went looking for adventure. . . .” Ways of Escape, the second volume of Greene’s autobiography and a sequel to A Sort of Life, is so titled because Greene observes writing and travel are both ways of escape. A Sort of Life, published ten years ago, took Greene up to his late twenties and the beginning of his life as an author. Ways of Escape, in some ways an evasive autobiography, is most concerned with the life of the writer because writing is his life, and with travel because Greene has a habit of “going on location” to write. It is Greene’s own survey of his books and is much indebted to a series of introductions he wrote to the collected edition of his work. Nevertheless, Ways of Escape possesses its own integrity and is a continuation of A Sort of Life.

What is Greene seeking to escape from in writing and travel? The answer he most often gives is boredom, but both A Sort of Life and Ways of Escape also posit writing and travel as escapes from death and the desire to forestall death. Greene says, “It is for the act of creation that one lives,” yet much of his life has been dedicated to thoughts and acts of deliberate self-destruction. His life is death-haunted from its opening. In his teens he played Russian roulette from a desire to break out of a soul-stifling sense of ennui, to enhance a deficient sense of life, and perhaps to end it all. In A Sort of Life he describes his sensations after placing the muzzle of a loaded revolver in his ear, pulling the trigger, and finding himself still confronted by the visible world. “I remember an extraordinary sense of jubilation. . . . My heart knocked in its cage, and life contained an infinite number of possibilities.” He repeated the experience several times before abandoning it because the revivifying effects of the reprieve palled and came to seem meretricious. Ways of Escape clearly shows that Greene enjoyed World War II, first in London during the blitz (about which he kept a graphic diary) and later in West Africa, where he was sent by the Foreign Office. He did not expect to survive the war and was disconcerted to do so. Greene acknowledges he was still playing Russian roulette in making the long trek through the West African jungle, recorded in Journey Without Maps (1936); in visiting Tabasco and Chiapas at the height of the religious persecution under Canabal in the late thirties; in getting himself sent as a correspondent to Malaya, Indochina, and Kenya during the fifties at the time of the Emergency, the French-Indochinese War, and Mau Mau, respectively, and in journeying to a leper colony in the Congo to do research for A Burnt-Out Case in 1959. Greene recognizes that “the fear of ambush served me just as effectively as the revolver from the corner cupboard in the lifelong war against boredom.”

War, fear, and flirtation with death have consistently heightened Greene’s sense of life, which may well strike seasoned readers as low-key and debilitated. Greene’s unique vision as a writer encompasses in an extraordinary way the grayness, dreariness, and the excitement of modern life. Few writers are so masterly in creating suspense or instilling a sense of lurking danger. Greene’s thrillers are superior, though he is justly more celebrated for his novels than his “entertainments.” He attributes the alternation between the two forms to his dual nature. It is significant that Greene’s first published novel is called The Man Within. Greene is a self-acknowledged manic-depressive; manic-depressiveness was a family inheritance. He associates depression with chronic and pervasive boredom, mania with reckless episodes in his life. At 16, after escaping from school and playing Russian roulette, Greene underwent psychoanalysis. He enjoyed and benefited from this experience, but its aftermath was yet more crushing boredom. Greene quotes Rilke with approval on the subject: “Psychoanalysis is too fundamental a help for me, it helps you once and for all, it clears you up, and to find myself finally cleared up one day might be even more helpless than this chaos.” Perhaps Catholicism provided the sense of mystery, expunged by psychoanalysis, that Greene craved. He identifies the fifties as the decade of greatest restlessness for him, when manic depression reached its height. Much of the most exciting, absorbing writing in Ways of Escape concerns the dangerous journeys he undertook to shake off boredom. Such chapters also bear out Fussell’s observation that travel writing yielded to war reporting from the thirties onward.

Greene’s first sustained trip abroad was to Liberia in 1934—35. He went with his young cousin, Barbara, who proved an excellent traveling companion, but whom he erased from his record of their travels when these took an intensely subjective form. The 200-mile trek on foot through the jungle proved consummately boring, for the most part; afterwards, Greene was stumped for a time as to how to make a book out of such a blank experience. He resolved to use the outward journey as a metaphor for inner exploration, in much the way Conrad does in Heart of Darkness. (Ways of Escape brings into high relief the extent of Conrad’s influence on Greene.) Africa comes to mean “The Lost Childhood” Greene laments in his essay of that title.

Greene has always had a very definite sense of place. In early childhood a part of his home (which was also school, for his father was headmaster of Berkhamsted School) that lay across the road figured for him as France, while the “home” side was England. Later when, as a boarder, he moved only to the other side of the green baize door dividing his parents’ living quarters from the school proper, he felt he had crossed a frontier. With the writing of Stamboul Train, one of his entertainments, Greene began a lifelong practice of writing “on location,” although he had only enough money at the time to travel as far as Cologne on the Orient express. Later, the script for The Third Man and the novels, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, A Burnt-Out Case, The Comedians, and Travels With My Aunt, were all written either on location or hard upon visits to their respective locales. As is true of Lawrence (although Greene lacks the vitality and vividness of Lawrence’s feeling for place), Greene’s best books emerge from particular places and are saturated with their atmosphere. Setting is almost as important in his fiction as plot and character. Brighton Rock, though it depicts a surrealistically garish Brighton, shows how much that seaside resort gripped Greene’s imagination. The Power and the Glory is a testimonial to the impact of Mexico and The Heart of the Matter to Greene’s perverse love of the white man’s grave, which he inhabited for two years. His quarters were infested with mosquitoes and cockroaches and frequented by vultures, but “I had lost my heart to West Africa. . . . As the sun began to set, the laterite paths turned the color of a rose. It was the hour and the place I liked best.” As for that seedy territory critics have called “Greeneland,” Greene says it is simply another term for reality. If we have not seen it except in his fiction, it is because we look at the world through rose-colored glasses.

