Novel destinations, and the fiction to match

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By David G. Allan

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the May 2003 issue of Good Reading Magazine as David Allan and Kate Rope traveled from Bangkok, Thailand, through Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States. You can sign up for David’s CNN column, The Wisdom Project, here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject

BANGKOK — Having just finished a trip cutting a giant loop through Europe, my fiancée, Kate, and I are paring down our belongings for our next journey — to India. We want to take very little in order to be light on our feet, free to run for busses, sit atop trains, ride in rickshaws, and stroll through forts, temples and caves. We’re down to the bare necessities and it’s a light load…except for the books.

Not counting our guide books we have a reading pile that includes E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (on the off chance we make it up to Nepal), V. S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, and the biggest of them all, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, weighing in at 1,474 pages. And Kate keeps pulling me out of bookstores, where I am still hoping to score Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. So much for running for busses.

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Our two-month adventure in India is perhaps the most ambitious attempt, of many, to incorporate good literature with travel. Books have the power to ship you from your armchair to a foreign land, but when you bring a destination’s books to the destination, you add a new level of awareness on top of the travel experience itself. And the way I see at it, if you aim to read through the cannon anyway, why not do it when you’re in a book’s most appropriate setting. If you’re going to read War and Peace wouldn’t it be ideal to read it while visiting Russia? If you want to read Moby Dick why not at sea?

To participate in this great experiment here’s all you have to do: After you’ve picked your next holiday spot, purchased the tickets and arranged your accommodation, the final task is literature homework. Find good books and good authors (not just any destination-set book is worth reading, obviously) and pick among the best. If you need help with titles, ask around, consult travel guides and try the web. But doing your homework is essential. After a hasty purchase of Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, for example, I found out the characters don’t arrive in the title city until the last few pages. And get your volumes before you leave, because you can’t count on being near an English-language bookstore or finding anything but Jackie Collins at the airport.

I make a habit of traveling by the book. During several drives across America I’ve packed along Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig and, my favorite, William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways. I’ve made literary pilgrimages to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts and Henry Miller’s house in Big Sur, California to read some favorite passages in the quiet of the wood. While living in Glasgow, Scotland I waded through Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. And I experienced perhaps the most rewarding synthesis of literature and destination by joining a circle in Dublin that read aloud and discussed James Joyce’s Ulysses, led by the author’s own nephew.

The rewards of traveling by the book are two-fold. The initial benefit goes to the reader who is traveling. The actual sights, sounds, smells, tastes and people of the place where the fictional action unfolds help the plot spring to life. But the greater reward is reaped by the traveler who is reading. For him or her, the tourist veil is lifted and the travel takes on a new level of historical and psychological context, the kind only found through good books.

The rewards of traveling by the book are two-fold. The initial benefit goes to the reader who is traveling. The actual sights, sounds, smells, tastes and people of the place where the fictional action unfolds help the plot spring to life. But the greater reward is reaped by the traveler who is reading. For him or her, the tourist veil is lifted and the travel takes on a new level of historical and psychological context, the kind only found through good books.

My recent European jaunt was part of a year of travel, a luxury which I felt came with the burden of doing the most I could to understand the places I was passing through. While I sometimes plan my holiday reading as an escape, this time it was more of a traveler’s imperative. Before arriving in London I assembled a border-hopping reading list that nearly cost me a fortune in baggage overweight. It included: Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (Ireland), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (France), Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (Spain), Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (Northern Africa), Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Prague), and John Irving’s A Widow For One Year (Amsterdam). The choosing of these titles was purely subjective, of course. Other Europe-titles may spring to mind immediately, but these books had been collecting dust on my reading list.

Travel makes you a better reader

My fiancée, Kate, read A Widow For One Year a few years ago and had never been to Amsterdam. Reading the novel, she envisioned the city’s famed red light district through John Irving’s eyes. Arriving in Amsterdam, she anticipated a charming neighborhood of debauchery with cobblestone streets, windows into rooms of antique boudoir furniture, and tastefully dressed ladies. My red light district, as I read the novel in Amsterdam, looked just as it does right now. With my imagination clinging to the actual prostitutes, sitting bored in their neon-lit and barely-furnished rooms, I felt my reading experience was more authentic and made the novel more realistic for me. When the narrative traveled along the canal-strewn streets of Amsterdam, it was easy for me to follow it there.

