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The Perfect Traveler

Frederic Prokosch
Frederic Prokosch; drawing by David Levine

1.

“Then northward with the spring into Kashmir,” begins a paragraph in Frederic Prokosch’s 1935 book, The Asiatics*:

Past valley after lovely valley, shepherds and their flocks moving across the greenery in the day, men squatting by their hillside fires in the night. Soft-lipped boys with enormous turbans shrieking at us from their dark alleys, black-lidded girls with roses in their hair bringing us ices.

A page later, the young narrator is being shown up to a room in Peshawar, along the Afghan border, noting the “great brownish stains” on the wall, getting bombarded by mosquitoes. Down in the coppersmiths’ area of the marketplace below, old men in green turbans sit near young men with “collyrium-painted eyes” and from every side comes the “chah, khach, kukha” of opium eaters. Everyone, the wanderer tells us, “looked hungry; not for food, but for something else.”

When Prokosch wrote those words, evoking in particular detail the look and smell of Peshawar—and, in later pages, of Rangoon and Saigon and Ladakh—he had not been to a single one of them. He was, in fact, a twenty-nine-year-old research fellow at Yale who had just completed a doctoral thesis on “The Chaucerian Apocrypha.” As a boy, the young painter and poet from Wisconsin had spent a year in Austria and Germany—returning to Texas in 1915 with better German than English; and his father, a professor of Germanic philology who would later become Sterling Professor at Yale and president of the Modern Language Association, would keep the house filled with cosmopolitan flavors. Yet as he sat in his room on Elm Street in New Haven, poring through atlases and travel diaries, and writing only from imagination, suddenly (as he recalled, almost fifty years later, in his 1983 memoir, Voices) the young Prokosch saw himself walking through the rain along the road past Ba’albek. “Day by day,” he remembered,

this vision of a continent grew more vivid in my mind. It kept growing in the darkness, it seeped into my dreams. I’d wake up in the night with a sudden glimpse of a tropical city, a shabby old hotel, a picnic by the Brahmaputra, and I’d turn on the light and jot it down quickly.

The vision was so intense—so lived in, one might say, so possessed—that to go to any of the places Prokosch describes today is to find that he caught them better, sight unseen, than most of us could manage on the spot. The single most implausible word in The Asiatics was that startling disclaimer on the title page, “A Novel.”

On the surface, the book simply tells the story of a young American, adrift in Beirut, who manages to hitchhike his way across Turkey, Central Asia, and India, and ends up near Hanoi. Passive as many a wayfarer is, the narrator nevertheless records, for example, spices and jewels and “dried citron and figs” in the marketplace in Tehran and, more than that, he seems to confront everywhere a “labyrinth of sunlight and shadow.” Much as a travel writer might, he encounters Nestorian priests and self-proclaimed Assassins, gets put up by a Persian villager who claims to have been Freya Stark’s lover, and is ushered into the court of a Siamese prince and an Indian maharajah. Indeed, he has hardly embarked upon the journey before he runs into an opium smuggler, a guardian of a harem, and (the first character in the book) a man who tells him, “Every beautiful city in the world is growing uglier year by year.”

As soon as The Asiatics was published, in 1935, it was, not surprisingly, a runaway success, ultimately translated into seventeen languages and turning its young author, as his friend and champion Gore Vidal recalled, into a figure of almost Byronic panache. Thomas Mann, a friend of Prokosch’s father, pronounced the book “astonishing” and André Gide called it “unique among novels and an authentic masterpiece.” Camus noted, perceptively, that it “invented what might be called the geographical novel.” Even those with no knowledge of the well-connected author were stirred (and one of the first congratulatory telegrams Prokosch received, from a publishing house in London, was signed by T.S. Eliot). Wise beyond his years, and clearly unabashed in his imaginings, the hitherto unpublished writer seemed set for life.

