As the British broadcaster Bernard Falk once said, “Americans are rather like bad Bulgarian wine; they don’t travel well.” Perhaps it is with these words in mind that British writer Alain de Botton’s latest book The Art of Travel has been packaged for sale in America. It is a soft deep manila brown without a dust jacket, suggesting a worn and brimming travel journal from a really good bout of wandering. It is a relic from a type of travel that most Americans do not feel that they are particularly good at; the deep, painfully beautiful, achingly artistic, existential, drifting with the sands of time sort of thing. I went to Spain with such a notebook a few years back, determined that when I returned I would have the makings of the great American novel scribbled through it’s pages, in the margins, on the backs of napkins and bullfighting programs tucked in between the sheaves. I think the most interesting aspect of that notebook, if I looked at it now, would be a particularly obscene game of “hangman” my friends and I played on the plane home. It was my need for instruction in this sort of travel that led me to this book.
Unfortunately, The Art of Travel is less a series of ruminations leading to a grand revelation of the ancient pastime of travel than an undirected survey of many great artists and thinkers who traveled significantly, or wrote about travel, or took a trip occasionally or mentioned travel from time to time in their writings. In each chapter, de Botton explores a subject in the context of a trip he once took and an artist who he considers to be his intellectual “guide.” The guides include Flaubert on the exotic, Hopper and Baudelaire on “traveling places (a topic that never defines itself),” German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt on curiosity, Wordsworth on the rural, Van Gogh on art and Ruskin on beauty. De Botton’s technique is to quote heavily from his “guide” and intersperse detailed biographical material and quotations with a summary and musings on a vacation that he himself took. It seems that de Botton has merely corralled all his favorite thinkers as objects for discussion regardless of any other criteria. Some, such as the realist painter Edward Hopper, are surprising and illuminating choices, but most others yield less fruitful discussion to the reader interested in travel. The connection between the intellectual in question and the practice of travel seems tenuous. There is, for example, a lengthy exposition of John Ruskin’s opinions on whether drawing or the taking of photographs is likely to make one happy with nature.
The problem is that de Botton, obviously an intelligent man and a capable writer, falls apart in the presence of his heroes. The first chapter, entitled “On Anticipation,” in which de Botton mostly stands along, is interesting, profound, elegant, and speaks directly to the nature and philosophy of the overarching topic of travel. He examines the process of waiting for a much-anticipated event such as a vacation and how this affects the experience when it arrives. “The first thing to disappear from memory,” writes de Botton, “is just how much of the past we spent dwelling on what was to come.”
However, when de Botton finds himself in the company of greatness he immediately subordinates the topic of the book to a laudatory presentation of the man in question, with connections to travel haphazardly inserted at times. Even worse, the narrative of de Botton’s travel, which served to support and inform his more abstract ideas, serves only as a benchmark of his modesty and capitulation in his struggle to grasp the essence of travel that his “guides” may have. In his narratives he presents himself as a finicky, unimaginative, insufferable man who is compelled by his love for dead intellectuals to embark on trips which in each case inevitably fall short of the great man’s example and become mundane, trite and frustrating. These examples may be meant to illustrate the difficulty of experiencing all that travel offers to the fullest, but someone who is passionate enough about travel to pick up this book will find it difficult to empathize with the character (apparently de Botton himself) who finds himself in Madrid with time to kill and fails to appreciate it because of his “overwhelming wish…to remain in bed.”
The poverty of de Botton’s narratives seem to stem from the fact that once he has stated the main thrust of the work of his “guide” there tends to be very little to say. This is why the section on Hopper succeeds, because Hopper, being a visual artist as opposed to a writer, does not already have a written commentary on the subject of his art. De Botton is able to aptly provide one, but when he writes on others, such as Wordsworth and Flaubert, who have already articulated their sentiments regarding the topic of the chapters, de Botton is forced to spin his wheels, hacking at nothing. More annoying, when he lacks a clear subject, de Botton’s prose becomes overly diligent, pointlessly imagistic and, at times, even ridiculous. The runway crew becomes “the forthcoming men in overalls.” We fly through the sky with the clouds, “our airborne companions.” Could he possibly hope to compliment Wordsworth with the following description of the poet’s beloved Lake District?: “The hills undulated as though they formed part of the backbone of a giant beast that had lain down to sleep and might at any point awake and stand up several miles high, shaking off oak trees and hedgerows like pieces of fluff caught on its green felt jacket.”
This being said, what de Botton has achieved here is not a terrible book. The author, after all, has had time to hone his craft as a highbrow self-help writer with such previous efforts as How Proust Can Change Your Life. The Art of Travel is a pleasant and loving, if not thoroughly comprehensive, review of various artists of the ages. The work of these artists as reproduced in the book is often worthwhile, and the reader will enjoy them. While the book may not satisfy those interested primarily in travel per se, it will appeal to readers with wider artistic and literary interests.