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Orientations: an Anthology of East European Travel Writing, ca.1550–2000
Under Eastern Eyes: a Comparative Introduction to East European Travel Writing on Europe
A Bibliography of East European Travel Writing on Europe /
edited by Wendy Bracewell and Alex Drace-Francis

Times Literary Supplement, 3 June 2011

“Little do ye know your own blessedness,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in Virginibus Puerisque, “for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.” The Calvinist in him might more helpfully have pointed out something learnt from the reality of his own travels and acknowledged in, for example, his 1874 essay “On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places”: that the spires of Eldorado, glimpsed at last, are often not just a mild but a socking let-down.

Such short-changing is rife in Wendy Bracewell’s compilation of travel writing and documents gathered from 500 years of east European authorship. Count August Moszyński, a Polish noble travelling through southern France in 1784, includes in his diary the reaction of one of his servants: “‘Are we really in that France which has earned so much praise? I am nonetheless worse off here than I was at home! I was told that everything was so cheap, but for a single meal here it costs me twice my normal wages, which in Warsaw would buy me two meals, allow me to provide for my wife and even save a few florins.’” A few years earlier a Bulgarian Orthodox priest, Parteniĭ Pavlovich, describes the belabouring he receives at the hands of Catholics (though earned by his own lack of tact) on his peregrinations:

In the afore-mentioned Croatia, near to the monastery of Lepavina, I received several blows with a club on my shoulders. In Italian Naples I endured blows and expulsion from the Latin church, having told the priest: non e vero pastore il Pontefice, ma e falso, perche e fato la schisma in chesa de Jesu Christu [sic]. And in Rome and Venice and Florence and Bari I would have suffered the same if I had not left hurriedly.

Money, religion, food, climate: many reasons emerge for disillusion. Eastern travellers are, it seems, as ready as western travellers to expect better treatment from foreigners than they receive. To be disappointed is, disappointingly, human. Many only observe in order to condemn. Sometimes the disappointment is justified: in a piece written 250 years later the blameless Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, on an author tour to the UK in 1990 and under assault by the British weather, describes how he got “so incredibly cold” in Bristol “that during the afternoon I totally lost track of my genitals”.

It’s easy to pounce on disillusion and difficulty in this anthology: they are numerous as its comic fruits. Its justification is less easy to nail down. Dr Bracewell in her introduction asks what she considers a simple question: how does Europe look when viewed from its eastern half? In a sense, that is when her difficulties start. In her selection of perspectives ranging from 1544 (a phrasebook entry to saluting a stranger in Slavonic, and thus discouraging him from taking you prisoner) to 2004 (the excellent Andrzej Stasiuk’s drunken utopian quest to a remote Hungarian village, extracted from On the Road to Babadag), she succeeds in showing that both travel and writing about travel renew the senses, and that history is as much a way for the reader to travel as geography.

Yet the reasoning behind an anthology that concentrates exclusively on east European writing – in order to correct the apparent perceived view that Europe has always belonged to the West, to the Enlightenment, to democracy and freedom, and that the East’s Europeanness was not always taken for granted – seems circular. Our idea of “Europe”, Bracewell writes, has been “created and consolidated in opposition to a series of ‘others’ […] internal others, above all the lands and societies of its eastern margins”. But has it? Her claim that the continent is one-sided is surely not just a view of Europe from a solidly west European perspective, but also from a rather restricted one. If one takes books and writing as exemplary loci of “otherness”, it may be true, for example, that east European literature has been marginalised by the West; but in terms of its popularity and visibility in English-language translation today, east Europe’s fiction and non-fiction probably lags only ten years behind west Europe’s (and if we’re being truly continental and not just Anglocentric there is a far shorter lag in, say, France or Germany, where publishers have almost always been better at translation from the East than those in the UK). Additionally, most if not all of the reason for the delay lies in three-quarters of a century of Communism. As for travel writing per se, it seems unlikely that an anglophone reader who is unfamiliar with Serbian or Ukrainian or Czech travel writers would be any more familiar with their German or Italian or Scandinavian counterparts.

Dr Bracewell suggests that the East’s accounts reveal “the sort of contested relationship with Europe and the West that might be expected”. She may be right: I don’t think I’ve ever read a good piece of travel writing from anywhere that didn’t have a contested relationship, or at least a vivid, even abrasive sense of otherness in relation to the place the writer is describing, or the place he or she has come from, or both – but that opposition doesn’t necessarily rely on either geography or exclusion. If anything, the oppositions and similarities between the countries and regions of Europe surely are, and always have been, the result of linguistic factors and political regimes more than of geography. There is also little discussion in Bracewell’s argument of the third player – central Europe – characterised by Milan Kundera in his 1984 essay The Tragedy of Central Europe, which he argues is not the East as Bracewell would have it, but truly the West, “a West that, kidnapped, displaced, and brainwashed, nevertheless insists on defending its identity”; and nor is much thought given either to the crucial difference in outlook, particularly in the twentieth century, between those who choose to travel and those who are forced to.

