The Travels of Marco Polo
The book one generally encounters under the title The Travels of Marco Polo was, in fact, written by the traveler’s one-time cell-mate, Rustichello da Pisa in the Old French he used for romances. This volume, quite likely preserved only due to Messer Marco’s imprisonment, though from what must have been copious notes, enjoyed some circulation and a good many differing manuscripts with various titles are extant. The question is why it was not even more influential as it was clearly the most accurate and detailed account of the East during the second half of the Middle Ages.
So very many of the marvels Marco tells are true, and the bits of myth and folklore that are reported as fact, generally in explicitly second-hand testimony, are themselves fascinating. Strikingly open-minded and tolerant, he makes a convincing case for Kublai Khan’s being the greatest emperor in history.
Perhaps because he was no writer, apart from his openness, his text is generally egoless. The violent death of his comrades, a lengthy illness, a desert trek of the greatest rigor, none of these occupy more than a line. He is focused on the facts. Unfortunately, this orientation (and, it may be, the “as-told-to” form as well) leads to a book with no artful style whatever. It is as though his notes had been hastily strung together by a computer program, yet their inherent interest is such that the result is compelling reading.
The Innocents Abroad [Twain]
Though Mark Twain’s ticket was paid by the newspapers for which he wrote, his party was an early group tour. The age of the old-style “grand tour” for upper-class men ended with the growth of the middle-class and the coming of railroads and commercial agencies like Cook’s to serve the new market for recreational travel. The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s account of his trip, was a best-seller as a mass audience began to relish foreign travel, though some did so only vicariously. It not only provided the equivalent of a set of stereopticon slides, but the exotic sights came with a narration bubbling over with recognizably American jokes.
Twain’s subtitle The New Pilgrims’ Progress nicely suggests the replacement of the old Protestant ethic with consumerism while calling attention to several of the book’s governing oppositions: old and new, European and American, spiritual and worldly. The author ups his level of irony an extra notch in the Swiftian passage in Chapter 26 in which he speaks in the voice of an Italian returned from a visit to the United States, telling an incredulous audience of America’s modern farming methods, but also noting that, in this peculiar land across the sea, the people have the “effrontery” to conduct the affairs of government themselves and “you might fall from a third story window three several times, and not mash either a soldier or a priest.” He never fails to be amused at the abundant relics enshrined in Catholic churches, and he has a nice set-piece that moves from a description of the horrors of the Coliseum to the tortures of the Inquisition. His persona of the far Westerner who can know nothing of art oscillates between the comic rube and the child who points out that the emperor has no clothing.
Though the trip was billed as “The Grand Holy Land Pleasure Excursion” Twain claimed to find it more like a funeral procession due to the piety and advanced age of his fellow travelers. He says they would sometimes stray as close to sin as dominoes when in desperate need of recreation, but he found a few kindred spirits he liked to call “the boys,” with whom he could steal grapes after sneaking off to Athens in defiance of a quarantine.
The Road to Oxiana [Byron]
Byron’s marvelous book, first published in 1937, might be called the first modern travel book (discounting the antiquarian preference for Smollett’s Sentimental Journey). Byron’s narration, dramatic though it be in its outlines, virtually always focuses, as the traveler does, on the accidental near-at-hand, the curiosae of every day abroad. His prose, itself a marvel, can make a spectacle of a plain. James Knox’s biography Robert Byron provides plenty of entertaining anecdotes of Bryon as a aesthete bound to shock. One sample will suffice: in Russia Byron’s Intourist guide doubted Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays saying they never could have been composed “by a grocer from Stratford-upon-Avon” provoking Byron to reply, “They are exactly the sort of plays I would expect a grocer to write.”
His observations, reported conversations, and profound ironies are all delightful. His formal innovations brought a Modernist sensibility to travel writing with his use of fragments, ephemera, and documentary material. He provides one of the noblest jusfications for travel, to him a “spiritual necessity,” in First Russia, Then Tibet: “Yet for some persons there exists an organic harmony between all matter and all activity, whose discovery is the purpose of their lives and whose evidence, being inexhaustible, can only be selected by the good judgement and perpetual curiosity of the individual . . . He can know the world, in fact, only when he sees, hears, and smells it.” For some readers it will be enough recommendation that Bruce Chatwin regarded The Road to Oxiana as “a sacred text.”