Travels across space and time

Monday Book Review

October 07, 1991|By William R. Day Jr.

REFRACTIONS: WRITERS AND PLACES. By Robert Packard. Carroll & Graf. 170 pages. $17.95.

AUTUMN is a good time to reflect on our summer vacations. Some of us, of course, couldn't afford one, so we are permitted to reflect on vacations past.

Of course, the sort of vacation we have in mind is one involving travel, and the more distant the destination, the better. These destinations, the places we visit, whether near or far, possess images that are more or less static, beyond the distortions of individual perspective and subject only to the vagaries of time.

Yet when the objective image of a place is filtered through an individual perspective, an ego, it is transformed into a unique image. In a sense, the image of a place that finally emerges in the imagination of the viewer is really a "refraction" of that place's static image, the objective reality of which must forever remain inaccessible.

This optical metaphor of a "refraction" is employed by Robert Packard in his book on travel literature, "Refractions: Writers and Places." Packard, a professor of English at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey and frequent writer on the subject of travel, explains his appropriation of the optical metaphor in this way: "Just as a ray of light bends as it passes obliquely from one medium to another, the image of a physical place passing through the prism of the writer's imagination changes to become a literary place."

Packard's book is a work of traditional literary criticism that considers nine writers and eight places in eight chapters. Only the first, which is probably the most interesting, contrasts the refracted image of a place in the imaginations of more than one writer. The ancient city of Troy is the place; the writers are Homer and Chaucer. Although both authors are concerned with Troy at the time of the Trojan War, Chaucer's Troy is fashioned after medieval England, while Homer's is fashioned after the Greece of about 700 B.C. Moreover, and unlike the seven other writers Packard considers, neither Homer nor Chaucer ever saw Troy. Their Troys were not refractions of an actual model, but products of the imagination alone.

Another chapter concerns Mark Twain and Venice. Something more is involved here than in the other instances, because before the physical place could be transformed into a literary place, a writer had to be transformed into a personality. "Samuel Clemens invented Mark Twain," writes Packard at the outset of the chapter, and, a bit further on, he keenly observes that "Twain's portrait of Venice is a classic example of a journalist who deflects his refractive vision in order to elicit maximum readership." Clemens created Twain, who, in turn, created a particular image of Venice, one that was not exactly flattering but would interest the readers of the publications for which he was a correspondent. Twain may have repudiated Venice, but Clemens returned to Venice twice more after his initial visit in 1867.

The subjects of the six remaining chapters are "Proust's Illiers-Combray," "Byron's Sintra," "Dostoyevsky's Florence," "Irving's Alhambra," "Cervantes' La Mancha" and "Thoreau's Cape Cod."

Throughout, Packard's writing is lucid, entertaining, and flavored with an agreeable touch of humor. He does not come up to the shining examples of modern literary travel writing, such as Paul Fussell's "Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars," but Packard has done an admirable job, and in doing so has moved through a considerable amount of material. In short, "Refractions" is interesting without being challenging. It's worth a look, if for nothing else than the clarity of Packard's writing.

As a final note, it might be worth observing that Packard has considered only the refractions of white males from technologically advanced Western cultures. He has not considered those of women travelers, African-American travelers or travelers from the Third World, nor has he considered any places of the Third World, none of which are in short literary supply. The writings and places of those writers who have specialized in travel literature (Robert Byron, Eric Newby or Paul Theroux, for example) also are left out, as are the refractions of American places as seen by Europeans. Of the many, we need only recall an evocation from "American Notes" by Charles Dickens in which the author, upon dining in Baltimore in 1842, demonstrated his repugnance at being served by slaves:

"The sensation of exacting any service from human creatures who are bought and sold, and being, for the time, a party as it were to their condition, is not an enviable one."

William R. Day Jr. tends bar in Baltimore (where he lives) and 1/2 attends graduate school in Washington.

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