Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Way of the World (NYRB), review

Although The Way of the World centers around two young male travelers—one, the scribe; the other, the philosopher-artist—On the Road it is not. The epigraph to World gives a clue to the motives behind why the men in this book travel: "I shall be gone and live, or stay and die." (Shakespeare) This is restlessness at its most basic. There is no choice but to seek.

Nicholas Bouvier, author of the book and journals on which World is based, and his companion, artist Thierry Vernet, set out from Geneva in 1953, in the shadow of a world war that left its bloody prints all over Europe. They drive east in a beat-up Fiat heading for the Kyhber Pass into Afganistan. They plan to finance their trip as they go: through Bouvier’s writing (in Istanbul he sells a "long piece on Lapland, with photos ... for fifteen lirettes.") and with sales of Thierry’s paintings and drawings—many of which, happily, illustrate the book—at the seemingly infinite village markets on their route. They earn enough only for the roughest accommodations, and so they get by on favors, bribes, and no small amount of luck. 

And music. One night they stop at a gypsy encampment in Bojogevo, Serbia. After rounds of wine and smoked fish, Bouvier records the gypsies as they play, "crude, rousing, vociferous songs ... of ordinary life, poaching, small windfalls, the winter moon and empty stomachs." Upon waking, Bouvier plays the recording back for the gypsies and "it was excellent: their voices timid at first, soon lapsing into rustic bellows, irresistibly gay. They listened with their eyes closed in pleasure, smiles on their hatchet faces. Bojogevo had never heard its music issuing from a machine." How better to make new friends?

In addition to his knack for winning people over, Bouvier writes remarkably well about place. Take, for example, Belgrade. This is how it comes to life in summer: "It is a morning city: at six o'clock the municipal watering cart sweeps away the refuse left by the market-garden trucks and the shops' wooden shutters bang open; at seven, all the cafes are jumping." Further, it is a town "where horses bore children's names.” And when Bouvier would sit down in a cafe to write, the owner "would bring a pot of purple ink and a rusty pen."

The strength of Bouvier's prose is the care with which he lays out a double commentary both on what he sees and how he interprets it. And it's this intimacy to The Way of the World that hooks the reader, gets him to believe, if only for a moment, he's rumbling in the hatch of the Fiat, the scent of melons pouring out of the glove compartment.

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