Reading Your Way Around the World

Around the World in 80 Books
by David Damrosch
432 pp., $30.00

To recount “the adventures of one’s soul amid masterpieces” is, according to Anatole France, the critic’s proper function. Outdated in many eyes today, surely, the formula seems nonetheless suited to a literary study loosely based on, and titled after, Jules Verne’s Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (“Around the World in Eighty Days”). Verne’s 1873 classic was, in fact, contemporaneous with criticism published by Anatole France (who also produced fanciful writing of his own).

Damrosch’s tour is an outgrowth of the COVID-19 pandemic; he conceived it as a 16-week online course in 2020 at Harvard University, where he is chair of the Department of Comparative Literature and director of the Institute for World Literature. The idea was to offer virtual adventures to those confined at home—not a Voyage autour de ma chambre (“Voyage Around My Room”), like Xavier de Maistre’s 1794 book written about his actual quarters while under house arrest in Turin (for dueling)—but an electronic voyage around the outside world from his chamber, providing him and listeners with vistas for the imagination.

As the critic Hans Robert Jauss argued in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, a literary work always exists in a triangular relationship involving the author, the original context of production, and the reading public. As readership evolves with time and place (“A work changes as it travels abroad,” notes Damrosch), the work acquires an enlarged public existence, subject to different understandings and valuations. Translations likewise shed new light.

Today’s critical context, for example, has changed crucially from that of, say, 50 years ago. Given the present existence of the Internet and what I shall call a “library without walls” (akin to André Malraux’s Museum Without Walls), today’s context encompasses the entire world, as Damrosch shows, and writings in non-European languages assume their place on the literary landscape. Meanwhile, older works take on 21st-century aspects. Literature, Damrosch remarks, feeds on other literature; a new work is, in some senses, a product of older works—the “world of books”—as well as an individual’s personal “world.” Thus, a network that is sometimes called dialogic or intertextual extends temporally and spatially among literary texts.

In a parallel development, the traditional notion of literary standards has also evolved; former standards have lost ground. Reactions against things perceived as elitism, exclusivity, racism, machismo, patriarchism, classism, nationalism, and colonialism mean that the term “masterpiece” has lost luster; one no longer seeks out simply “the books of the ages” (a term from Harold Bloom’s subtitle for The Western Canon). Concurrently, the idea of master-writer—one proposing models with outstanding scope, power, heft, grace, finesse, and, at best, Matthew Arnold’s “truth and high seriousness”—has also lost currency. The didactic goal set by Damrosch (though a schoolman, like Arnold) is clearly to change minds excessively wedded to these earlier, restrictive notions of literary worth.

Damrosch’s approach and treatment are subjective, thus reflecting his own “soul” and offering a critical equivalent of literary art (“a corner of creation seen through a temperament,” wrote Émile Zola). His tone is easy and his voice becomes familiar as he speaks of his forebears, his boyhood readings, his studies, his wife, and his travels. A native of Mount Desert, Maine, Damrosch is the great-grandson of Frank Damrosch, who founded the New York music school that became Juilliard; the great-great-nephew of the conductor Walter Damrosch; the son of an Episcopal clergyman and missionary; and the brother of literary critic and biographer Leo Damrosch.

David’s observations and judgments are built on decades of studying a wide range of literary types from ancient and modern literatures, including from this century. He is acquainted with several dead and living foreign languages. Furthermore, over the years, he has visited many countries and cities to which the texts examined here are connected (he has given 50 talks abroad), and his literary discussions often include pertinent travel reminiscences. His erudition is tremendous, but he does not wield it to dazzle us. (Readers will be brought up short, however, by his calling Isaac the brother of Abraham. A lapsus, perhaps. But where are the copyreaders?)

Starting like Phileas Fogg (Verne’s protagonist) in London, those who sign up for Damrosch’s biblio-voyage proceed across the Channel, through Europe and Asia, to continents Verne did not include—Africa and South America—before reaching the last three destinations: Maine, New York, and finally London, again. Some chapters treating of the Commonwealth and colonial times have the peculiar odor of condemnation. This is because Damrosch, along with many other writers today who define themselves triumphantly as postcolonial, cannot avoid evoking the past even in anger and denunciation, or in lamentation. To the 80 geographically grouped chapters suggested by Verne’s model, Damrosch adds an 81st, for the day Fogg gains (though he does not realize it) upon crossing the International Date Line.

Damrosch wants to emphasize “worldly” authors, reflecting on what lies around them or beyond their borders. The Hebrew Bible, approached as literature, gets sensitive treatment; he quotes the beautiful lines on weeping by the waters of Babylon. Presentation of the New Testament includes comparative notes on the variations in the four Gospels as reflecting the time of composition. Boccaccio, Dante, and Voltaire are in the spotlight. Twentieth-century Occidental writers, including Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, exemplify the achievements of modernism, now over 100 years old; James Baldwin and Saul Bellow illustrate the outstanding writing of the mid-20th century.

To them are added dozens of others from the wide world. Damrosch shows authorial favoritism to the new, which begs for attention, while the old is usually well-known. This leaning and his cosmopolitanism allow for the inclusion of small, occasionally bizarre or little-known works by marginal writers, appreciated chiefly perhaps by a happy few. While the number of Nobel and Booker laureates is striking, some are scarcely known in the United States, prizes notwithstanding. Certain works belong to noncanonicial genres, such as detective novels, graphic narratives, and Saul Steinberg’s cartoons. Magic realism gets considerable attention, with Gabriel García Márquez and others, echoing the spirit that led Damrosch to include the One Thousand and One Nights of Arabian folklore. There is plenty of high seriousness—especially in chapters treating Georges Perec, Primo Levi, and Paul Celan—touching on concentration camps. (No German national appears in the study.)

What is missing, unfortunately, in Damrosch’s generous literary and pedagogic evaluations is discussion and due recognition of style. And there’s the rub, because it is good style that will last. Men of letters, to use that old, honored expression, are, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “as much concerned with style as with content.” They must transform reality, not merely repeat it. They are artists, knowing that the greater the art, the greater the impact, now and later. Although everyone has feelings, raw feelings by themselves are, argued Paul Valéry, nothing; they are “incapable of creating a single fine line.” “To feel,” Valéry added, “does not mean necessarily to make felt, and still less, beautifully felt.” Willa Cather, pointing to the paintings of Jean-François Millet, affirmed her ideal in art as making images and expression seem “inevitable.” Doing so depends on style.

If you are looking for pleasurable reading joined to enlightenment and directions for further explorations, consider this book; it affords both. It would not, however, serve for reference. It has endnotes but neither bibliography nor index; the latter omission is particularly regrettable. Often one must search for authors’ dates; instead of appearing at the outset of each discussion, they must be calculated by reference to publications or events in the discussion. Would the original Harvard online course that inspired the book not have clearly situated topics of discussion and given salient facts immediately? This is even more needed for the print format.

Each chapter of the book bears a black-and-white illustration—many, regrettably, dark and with indiscernible details. The use of English, too, bears some flaws: dangling participles and such errors as “different than” and “whom he believes usually goes …” mar this meaty and original world tour and are unworthy of a chaired professor at Harvard.

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