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When reading, the imagination is constrained by what is already known to the reader. Having never been to, say, Tasmania, if I read a book set there, my conception is limited to the book itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing (and I recognize the argument that it’s a good thing), but had I actually been to Tasmania, I (as the reader) bring something to the reading experience that’s not on the page. I have the author’s Tasmania as well as my own Tasmania and clearly I get more from having both than if I only had one.

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Before reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being I had no conception of Prague. But reading the novel (which is light on descriptions of that beautiful city) while staying in Prague, gave me a real setting in which to place the novel’s characters and their actions. This genuine backdrop gave the novel an added dimension and I enjoyed it more because I shared an image with Milan Kundera. It doesn’t make the novel itself better, but it does improve the reading experience. The characters walk through the city, go in and out of houses, stroll parks and plazas. Without knowing Prague I would have invented a Prague (no doubt based on some personal conception of an Eastern European capital) in which to place the characters. When you read a city’s novel in that city, you see something more that what’s on the page.

Getting off a ferry from Spain onto the hectic streets of Morocco was an invigorating culture shock of Islamic calls to prayers, mosques, kasbahs and labyrinthine medinas. No novel could have been a better compliment to our African side trip than A Sheltering Sky because our own experiences mirrored it so closely. The novel follows an American couple in North Africa who are a bit overwhelmed by the place. And Paul Bowles couldn’t find a more sympathetic audience than we, two young Americans a bit overwhelmed with our trip through Morocco. The more we saw of the country, the more engrossed we became in the novel because of this symbiosis we felt with it. Although I was fascinated by Morocco’s architecture, history, culture and religiosity, some of my finest memories of that leg of the journey are of reading A Sheltering Sky aloud to Kate on the balcony of our hotel in Casablanca and in a blue-tiled room in Marrakech.

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The reading rewards of travel are countless. Every time you come across an allusion to some city or country, the reference is largely lost on you if you haven’t been there. In An Area of Darkness, V. S. Naipul compares old Calcutta to London. I haven’t been to Calcutta yet but I knew London well enough to imagine the comparison. Had I never been to London, the reference would have meant nothing. If I told you the hotel I’m staying at here in Bangkok looks like it belongs in Cuba, the allusion loses its power if you’ve never been to Cuba.

There are other small benefits to combining reading with traveling. By reading A Widow For One Year in Amsterdam I was able to ask my host to translate a bit of Dutch from the novel. When I read Trainspotting, the nearly-incomprehensible written brogue was much easier for me because I was hearing it (and having it repeated to me) all the time. While reading Angela’s Ashes in Ireland I was able to pick up books in any bookshop on Irish myths to give more background on Frank McCourt’s beloved tales of Cuchulain and Finn McCool.

Reading makes you a better traveler

In the cafés, pensions and plazas of France, Kate and I read Tender is the Night, which begins and returns to the French Riviera, aloud to one another. It was our television; all the entertainment we needed. And by the time we reached the Cote d’Azur, near Monaco, we couldn’t wait to lie on the same rocky beaches where Dick and Nicole Diver entertained themselves and their fabulous friends.

Of course the French Riviera today is not the place it was when the Divers hosted decadent dinner parties 80 years ago. Gunked up with modern hotels and touristy restaurants and shops, it can be homogeneous and dull. And we might have skipped it altogether had we not read the book. But, on the boardwalks of Nice and Cannes, with Fitzgerald’s descriptions in our heads, we had the patience to look for the occasional architectural dinosaur, an art deco house or grand pier awning, seeking out the reminders of the area’s glory days. Without that perspective, we could have easily written the area off as overrated; with it, the cities regained their romance.

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Many of our Moroccan experiences were not only enhanced, but were at times explained, by Paul Bowles’ descriptions and analysis in The Sheltering Sky. We felt like Kit and Port Moresby, stranded in a new culture, far from the familiar and both seduced by and fearful of its foreignness. The book made our trip more real. It gave us the vocabulary we were searching for and the cultural underpinnings that put our two weeks there into perspective. Luckily we avoided the fates of our literary companions (I won’t give away their sad fortunes), but when I think back on Morocco, with its mysteriously-cloaked locals, engulfing bazaars and stunning rocky landscapes, I dreamily mix and match our own trials with Kit and Port’s.

