Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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July 2002

Here and There

Both examine travel, but only one takes off

by Alain de Botton
Hamish Hamilton, 2002

The Art of Travel is a rare gem—a book that entertains, enlightens and stimulates. Alain de Botton takes the everyday subject of travel and uses it as a launching pad to create a unique and delightful philosophical investigation. These interlinked essays and musings consider not the where, but the why and how of travel: What motivates us to travel? What do we get out of it? How can we enhance our appreciation of beauty? What does it mean to go home? To explore these questions, De Botton draws on his own travel experiences, and on the work of writers and artists, both well-known and obscure.
De Botton writes about the reality of travel, as he confesses to a day in Madrid when he felt like staying in bed rather than appreciating masterpieces, and the row over a crème brûlée that rudely infringed on a balmy evening in Barbados. He points out that, wherever we go, we bring our imperfect selves with us. He laments the lack of opportunity for true discovery and exploration in an age when everything has been documented and given star ratings in a guidebook. He reflects on the role of art in our appreciation of beauty, and considers the transformative power of landscape. He ponders the exotic and the familiar.
The author is a joy to read. He writes with eloquence and intelligence while remaining warm, human and funny. This book is utterly infused with his own personality. He is engagingly honest about his failings and foibles, and sets out his ideas with enthusiasm and humility.
The book itself is as fresh and original as its contents. The little hardback comes in an unusual and pleasing format, with beautifully designed, creamy pages, illustrated chapter openings and reader-friendly typography. And what childlike delight in reading a book with pictures! The author unself-consciously includes his holiday snapshots alongside the works of Turner and Van Gogh. He treats us to a photograph of his bedroom, some clouds, his tour guide. The book would work without them, but the pictures are charming and enlivening, and they do enhance and explain the writer’s ideas in ways that words could not.
This is a book of modest aspirations, and yet it achieves so much. If you would like to bring an extra dimension to your summer holiday this year, pack this book along with your beach novels—it will stay with you long after your tan has faded. CORFU** by Robert Dessaix Scribner, 2002 Like The Art of Travel, Corfu is a small, beautifully designed hardback, and it deals in part with similar themes: what it means to travel, and to go home; whether going abroad is a search or an escape. It is, however, a far less illuminating and less enjoyable read. Robert Dessaix is a well-respected Australian writer and broadcaster. His first novel, Night Letters, received critical acclaim, and is an intriguing, unusual piece of writing. Corfu is disappointing by contrast. The book is narrated by an unnamed Australian actor, who has been living in London and has just arrived in Corfu, fleeing his sometime lover William. On an impulse, he rents a house from one Kester Berwick, who is away for two months on undisclosed business. Our narrator’s motives for doing so are unclear, even to himself. Gradually, he is drawn into Kester’s expat circle, and into Kester’s life. He riffles impertinently through letters, photographs and writings, trying to put together the jigsaw of Kester’s life as he reflects on his own, and in particular on his frustrating relationship. Kester, it turns out, is also a gay man from Adelaide’s theatrical circles, although from an earlier era. Unfortunately, though, we are not endeared either to Kester or to our narrator, which makes it difficult to maintain interest in their stories. The relationship with William seems a non-starter from the beginning. It is hard to see why these two men are even interested in each other, beyond William’s good looks and disarming grin. Dessaix is an intellectual writer, and loads the novel with telling parallels and literary references, but it sometimes reads like notes for an English degree. He wants us to interpret his narrator’s life through the lenses of Homer, Sappho, Chekhov and Cavafy, but then insists on telling us how to do so, leaving little space for the reader. This novel ends up feeling like a slight work trying to be a profound one.

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