A delightfully aimless, somewhat rueful collection of nine essays on places visited and friends lost.
Novelist/memoirist Delbanco (The Lost Suitcase, 2000, etc.; Writing/Univ. of Michigan) is a writer’s writer, always in search of a fresh story, turn of phrase, or book to read—indeed you can read his essays in great part for the gallery of titles he lists in each. He titles his own collection after a phrase from Baudelaire (“n’importe où hors du monde”) and begins with an old-fashioned defense of imitation as “the route—not perhaps the only route, but a well-traveled one—to originality.” Writing, he believes, is an act of discovery, recounting everything from the epic movement of people to a personal transformation. In the eponymous essay, Delbanco regrets the “wide-eyed and improvisational” style of such intrepid early travel writers as Marco Polo or Mary Kingsley, who truly ventured out to discover terra incognita. By contrast, he finds, modern travel writing has more to do with recovery: “the writer reports on information gained or innocence long lost.” Modeling himself after the earlier form in “Letter from Namibia,” Delbanco recounts a visit he made as a young man in the late 1960s to an isolated African farm, diligently cataloguing the plethora of curious animals, the daily workings of the farm, and the personalities he met. “Northern Lights” ambles through literature by writers such as Dinesen, Conrad, and Nabokov, who found their voices by delving into raw and unfamiliar worlds. “The Dead” contains cameo appearances by several deceased mates; Delbanco describes his friendship with writer John Gardner, as well as a hilarious 1973 luncheon with James Baldwin and his flamboyant entourage in Provence. “On Daniel Martin” is a close reading of John Fowles’s novel, while “Strange Type” meditates on the richly ambivalent meanings offered by inadvertently transposed letters. Overall, the collection makes up in quirkiness what it lacks in cohesion.
A Guide Bleu for the literary armchair.