Unseen Places

Letter From Abroad

In Huysmans’ Against the Grain (1884), the precious hero Des Esseintes has “the idea of turning dream into reality, of traveling [from France] to England in the flesh as well as in the spirit, of checking the accuracy of his visions.”  He orders a servant to pack his bags, calls a cab, and stops in a bookshop to glance at Baedeker’s description of modern paintings in London.  On the way to the Gare Saint-Lazare, he has a glass of sherry in the Bodega, swarming with beefy English characters right out of Dickens.  Contemplating the train ride to the coast and the Channel crossing, he repairs to an English tavern near the station.  Soaking up the atmosphere, he asks himself: “Wasn’t he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, food and even cutlery, were all about him?  What could he expect to find over there, save fresh disappointments?”  Finally, convinced that he has already made the long journey in his imagination, “a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience,” he’s content to return home.

In his first travel book, The Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia (1905), Somerset Maugham also argues that

It is much better to read books of travel than to travel oneself; he really enjoys foreign lands who never goes abroad; and the man who stays...

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