By that time, Prokosch was already at King’s College, Cambridge, pursuing a life of letters and semi-permanent exile. He wished “to avoid the vulgarization of money and publicity,” as he put it—and in that aim, he may have succeeded more than he would have liked. He quickly became a talismanic figure for wanderers and professional expatriates—Vidal remembers a cult of Prokosch in the US Army in the Forties, and the great American chronicler of Japan, Donald Richie, has said that he was moved to travel, as a boy growing up in Lima, Ohio, by reading Prokosch’s early work. Yet to most Americans, his exquisite, almost perfumed world seemed remote. World War II put an end to the exotic romances of the Thirties (Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth had come out in 1931, Lost Horizon in 1933), and even as Prokosch made it at last, much later, to Damascus and Isfahan and Agra, he fell increasingly out of public view.

Prokosch followed up his initial surge with a similar work of fiction, The Seven Who Fled, in 1937, about seven Europeans propelled out of Kashgar by local unrest, and then, in 1939, with The Night of the Poor, about a midwestern boy hitchhiking around America. “Landscape is a state of the spirit,” he wrote in The Seven Who Fled, more or less voicing his personal creed, “it is a constant longing for what is to come, it is a reflection incomparably detailed and ingenious of what is everlasting in us, and everlastingly changing.” That book was translated into French by Marguerite Yourcenar, and Prokosch’s first book of poems, The Assassins, in 1936 was praised by W.B. Yeats as “astonishing …the talent of a real visionary, and often magical.”

Yet even as Prokosch was living out the adventures he had once only imagined—spending time in Portugal and Stockholm, in Italy and Hong Kong (in later life he settled in Grasse, in southern France, where he collected butterflies and put out handmade editions of poems he loved)—he was known, when known at all, until his death in 1989 as the author of a best seller many years before. The sense of discovery his book commemorated—the discovery by an author of his theme, his world, the discovery by the world of a new infectious voice—would never be repeated.

2.

To pick up The Asiatics today is to encounter a work that seems to be about youth as much as about Asia; its theme is the very sensations it describes, of possibility and movement and not knowing what will come next—a “sort of poetry and surprise,” as the narrator puts it—and its only larger purpose seems to be to exult in the excitement of going nowhere in particular. The rhythm of the book is less that of a train, with its destination marked on the front, than that of a fast-moving river boat that picks up a passenger here and drops off a wayfarer there, catching the light across the mountains, the sound from the huts along the shore. A large part of the meaning of the book seems to be that no logic connects one scene to the next.

This freedom from a sense of specific direction is a considerable part of the book’s contagious charm. Most books of travel are, at however unacknowledged a level, about seeking out the source of the Nile or the meaning of life; they pay lip service to a sense of purpose even when ignoring it. And novels, inevitably, aim to infuse every moment with a larger sense of meaning. Prokosch, however, seems more than happy to take every moment as it is—no more—and it is a striking feature of his narrator’s travels that, for all their near-constant danger and closeness to incarceration, there’s never a very great sense of tension. The narrator, like most young men his age, revels in a freedom from the past; and like almost all the wanderers and stragglers he meets along the way, he goes out of his way to live free of a sense of the future (when put on the spot, he says he’s going to Japan, though Japan is the one exotic Eastern place he never visits or describes). We are in a perpetual present here, akin to the swaying of a hammock under the casuarina trees.

Part of the shrewd understanding of the writer, one senses, is that he was catching a world that was only just coming into being, in all its aspects, and one feature of that new world (post-Jamesian, you could call it) is that people from the New World were going off in search of the wisdom and antiquity of the Old, and finding, often, that the Old World was hungering for the freshness of the New (“The mere presence of youth…makes my heart beat more quickly,” says a dying countess in Tehran, on meeting Prokosch’s unnamed alter ego). The logic of the book is that most of the people the young traveler meets are eager, because he is young, to pass on their wisdom to him; and he, because he is young, is eager to take it in. The result is that reading the book feels a little like being young yourself again.

In effect, therefore, The Asiatics becomes a portrait of a state of mind—and one in which wandering and youth come to seem synonymous; it is almost a Platonic distillation of the states that travel brings on, not least the fact that it pitches you into a realm of romance where nothing happens for a reason (reason, the sense of understanding, being one of the things you left behind at home), and anything could loom around the next corner. Now the traveler is set upon by brigands, now by bored beauties. Complete strangers are eager to offer him money or shelter or love, often for reasons far beyond his reckoning. The narrator goes back and forth constantly between walled gardens and open spaces, and when at one point he is locked up in a Turkish prison, looking out on a bordello, he seems to have attained the archetypal position of youth.

