I’ve been travelling the Mediterranean from my desk this week, reading Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules. I never used to read travel books; now, I like to read them to see what the author chooses to talk about, and for all the arrivals and departures.
Theroux writes well, and I like that he studies the sea’s tides and winds (there’s the Vendaval, Tramontana, Bora, Mistral, Khamsin, Sirocco, Levanter and about six others) and thinks Molly Bloom’s sexual encounter under the Moorish wall (he’s in Gibraltar) the most passionate in literature.
All the same it’s having me remember Flaubert’s observations on the Mediterranean and nothing can compare. This is Flaubert when he was young and handsome and before he became the great novelist of Madame Bovary (it was after the trip that a friend urged him to give up all style, all irony, and write with absolute impeccability, and Flaubert took the advice and never looked back). But that was in the future at the time of the Mediterranean trip. Flaubert’s notes and letters from the trip are filthy and marvellous. Here he is in a non-filthy bit, writing to his mother – after leaving Paris, he’d written her seven letters before he’d even sailed for Egypt – about arriving in Alexandria on 17 November, 1849.
… When we were two hours out from the coast of Egypt I went into the bow with the chief quartermaster and saw the seraglio of Abbas Pasha like a black dome on the blue of the Mediterranean. The sun was beating down on it. I had my first sight of the Orient through, or rather in, a glowing light that was like melted silver on the sea. Soon the shore became distinguishable, and the first thing we saw on land was a pair of camels led by their driver; then, on the dock, some Arabs peacefully fishing. Landing took place amid the most deafening uproar imaginable: negroes, negresses, camels, turbans, cudgelings to right and left, and ear-splitting guttural cries. I gulped down a whole bellyful of colours, like a donkey filling himself with hay. Cudgelings play a great role here; everyone who wears clean clothes beats everyone who wears dirty ones, or rather none at all, and when I say clothes I mean a pair of short breeches. You see many gentlemen sauntering along the streets with nothing but a shirt and a long pipe. Except in the very lowest classes, all the women are veiled, and in their noses they wear ornaments that hang down and sway from side to side like the facedrops of a horse. On the other hand, if you don’t see their faces, you see their entire bosoms. As you change countries, you find that modesty changes its location, like a bored traveller who keeps shifting from the outside to the inside of a stage-coach.
~ Gustave Flaubert (French, 1821-1880), translated by Francis Steegmuller