During a merry period of hibernation over Christmas in Prague, I devoured several books, the best being Czech-born Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As much as we liked the city, we felt a bit closed off from it, partly by choice and by cold and partly because we didn’t speak one word of the language. If I hadn’t read Kundera, Prague would have passed into my memory as little more to me than another beautiful stop on the itinerary.

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What goes on behind locals’ doors? What do they worry about? What brings them joy? As a tourist, or even a traveler (a title which implies a greater commitment to local understanding rather than escapism, though certainly the terms are fuzzy and subjective) I cannot know. Even if I lived in Prague for months, or years, my understanding might still be obscured by expat paradigms and the inaccessibility inherent in a cultural divide. But Kundera bridged that gap and gave me insight I could never find in my travel guides or even on a bar stool chatting with a local. Travelers glean things and make assumptions (often wrong ones) about the natives that surround them, but they are fumbling in the dark. A destination-specific novel is a candle in the darkness.

The main characters in Unbearable live through the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The following two decades of Communism were a painful and transforming time in the country’s history. A travel guide can give a litany of dates and events but can’t convey a sense of what it felt like to be there. A good novel does exactly that. Having read this introspective tale set among those times, I have seen Prague (as close as I’ll come anyway) as a local.

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Angela’s Ashes, the Pulitzer-winning memoir of Frank McCourt’s coming of age in Limerick Ireland, is so famous it needs no further explanation. I read it when it first came out and I was a middle school literature teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. Reading it again in Ireland, where I could match up places with stories, made our loop through the Emerald Isle all the more delightful. While we were in Limerick, where McCourt grew up, we took the Angela’s Ashes tour, which takes you to several locales described in the book. While the tour itself was skippable (the guide only quotes, and misquotes, from the book as you walk) it was fun to see McCourt’s school, church and family houses. One night we had a few pints of Guinness at South’s Pub, where a young McCourt was often sent to retrieve his drunken father. And when we were in Dublin I made sure to stop at the Grand Post Office and see the statue of the legendary hero Cuchulain that the young McCourt marveled at as a boy. It’s still there!

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Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises made it possible for me to get the gory ringside perspective of Spanish bullfighting, a “sport” I was unwilling to patronize myself while we drove through Spain. For the traveler, reading The Sun Also Rises gives you an outsider’s view of post-war Spain as well as the best writing about bullfighting anyone has ever penned. Had I gone to an actual ring I might have been disappointed that it lacked the drama and weight of Hemingway’s reporting. And while we missed the running of the bulls in Pamplona, I still had the novel’s account of the madness. We did visit San Sebastian and Madrid, both of which are in the novel and were favorite spots of Hemingway himself, but I also got more for my travel experience because I read a novel that showed me something we didn’t see ourselves in those places.

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When you make a point to explore them, literary crossovers are numerous and fun. In Paris we made a point to have cocktails in Hemingway’s favorite watering hole, Harry’s New York Bar, and sip coffee in a favorite coffeehouse of his and Fitzgerald’s, Les Deux Maggots. In Spain I made a treasure hunt for statues in honor of poets and perused the book vending machines found in subway stations. In Dublin I traced some of the route of Ulysses (which is the only novel I know with its own holiday: Bloomsday, on June 16) and took the city’s fun and fact-filled Literary Pub Crawl. Edinburgh has a Literary Pub Tour that’s even better, and traces the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

You can, with enough homework, make any destination a literary immersion or pilgrimage. My best friend once did a bleak reading of a German translation of Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front while standing in a WWII trench on a cold and overcast winter’s day in Flanders. That’s dedication to the cause.

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“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” wrote Mark Twain (who also a wrote a book titled Following the Equator, which I hope to one day match up with an equal itinerary of my own). And I would say reading shares that distinction with traveling. Combining the two, therefore, is literary enlightenment.

CNN’s Editorial Director of Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science), plus The Wisdom Project column. This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.

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