Bracewell is at her best when introducing the extracts. Travel writing is, as she says, a fluid genre, and the diversity of her chosen accounts (115 by my count) and her brief contextualising of each piece do full justice to that proposition, as does her historical perspective. Elsewhere her critical writing, especially her efforts in her section headings to map travel writing’s multiple features and functions (“On Travel Writing”, “Exoticism and the Self”, etcetera), can be infuriating. Overall her commentary reads as a homage to the kind of academic writing in which theoretical congestion and obscurantism stand in for clarity and vibrancy. In the nineteenth century for instance she writes that

[w]hile travel abroad sometimes entailed a dispriting confrontation with the gap between circumstances at home and Western achievements, travel writing provided the means to reassert the traveller’s dignity. It was not simply that the narrator stage-managed his or her own dramas of encounter with the world in ways that vindicated the traveller’s cultural competence or qualified claims of Western superiority. The genre itself offered certain compensations.

Dramas of encounter? Cultural competence? In the face of these, and a babbling stream of other conceptual abstractions – “the east European imaginary”, “apodemia”, “domopis” – the genre can hardly not offer compensations. Thankfully her thoroughness, and that of Alex Drace-Francis who has co-edited the anthology’s accompanying comparative volume, have produced a rich and revealing selection. We are reminded by a pseudonymous Serbian writer of the 1930s that our sense of Europe as exhausted is not new, and by the Serb-Hungarian Aleksandar Tišma that postwar central Europe was marked by “constant movement from one uncertainty to another”. We read again that to travel to broaden the mind is foolish, but this time, brilliantly, because “Experiences cannot be collected like stamps. Their raw materials lie latent within us and no one can tell what it is that sets them ablaze, and why” (the Hungarian novelist Deszö Kosztolányi). We see travel writing’s potential to show us our past in the mirror (a Romanian in Istanbul), to retrieve our home self (a Serb who chances on gypsy musicians in Paris), to exhort our neighbours to raise themselves from their cushions (a Hungarian in Italy) – and its potential to provide its own critique. That is a theme taken up by several modern writers, including the Croatian Ivan Kušan, and the Czech Josef Machar in a delicious piece of (self-)mockery entitled “Across the Hatefully Clichéd Alps” which is followed by “Why Write Again About Venice?”

Whatever its changing attitude to itself, travel writing’s diversity hinges on an uncontested subjectivity – and so we can read that to a Corfiot refugee in1546 Londoners resembled in their manners and lifestyle “the French more than others, and for the most part they use their language”, and that less than eighty years later 1620 a Hungarian schoolmaster also arriving in the English capital “was amazed above all at the people’s ignorance of Latin”. (In the same extract, though, we learn that the Tower of London was “built by Julius Caesar” and that the author ended up in Canterbury having mistaken it for Cambridge, so possibly his erudition is not to be trusted.)

Undoubtedly the selections do reveal important asymmetries between east and west Europe, though most are subjective and many simply to do with the continent’s differential development (and could just as easily apply to north and south). Differential development is the reason, for example, why London and Paris are viewed by many writers here as emblematic metropolises, a constant lure for travellers seeking to marvel or to challenge their own loyalties and feel them waver. These are the brand-leaders, the first of the iconic European capitals; but they were not always the magnets they later became. Eastern Europe’s cities once had the power to eclipse: 500 years earlier than the period of this survey, Anna Yaroslavna, the daughter of Yaroslav I the Wise, who knew languages, geometry and astronomy and married Henry I of France in 1051, is said to have written disdainfully home to her father in Kiev after her marriage that by comparison “Paris seems like a distant village”.

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One impression from reading these many accounts is that there is very little sense among the writers that they feel marginalised or excluded by the West. Their reactions are usually either rueful, or robustly sceptical, or frankly inquisitive. One of the best pieces is by the young Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian, a flâneur admiring Paris’s rue de Lappe in 1930 and all of its “surprising human possibilities […] from pornography to romance”. Authentic and hedonistic and free, the street’s spontaneity and decadence make not only Bucharest but the rest of Paris look conventional and provincial.

In the foreword to their companion comparative volume Under Eastern Eyes Bracewell and Drace-Francis, raising again the “contested place” of east European writers in Europe, offer the titles of some east European travel accounts as proof, but I’m not sure why a Pole’s Sketches by a traveller passing through Europe in 1842 or a Bulgarian’s account of How I Glimpsed Europe in 1939 are evidence that the author feels he is writing from outside the symbolic continent. Equally Drace-Francis’s “neutral” geographical definition of “east European” in his opening essay, “Towards a Natural History of East European Travel Writing”, supplies very little sense that Communism is above all the reason for having the distinction uppermost in our minds, here and now, and is not much more enlightening than his definition of travel as “organised, methodised movement”. Other contributors have valuable things to say about specific countries and writers, especially writers. Andi Mihalache’s essay on the Romanian scholar Nicolae Iorga (1871–1940) and Diana Georgescu’s essay on the short-lived Sebastian (1907–1945) both illuminate the territory and biography of their subjects, showing in the process how it is usually more interesting to explore the reasons, cautions and intensity of the pleasure (and melancholy) that travel affords by actually doing it.

The last volume of the three, a 500-page country-by-country bibliography, will be invaluable to students of reportage and travel writing from the area Bracewell and Drace-Francis have chosen, and together the three volumes suggest a determined ambition to start bringing to a new readership writers whom many anglophone readers will not have heard of. For that the editors should be applauded, more than for a critical approach that is stuck inside one of the dreariest corners of the academy when it ought to be out on the open road – where, as Nikos Kazantzakis notes, “things a thousand times repeated startle you as if seen for the first time”.

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