Missing tables, uncovering origins of civilization. Books by two intense travelers

Barbarian in the Garden, by Zbigniew Herbert. Translated by Michael March and Jaroslaw Anders. San Diego, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest Book. 180 pp. $7.95, paper. The Spirit of Mediterranean Places, by Michel Butor. Translated by Lydia Davis. Marlboro, Vt.: The Marlboro Press. 147 pp. $15.95 These two remarkable travel books have had a slow journey to the English-speaking world. ``Barbarian in the Garden'' was first published in Poland in 1962; ``The Spirit of Mediterranean Places'' in France in 1958. The delay is surprising, because the authors have long since arrived. Zbigniew Herbert's poetry, popular in Poland in the '50s and translated into English in the '60s, had by the '70s won him international prominence; Michel Butor has for decades been acclaimed a major novelist and critic.

The delay is also surprising because the essays are stunning. It is hard to imagine two more intense travelers than Herbert and Butor. Their journeys -- and essays -- have the tenor of a quest.

``Barbarian in the Garden'' was the culmination of Herbert's first trip to Western Europe. At one level, of course, he knew quite well what he would find. As these 10 essays make clear, he is highly educated (he has studied economics, law, and philosophy), but his knowledge had been bookish; he went west to respond for himself. ``One must be free,'' he says, confronting Dorian architecture, and ``forget the photographs, diagrams, guides, and lectures....''

Herbert obeys this imperative. At Lascaux, Siena, Arles, Orvieto, he studies what is before him and tries to see things anew. He asks the unexpected. In Chartres, ``instead of writing about stained glass modulating light as Gregorian chant modulates silence,'' he writes fascinatingly about the cathedral's construction, ``an accountant's view of the Gothic.'' Before paintings, churches, history, Herbert ponders what civilizations have made of the human condition, and reaches for his own judgment.

In one sense, Herbert's quest is intensely personal. If he longs to apprehend Western culture, it is partly because he feels he is an outsider -- the barbarian in the garden, as it were. To apprehend the culture would be both to understand it and to seize it, to understand it so fully that he could possess it.

Yet the writer's voice is detached; the private life is absent. That this is intentional we may infer from Herbert's essay on Piero della Francesca, his favorite painter and ``one of the most impersonal, supra-individual artists in history.'' Herbert's detached style can make for dryness. But fired by a moral issue, it generates power: Two moving narratives (about the Templars and the Albigensians) draw energy from his hatred of police-state tactics, a hatred acquired firsthand, we may guess, in Poland during the war and after.

Travel for Herbert is a historical endeavor; the past is as living as the present. This is equally true of Butor, who traverses centuries as easily as he crosses borders.

Travel is a major interest for Butor. He has written innovatively of journeys and treated the theme in literary essays. ``The Spirit of Mediterranean Places'' (``Le g'enie du lieu'') includes six short pieces (the best are on C'ordoba, Istanbul, Salonika) and two powerful essays -- one on Delphi and the other on Egypt, where he spent eight months teaching French.

In ``Egypt,'' Butor struggles to apprehend a culture immensely different from his own, yet related. There is an urgency here, partly intellectual and partly moral -- a need to come to terms with European culture's negative impact on modern Egypt. Like Herbert, Butor is erudite but determined to see things anew; he questions the monuments as if he were the first to do so. And like Herbert, he responds to what is there; he is highly analytical, but looks hard before he speculates.

Through specifics -- physical realities, artifacts -- Butor draws us into his experience and analysis. In Minya, needing a table -- mainly for his work, reading and writing, but also for eating -- he finds he cannot buy one but must have one made. Through this fact, he explores Egyptian culture (a culture that has no need of tables), and the moral ambivalence of his role. To speak of a table, he says, is ``to posit an entire civilization of a certain kind, an entire area of history''; to introduce such an object into a culture where it is alien -- to impose a European-style education -- is to cause ``a gigantic ... disarray even in the most everyday behavior.''

For Butor, writing is part of the travel experience. Long, associative sentences suggest the simultaneity of experience, the complexity of places. In ``Delphi,'' the language is purposely dense, reflecting Pindar. The style can build intensity; it can also prove aggravating, as when it seems to impose intensity or create obscurity. Lydia Davis's translation doesn't always serve Butor well, adding, it sometimes seems, to the obscurity.

Herbert's and Butor's journeys are quests to uncover their own cultural origins and, beyond that, the origins of civilization itself. These essays, demanding and wonderful, convey a profound sense of places and the people who have inhabited them, what they have created and what they have destroyed.

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