Around the world in 80 books from the magazine David Damrosch – a scholarly tour of the author | Literary criticism
Reading is a journey – an epic trek, a picaresque chase, a lyrical flight – and last year it provided relaxation for those of us still itching after a daily tour of the local park. Confined at home in London, I reread Dickens and nostalgically accompanied his characters as they wandered through a city that was forbidden to me. David Damrosch, a Harvard specialist in comparative literature, went further: when the conference dates in Tokyo and a few European venues were canceled, he decided to travel around the world without leaving his library.
Damrosch was inspired by Phileas Fogg, the London clubman who crosses continents and oceans at full speed in Jules Verne’s Around the world in 80 days. Needing to win a bet, Fogg bribes the drivers and pilots to increase their speed and desperately strips wood from a steamboat in the mid-Atlantic to fuel his oven. Damrosch advances at a more leisurely pace, although he sometimes makes associative weightless jumps as if hitchhiking in a hot air balloon.
It begins by following Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as she walks through Westminster, then jumps sideways to Arnold Bennett’s Clerkenwell. A detour through Baker Street prompts him to follow Sherlock Holmes in a “train of reasoning”; Carried away by a fictitious Eurostar, it emerges in Paris, where a path back to a memorable paradise opens unexpectedly for Proust in the Bois de Boulogne. Subsequent forays take Damrosch across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Omitting Australia, he then returns home to an island off the coast of Maine to complete the toll of his imaginary expedition.
This is not a summary of the usual classics, like Harold Bloom’s hieratic inventory of The Western Canon. The Bible is there, but Damrosch treats it as the testimony of persecuted migrant workers or refugees and celebrates its “viral spread” in a world “newly integrated” by Rome, whose empire it has undermined. With the same seditious intention, Damrosch decolonizes literature. When Keats read Homer, he believed he was traveling through “golden realms” and annexing their riches like the explorer Cortes. Damrosch is wary of such expropriations: he therefore includes poems of the Aztec victims of the Spanish conquistadors, and applauds Derek Walcott for having creolized the name of Homer when he translates Omeros into “our West Indian dialect”.
Such an undertaking risks appearing haphazard, as frantically improvised as Fogg’s route when he misses a connection. Damrosch avoids diffusion by capturing spatial coincidences. In Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow presents East Africa as a distorted replica of Manhattan: the voice of the tribal potentate Dahfu sounds like the hum of the 16th Street electrical substation, and his shamanic antics are reminiscent of the expensive gibberish of the city’s psychotherapists . Epigrams and puns build instant bridges between eras and idioms. 17th-century Japanese poet Bashō stumbles upon Andy Warhol when a haiku praising him is recited during an episode of The simpsons; the tribute, says Damrosch, bestows on Bashō “a fleeting immortality with good reason: 15 pixels of glory.” A character from Joyce Finnegans Wake asks: “Are we speachin d’anglas landage or are you sprakin sea Djoytsch?”, prompting Damrosch to his own pun. Ireland, he says, is “a land that is at sea,” its insularity dissolved by the oceanic Esperanto of Joyce.
Joyce composes languages, but Damrosch shuttles between them and in doing so he berates “ethnic nationalism, isolationism and fear of people or ideas crossing borders.” One of his discoveries is Giambatista Viko, Or the rape of the African discourse, an academic satire by Congolese novelist Georges Ngal; convinced that the book should be translated, Damrosch did the job himself. He shares the faith of the Romanian poet Paul Celan, who, recalling the Holocaust, said that “there was one thing left in the midst of the losses: the language”. But for Damrosch, language is never more than one thing, since there is always another foreign language to study with access to new literature as a reward, and this polyglot scholar recognizes that all communication is not verbal. Selection of Hugh Lofting The Dr Doolittle’s Travels like his 74th book, he regrets not having the “mastery of the languages of horses, eagles and snails” of the good doctor.
Elsewhere, with a thrill of up-to-date alarm, he notices that Boccaccio’s storytellers Decameron left Florence to escape a plague, while the stricken gypsy of García Márquez A hundred years of loneliness contracted pellagra in Persia, scurvy in Malaysia, leprosy in Alexandria, beriberi in Japan and the black plague in Madagascar. Does Damrosch himself go around the world in 80 plagues? He didn’t have to worry, because his story is full of resurrections. Sherlock Holmes is mystically revived by Tibetan novelist Jamyang Norbu and Yukio Mishima’s hero Sea of fertility experienced three successive rebirths. Visit Tokyo, the poet James merrill announces that each trip is a reincarnation and decides that it will be “the one in which I arrange myself like flowers”.
Damrosch’s program is encyclopedic but at the same time affectionately personal. He includes his own shots of the pyramids of Egypt, the desert fortress of Masada, and some Mayan temples in the Mexican 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 mountain people Igorot, with whom he discussed theology, medicine and, of course, weather. Inheriting this evangelization, Damrosch sees the journey as a mental and moral challenge, and not as Phileas Fogg’s quick experiment in shortening space and speeding up time. Around the world in 80 books takes us around the world’s leading author, and while expanding our knowledge, it increases our capacity for friendship.