Greene depicts the writer’s life as single-minded and exigent. “To a novelist his novel is the only reality and his only responsibility.” Writing is solitary and obsessive and “keeps the author confined for a period of years with his depressive self,” Greene observes. Nor is the creation of imaginary beings necessarily a release. A Burnt-Out Case was singularly depressing and gave Greene particular trouble. He remarks that, while the reader need only endure the company of his protagonist, Querry, for a few hours, “the author had to live with him and in him for eighteen months.” So Greene has found it a holiday to write short stories or entertainments—”I have always sought relief in entertainments—melodrama and farce are both expressions of a manic mood.” Accustomed to constructing novels along dramatic lines with telling dialogue, Greene also finds writing for the stage rewarding because of the opportunity to watch the effect of his work on an audience, to amend it accordingly, and to work with others in a collective enterprise.

Greene’s judgment of his work is generally interesting, sometimes surprising, not always sure. He reviews his work from The Man Within to Dr. Fischer of Geneva and astonishingly prefers The Honorary Consul to his other novels. Few readers will concur. The writing of entertainments has not always been entertaining. The simultaneous composition of The Confidential Agent and The Power and the Glory brought about a crisis in Greene’s life that helped break up his marriage. Nearly broke at the time, and anticipating small sales for the first of several novels about “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” Greene decided to produce a popular book at the same time. He rented a London studio and, with the aid of a quantity of benzedrine, ground out two thousand words each morning of The Confidential Agent and about a quarter that number every afternoon of The Power and the Glory. The siege went on for six weeks, taking a heavy toll of the writer and his family. In fact, The Power and the Glory, the first of Greene’s novels to give him satisfaction, had to wait ten years for success, having appeared inauspiciously at the beginning of World War II and in the United States under the unfetching title, The Labyrinthine Ways, which did nothing for transatlantic sales. This is, Greene says, the only novel he has ever written to a thesis. Its protagonist and antagonist, the whiskey priest and the lieutenant, are the only characters in The Power and the Glory created wholecloth from Greene’s imagination. The religious persecution impelled Greene to take faith as his subject matter. The Power and the Glory is one of five religious novels, the others being Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and A Burnt-Out Case. Greene did not enjoy the reputation of “Catholic writer” and wrote A Burnt-Out Case to shatter this false image: “A reputation is like a death mask.” Writing to Evelyn Waugh, who persisted in reading the book as a recantation of Catholicism, Greene denied this, saying it is a study of various shades of belief and unbelief. As an aftermath of The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, Greene had found himself, willy-nilly, the confidant of desiccated wives and anguished priests. He wearied of the role and grew tired of hearing the confessions of the victims of religion. “The vision of faith as an untroubled sea was lost forever,” he says.

Both Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter evince, to their author’s eye, proof of a “splayed” birth between novel and entertainment. Brighton Rock’s secular plot and sacral vision plainly pull in opposite directions, but no such dichotomy is perceptible to the reader of The Heart of the Matter, Greene denies this novel was written to a thesis, but says he betrayed his conception in the execution, for Scobie was intended to illustrate the corrosive effects of pity and pride. “I had written in The Ministry of Fear: “Pity is cruel. Pity destroys. Love isn’t safe when pity’s prowling around.” The character of Scobie was intended to show that pity can be the expression of an almost monstrous pride.” Yet Greene notes that readers exonerate Scobie and persist in regarding him as a good man. The Heart of the Matter is a better book than its author will concede, though Greene locates the source of its power in saying, “Scobie was based on nothing but my own unconscious.”

Greene remarks writing does not become easier with age and that a writer’s middle age is pervaded by ennui and a sense of déjà vu—”it seems to him he has done everything before.” The writer is then liable to become a prisoner of his own method and is “more afraid to read his favorable critics than his unfavorable, for with terrible patience they unroll before his eyes the unchanging pattern of the carpet.” The End of the Affair was a fresh start for Greene, an excursion into first person narrative. He still enjoys its intricate structure. Since then, being a writer with considerable resources, he has made many fresh starts.

Greene is a writer who relies on the subconscious. The plots of It’s a Battlefield and The Honorary Consul originated in dreams. Greene observes, “The unconscious collaborates in all our work: it is a nègre we keep in the cellar to aid us. When an obstacle seems insurmountable, I read the day’s work before sleep and leave the nègre to labor in my place. When I wake the obstacle has nearly always been removed. . . .” He also thinks creativity owes as much to the power of forgetting as to memory. The writer observes, absorbs, forgets; a rich compost of experience is thus laid down and consigned to oblivion until something causes the mud to stir and the half-unconscious, half-conscious process of dredging begins. Though veteran readers will discern the pattern in Greene’s carpet and may find Greeneland a rather confining kingdom with well-defined frontiers, they also find Greene a prolific author with fertile powers of invention. Greene is well-traveled, both in fact and in imagination.


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