Two masters of the travel essay. Waspish brilliance, springy journalism

Apple's Europe: An Uncommon Guide, by R.W. Apple Jr. New York: Atheneum. 264pp. $14.95. Among the Cities, by Jan Morris. New York: Oxford University Press. 410 pp. $17.95. Travel writers have various images of their readers. Some picture a reader curled up on a plump ottoman -- or more traditionally, the armchair after which this type of traveler is named -- placidly following the dauntless author as he haunts lost capitals or pokes through seamy bazaars for the benefit of his audience.

Others see him or her as an equal who appreciates lobster, wild-mushroom salad, and Romanesque churches as much as anyone else, who is perfectly capable of jetting himself to the world's four corners.

Modern travelers, it seems, fall mostly into the second category. When the world is open to everyone, what does the literary travel writer do?

``Among the Cities,'' by Jan Morris -- which contains 37 essays by perhaps the world's finest travel essayist -- reveals the answer: Instead of traveling farther outward, she turns inward.

Over a period of about three decades, Jan Morris has been to more places -- some pretty far-flung -- than almost anyone else. We may have been to some of these places, too, but not the way Morris has.

It's as if a novelist were to take as her subject a friend you have known for years. In the novel your friend is familiar yet strange -- thrown into relief, floodlit, heightened, unnaturally distinct in his individuality.

Thus, in this volume, Manhattan seems scarcely less arresting than Alexandria, Egypt. ``Alexandria'' (written in 1966) captures the city's history and its decline: ``The marble serenity has vanished to be replaced by a pungent but violent new energy -- the energy of Egypt itself, restless and inconsequential, full of humour but never at peace, like the fevered state of irritable excitement that overcomes people during a sandstorm.''

But ``New York'' (1979) has its offerings, too: the polar bear in Central Park -- ``I am told he is a character of weird and forceful originality'' -- the mad ladies bathing in fountains, its restlessness and nervousness.

``Every city has its heyday, the moment when its purpose is fulfilled and its spirit bursts into full flower...,'' says Morris. New York's was between the Great Depression and the end of World War II: ``No wonder nostalgia booms on Broadway. Those were the days of the American innocence, before responsibility set in, and every dry and racy old song of the period, every new Art Deco furniture boutique, is an expression of regret.''

This is not the lightest of light reading. Illuminating anecdotes and fey observations float within lyrical descriptions of the soul of the place. You need to be in a contemplative mood to let these weighty, intricate sentences flow over you.

It's hard to find a short quotation from Morris. One sentence flows so freely into another that it seems to rip the fabric somehow not to quote whole pages. I offer my favorite short one, however, from ``Mrs. Gupta Never Rang,'' on Delhi (1975): ``Indians love to reduce the prosaic to the mystic.''

Morris's essays cover a broad range -- from Houston (1982) to Darjeeling (1970), from Berlin (1957) to Lima (1963), to pick some random examples -- and all have been printed elsewhere, in books mostly unobtainable now.

Many of the places covered have changed -- Beirut (1956), for instance, which Morris captures in its pre-tragic days of giddy hedonism. But that is the nature of the literary travel writer, not to tell you where to go and what to see, but to capture one precise time in one precise place.

Nothing could be further from Morris's waspish brilliance than the springy, practical style of journalism. One of the very best exemplars of this school is R.W. Apple, who writes for the New York Times; a number of his essays have been compiled in ``Apple's Europe: An Uncommon Guide.''

After reading Morris's book, you almost feel you don't really need to go anywhere, having already been there via the fourth dimension, as it were; after Apple's, you want to rush over to Europe immediately. And you know exactly where and what you want to eat when you get there.

Apple writes in a good-humored, witty, and practical way for the fairly sophisticated person who likes to dine well and who has already seen the basic sights. Lovers of art and food will find this a particularly useful book.

His is an expatriate's view: very American, but very much at home in Europe, appreciative in a comfortable, cosmopolitan way. It's really a guidebook, but it is written with such skill and charm that should you sit down and read it from cover to cover -- as this reader did -- you'd find it perfectly satisfying.

The first job of a critic is to convince you that his opinion is more worth listening to than your Aunt Aggie's. Apple, who seems to have enjoyed himself all over Europe, inspires absolute confidence. I would love to take his Piero della Francesca tour -- Arezzo, Perugia, Monterchi -- or go to one of the shops in England that sells real Cheddar cheese....

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Two masters of the travel essay. Waspish brilliance, springy journalism
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today