New York — With the price of a plane ticket suddenly are rampantly on the rise, someone may declare 1981 the year of the armchair traveler. Isn't it convenient, then, that threee books have arrived in the stores to give as much pleasure as the trip you may now have to forgo to darkest Ohio (forget about Africa).
What's more, Paul Fussell's "Abroad," Horace Sutton's "Travelers," and Destinations," by Jan Morris, though each crossing different frontiers, fit rather companionably together, like the old Grand Tour to London, Paris, and Rome.
In "Abroad" (New York: Oxford University Press, 246 pages, $14.95) Mr. Fussell, professor of English at Rutgers, presents a scholarly but colorful treatise on British literary travel between the world wars. It was the last stage, he asserts, of genuine travel, literary or otherwise, when moving about the earth took stamina, independence, resilience, a sense of humor. Afterward, travel gave way to tourism, the transatlantic liner to the cruise ship, the independent trip to the packaged tour, though the author admits that as far back as 1887 a critic had said: "We go abroad but we travel no longer."
Among other British literary travelrs we meet D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Isherwood and Auden, but no one gets higher marks than the lesser known Robert Byron, who wrote nine travel books before going down on a torpedoed destroyer in the Mediterranean at age 36 in 1941. His classic was "The Road to Oxiana" (1937) which Mr. Fussell calls the "Ulysses" and "The Waste Land" of travel books. Oxiana refers to the remote northeast border Afghanistan shares with Russia, and if the area and the book seem obscure to American readers, "a fact I take to imply serious cultural impoverishment," Mr. Fussell writes, they are well known in England.
In the chapter, "The Passport Nuisance," we learn that the passport came on the scene in 1915, causing shock and scandal among experienced British travelers and putting an end to freewhelming travel forever. Annoyed by the red tape, the eccentric Robert Byron once wrote in the space that requested ANY SPECIAL PECULIARITIES: "Of Melancholy appearance." And in the square reserved for a photo of the passport bearer's wife, Mr. Byron drew a ludicrous cartoon."
Mr. Fussell says it was a distate for post-World War I England that sent Lawrence and Douglas, Huxley and Graves ("I went abroad, resolved never to make England my home again") and later Durrell, Isherwood, and Auden far away. They were impelled "by the conviction that England is uninhabitable because it is not like abroad." They were saying "I hate it here," Mr. Fussell asserts.
In that era, writes Horace Sutton in "Travelers" (New York: William Morrow & Co., 320 pages, $12.50), the first "ugly Americans" were making their mark on Europe. In a revealing piece of travel history hitherto unknown, at least to me , Mr. Sutton describes the Parisian vs. tourist battles of 1926. As background he notes: "To the Europeans the Americans were the worst kind of boorish guests. They were arrogant about the purchasing powr of their dollars. . . . They chewed gum and careened about the Continent flaunting their disdain by pasting valueless European paper currency on their suitcases. And they complained mightily about the prices." Will Rogers wrote in a dispatch: "A bunch of American tourists were hissed and stoned yesterday in Paris, but not until they had finished buying."
"The result of all this ill feeling, finally," Mr. Sutton continues, "was one of the most violent outbursts against Americans abroad ever witnessed on any shore. Embassy stonings and burnings had not come into style as yet, but during the summr of 1926 angry Parisians gathered into mobs at the Place de L'Opera and stormed the sightseeing buses. . . . The worst incident, on July 24, sent a mob of thousands against the police lines."
Mr. Sutton, a syndicated columnist and editorial director of Saturday Review, traces the saga of the American traveler (Paul Fussell would insist on "tourist") from the stagecoach to the space shuttle. And if he does so with hyperbole, with a taste for melodrama, it only makes the armchair voyaging that much more fun. Describing the response to Pan Am's inaugural DC-4 flight to London in 1945, which took only 15 hours, 50 minutes, he writes: "All the world gasped." In his prose, Mr. Sutton's planes, trains, ships are not machines but personalities. Of the liner Liberte, which the French revamped after the war, he says:
"Finally refloated, she became what was probably at the time the best French restaurant in the world. Her dining salon sparkled with the old elan. Spun sugar baskets full of rich petits fours paraded from its bakeshop. Crepes suzette broke out like brush fires in the first-class dining salon, and the caviar thumped onto chilled plates in huge pearlgray globs."
The third leg of this grand tour, Jan Morris's "Destinations" (New York: Oxford University Press, 242 pages, $12.95) is a collection of travel pieces the author first did for Rolling Stone from 1974 to 1979. She writes of faraway destinations like Delhi, Istanbul, and Cairo and of old familiar places like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, but always with beauty, precision, even daring. Who else would say, "Yet I am of the opinion all the same that Manhattan, whose very anme is a byword for the mugging, the fast practice, the impossible pressure and unacceptable vice, has become in its maturity the most truly civilized of the earth's cities." If you haven't the price to get to New York, her piece on the city, "The Islanders" may be the best in the book. Guaranteed: no turbulence, no jet lag, no lost baggage.