Plumping

J.I.M. Stewart

  • Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars by Paul Fussell
    Oxford, 246 pp, £8.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 19 502767 1

Paul Fussell’s aim in this book, he tells us in a preface, is ‘to suggest what it felt like to be young and clever and literate in the final age of travel’. Or, more precisely, what it thus felt like in Great Britain. ‘Because the most sophisticated travel books of the age are British, I have focused largely on them.’

He begins with the Kaiser’s War, since ‘fantasies of flight and freedom’ can be shown to have been endemic in the frozen mud of Flanders, and it is remarkable that Ezra Pound, working snugly on ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ in London, luxuriates in images of tropical repose which ‘parallel those of the front-line mind’. Artists and poets and writers generally show a particular dislike of warfare; Osbert Sitwell sees it as necessarily coincident with a hatred of poetry and a contempt for beauty; it is in the British in particular that D.H. Lawrence judges it to intensify the innate philistinism of mankind in general. So what follows hard upon the end of hostilities is ‘the British Literary Diaspora’. Norman Douglas is in Capri and Basil Bunting in Tenerife and Julian Bell at Wuhan University! Mr Fussell, who has a fondness for what may be termed enumerative criticism, produces a long list of such displacements. And all through the Twenties and Thirties this Sehnsucht remains rampant and the flight goes on – England at peace being even harder to take than England at war. Auden and MacNeice are in Iceland, and then in no time Auden and Isherwood, having already travelled briskly away from one conflict, announce themselves as making a journey towards another. Writers as a body are restless and fidgety for far-off regions. Nigel Playfair’s revival of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera plays for 1,463 nights, and its ‘appealing gestures of geographical escape ... must have made many eyes water and directed many imaginations to ships’ timetables’.

This last observation or speculation may prepare us for the fact that Mr Fussell, having a fairly familiar stretch of literary history on his hands, is likely to prove pertinacious and ingenious in pressing into its interstices. Concomitant with all the attention being given to timetables and maps and the rigging of new frontiers following the Kaiser’s defeat there is to be found in literature a shift from traditional temporal form to spatial form, ‘a concern with current space instead of time or tradition’. There are 31 different place-names in The Waste Land, and ‘spacial works’ are for a time all the go: ‘C.E. Montague’s novel takes the reader Right Off the Map, Eliot invites him to join the ‘Journey of the Magi’, and Elizabeth Bowen allows him to live in The Hotel.’ It is significant that, in what is still the age of the great Cunarders, somebody calls a popular play Outward Bound, and that Yeats, having to find a title for a poem, decides not on ‘Going’ or ‘Proceeding’ but on ‘Sailing’ to Byzantium. There is a like significance in the titles of many of Lawrence’s poems. They are ‘locational’ – like ‘Climbing Up’ and ‘Underneath’ and ‘There is No Way Out’. And the poems themselves tend to be insistently ‘prepositional’, the prepositions having the function (I take it) of shunting us rapidly around. Underline the prepositions (only Mr Fussell does it for you) in, for example, ‘Bavarian Gentians’ and you will get the point at once. And Lawrence is after the same thing, it seems, when he tells Betrand Russell that ‘the greatest living experience for every man is his adventure into the woman.’ A small but momentous journey has been achieved.

Actual journeys abroad now required a passport. Once an optional privilege which could be enjoyed by important people, the passport has become a compulsory nuisance. But Mr Fussell, early launched on this aspect of travel, finds the requirement to be more than that. It is ‘demeaning and shame-making’, particularly so since it has to be furnished with a photograph of the bearer. Here, in fact, is ‘an example of something tiny which has powerfully affected the modern sensibility’. Conducing to ‘anxious self-awareness’ and ‘secret but overriding self-contempt’, it may even have contributed to Eliot’s creating of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. And ‘it would be depressing to estimate the amount of uniquely modern anxiety experienced by the traveller returning to his own country when the passport officer slowly leafs through his book of pariahs searching for the name of the traveller there.’

Whether risking this sort of angst or not, the post-war English resumed travelling as quickly as they could. That they did so in unexampled numbers – unexampled, that is, before the development of that mass tourism upon which Mr Fussell has many hard things to say – is clearly in the main a matter of pent-up demand. Suddenly it was again possible to go where you pleased. If you happened to be a writer, and thus with no fixed place of employment, the going was easier still. Moreover, it was surprisingly cheap – just as it had been in the Victorian period, when, as numerous novels suggest, going to live in Boulogne was a standard resource of persons hard-pressed for cash at home. Mr Fussell tells us that in 1924 Hugh Walpole attended the Beyreuth Festival for ten days at a total cost of three shillings. Much less spectacularly indeed, I myself, a little later, lived for a year in considerable comfort in Vienna on an amount that would have scarcely seen me through a term in an Oxford college. ‘Clever young people,’ Mr Fussell records, ‘could travel for years simply by writing about it.’

All this, being merely a resumption of traditional habits, is of no great interest in itself. What is significant, and effectively at the centre of this in general discursive book, is the presence within the spectacle of elements that are substantially new. Byron is depicted by Max Beerbohm as shaking the dust of England from his shoes, but it is in an elegiac mood that he looks back at Newstead. Milton went to Italy, hoped to go on to Greece, but returned home when things looked bad there. ‘Oh, to be’ and ‘Would I were’ are echoed often enough in English poetry composed abroad. But the writers of the Diaspora leave England because they hate it, and continue (with some significant exceptions) to hate it to the end. The nostos makes no appeal to them. ‘With Lawrence and Douglas and Huxley and Graves,’ Mr Fussell writes, ‘and later, Durrell, Isherwood and Auden, departure is attended by the conviction that England is uninhabitable because it is not like abroad ... An insistent leitmotif of writing between the wars, for both successful and would-be escapees, is I Hate It Here.’ He quotes from a letter written by Cyril Connolly in 1929. ‘I do think that during the war something in this country got killed ... I have plumped against England ... I do feel it is a dying civilisation – decadent, but in such a damned dull way – going stuffy and comatose instead of collapsing beautifully like France.’

Connolly’s fellow Etonian, George Orwell, in a sense plumps for England. Mr Fussell, by assembling in two long columns 56 disobliging adjectives applied by Orwell to aspects of British life from 1919 to 1939, seems to me to oversimplify a complex phenomenon: the love/hate relationship which gave Orwell his entire dynamic and which makes him, next after Lawrence, the most important writer to be considered at any length in the present book. And of Lawrence it can only be said that he moved restlessly round the world almost for the sole purpose of disliking as many places a possible. ‘I love trying things and discovering how I hate them,’ he once wrote to his friend Earl Brewster. It is an entirely just self-appraisal, and that a man so unhappily burdened could command the spirit of place to such an extraordinary degree – should be able, for example, to produce the descriptive passages in Kangaroo – is deeply mysterious.

Mr Fussell, to conclude, suggests himself to me as having a weakness for rather large statements. ‘Baedeker is a better writer than the bulk of Victorian novelists.’ ‘What Ulysses is to the novel between the wars and what The Waste Land is to poetry’, Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana ‘is to the travel book’. ‘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.’ This last, at least, really won’t do. The Diaspora is not a literary phenomenon of the first importance. But it is a very considerable sociological problem. I an sorry that A.J.P. Taylor, who has ventured to express himself as puzzled by it, is therefore judged by Mr Fussell to be ‘dim-witted’ – one of Orwell’s expressions. Mr Fussell, who is quite up-to-date, adds ‘wet’ off his own bat.