Reading is travel – an epic trek, a picaresque pursuit, a lyrical flight – and last year it offered release to those of us still itchy after a daily circuit of the local park. Housebound in London, I reread Dickens and wistfully accompanied his characters on their perambulations through a city that was out of bounds to me. David Damrosch, a Harvard specialist in comparative literature, projected himself further afield: when conference dates in Tokyo and a smattering of European venues were cancelled, he decided to circumnavigate the globe without leaving his library.
Damrosch took his cue from Phileas Fogg, the London clubman who speeds across continents and oceans in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Needing to win a wager, Fogg bribes drivers and pilots to increase their speed and desperately strips wood from a steamship in mid-Atlantic to feed its furnace. Damrosch proceeds at a more leisurely pace, though he occasionally makes weightless associative leaps as if hitching a ride in a hot air balloon.
He starts by trailing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as she strolls through Westminster, then hops sideways to Arnold Bennett’s Clerkenwell. A detour to Baker Street entices him to follow Sherlock Holmes on a “train of reasoning”; whisked along by a notional Eurostar, he emerges in Paris, where a route back to a remembered paradise unexpectedly opens for Proust in the Bois de Boulogne. Subsequent forays take Damrosch through Africa, Asia and Latin America. Omitting Australia, he then heads home to an island off the coast of Maine to complete the record of his imaginary expedition.
This is no round-up of the usual classics, like Harold Bloom’s hieratic inventory of The Western Canon. The Bible is here, but Damrosch treats it as the testimony of migrant workers or persecuted refugees and celebrates its “viral spread” around a world “newly integrated” by Rome, whose empire it undermined. With the same seditious intent, Damrosch decolonises literature. When Keats read Homer, he thought he was voyaging through “realms of gold” and annexing their riches like the explorer Cortés. Damrosch mistrusts such expropriations: he therefore includes poetry by the Aztec victims of the Spanish conquistadors, and applauds Derek Walcott for Creolising Homer’s name when he translates Omeros into “our Antillean patois”.
Joyce compounds languages, but Damrosch commutes between them, and in doing so he rebukes 'ethnic nationalism'
An undertaking such as this risks seeming random, as frantically improvised as Fogg’s itinerary when he misses an onward connection. Damrosch avoids diffuseness by seizing on spatial coincidences. In Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow presents East Africa as a warped replica of Manhattan: the voice of the tribal potentate Dahfu resembles the hum from the electricity substation on 16th Street, and his shamanistic antics recall the expensive mumbo-jumbo of the city’s psychotherapists. Epigrams and puns build instant bridges between epochs and idioms. The 17th-century Japanese poet Bashō bumps into Andy Warhol when a haiku praising him is recited during an episode of The Simpsons; the tribute, Damrosch says, confers on Bashō “an aptly ephemeral immortality: 15 pixels of fame”. A character in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake asks, “Are we speachin d’anglas landage or are you sprakin sea Djoytsch?”, which goads Damrosch to some wordplay of his own. Ireland, he says, is “a land that is at sea”, its insularity dissolved by Joyce’s oceanic Esperanto.
Joyce compounds languages, but Damrosch commutes between them, and in doing so he rebukes “ethnic nationalism, isolationism, and the fear of people or ideas crossing borders”. One of his discoveries is Giambatista Viko, Or the Rape of African Discourse, an academic satire by the Congolese novelist Georges Ngal; convinced that the book needs to be translated, Damrosch has done the job himself. He shares the faith of the Romanian poet Paul Celan, who in looking back at the Holocaust declared that “there remained in the midst of the losses one thing: language”. But for Damrosch, language is never just one thing, since there is always another foreign tongue to study with access to a new literature as his reward, and this multilingual scholar recognises that not all communication is verbal. Selecting Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Dr Doolittle as his 74th book, he regrets that he lacks the good doctor’s “fluency in the languages of horses, eagles and snails”.
Elsewhere, with a frisson of up-to-date alarm, he notices that the storytellers in Boccaccio’s Decameron have quit Florence to escape a pestilence, while the stricken gypsy in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude contracts pellagra in Persia, scurvy in Malaya, leprosy in Alexandria, beriberi in Japan and the Black Death in Madagascar. Is Damrosch himself travelling “around the world in 80 plagues”? He need not have worried, because his narrative abounds in resurrections. Sherlock Holmes is mystically revived by the Tibetan novelist Jamyang Norbu, and the hero of Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility enjoys three successive rebirths. Visiting Tokyo, the poet James Merrill announces that every trip is a reincarnation and resolves that this will be “the one in which I arrange myself like flowers”.
Damrosch’s curriculum is encyclopaedic but at the same time fondly personal. He includes his own snapshots of the pyramids in Egypt, the desert fortress at Masada, and some Mayan temples in the Mexico jungle. A chapter on colonialism is illustrated by a portrait of his parents, who early in their marriage ventured to the Philippines as Anglican missionaries; there, his father learned the language of the Igorot mountain dwellers, with whom he discussed theology, medicine and, of course, the weather. Inheriting this evangelism, Damrosch sees travel as a mental and moral challenge, not Phileas Fogg’s brisk experiment in abbreviating space and accelerating time. Around the World in 80 Books takes us on a tour of the author’s global head, and while expanding our knowledge it enlarges our capacity for fellow-feeling.
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