Prokosch is clearly a laureate of longing, as well as of expectancy; his strength is in evoking not just lanterned streets and the sound of bells in the night, dusk “dripping like gray moss from the trees” and “the celluloid rustling of insects,” but also in conjuring up a constant state of provisionality (one moment contradicts the last as readily as the main character does). The Asiatics is a book of atmospheres more than of events (let alone emotions). Yet what makes it stand apart from the works of Hermann Hesse, say, or Jack Kerouac, the other talismans of youth who might seem to be its cousins, is that this narrator is less a seeker than a collector. He’s not going anywhere; he’s just happy to pick up the colorful characters and pieces of philosophy and moods of transport that linger along the road. Being equally interested in truth and beauty and diversion, he’s equally uninterested in all of them, too.

Prokosch’s larger achievement—and this is one of the things that make him seem clairvoyant—is to evoke a sense of continents on the move, large numbers of foreigners, from every side, of every stripe, passing across the great spaces of Asia, often with as little sense of what they’re after (geographically or otherwise) as our narrator has. It is almost as if the Silk Road of old were filled now with a new kind of trader, dealing in stories or nuggets of disenchanted wisdom (for which this hero has a decided weakness). Stray aristocrats, Communists, priests, and just drifters, all float across the canvas, as in one of the dwarfing mystical landscapes of Nicholas Roerich.

It’s easy to forget now that, for those with the means, the 1930s were a golden age of travel; World War I and the Wall Street Crash had receded from memory a little, and planes were making the world seem open as it had never been before. In England alone, Peter Fleming, Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene were taking off for Kashmir, China, Abyssinia, and Mexico respectively, and Somerset Maugham, in his Gentleman in the Parlour, was all but laying down parts of Prokosch’s itinerary. In fiction, the popular novelist James Hilton was introducing the idea, particularly in his best-selling Lost Horizon, that, for the first time in history, Westerners could visit Himalayan kingdoms that had always been regarded as impenetrable; The Asiatics seems to owe to Hilton’s book not just its accounts of the abrupt crash of a small plane and of an old Buddhist monk who speaks “an exotic but pure and beautiful English,” but, more intriguingly, its sense of how possible it is, in a world of expanded horizons, to fall into the unfathomable.

This wasn’t an accidental discovery on Prokosch’s part; he had a conscious sense of a world in movement (the same movement that Robert Byron extols in his 1927 book, The Station), and he made it his business to try to fashion a new kind of art that would match this new kind of life. “My greatest desire,” he would say, “is to take part, however humbly, in the resurrection and growth of a truly international literature—an approach to writing which exceeds national limitations, both in manner and mentality.” One of the most forceful characters the narrator meets here is an Armenian who is determined to combat nationalism and calls himself a “patriot-hater.”

3.

Always highly cultured, Prokosch would say in his memoirs, Voices, that his writing was influenced in part by Malraux and Colette’s La Vagabonde; he would place it in the picaresque tradition of Voltaire and Swift and Defoe. Yet in some ways his interest in place is too consuming (and his hold on wisdom too shaky) to merit a place with more didactic souls. Exoticism is more the engine of his work than wisdom. Really, Prokosch was exulting in travel for travel’s sake. These days, it is almost impossible not to see him as a forerunner of those open-ended seekers who, three decades later, would carve out an entire underground trail from Istanbul to Kathmandu, by way of Afghanistan.

It must be said at this point that the bits of worldly wisdom on the subject of Asia that the book is eager to pass on do not seem very worldly or very wise. “A true Asiatic is never very happy,” a Persian prince languidly pronounces—seeming, as the narrator often does, to be talking mostly of himself—and the gnarled Buddhist monk, encountered in the Himalayas, declares, “In Asia we believe that selfishness is the only way to gain peace” (a notion that will come as a surprise to those of us who thought that Hinduism, Confucianism, and especially the Buddhism of which this seems to be a would-be synopsis are mostly about the dissolution of the self). The one aphorism that does stand up to scrutiny is the Persian prince’s final summary, “The thing about Asia is its vagueness, really.”

Such loose comments weren’t a function of Prokosch’s youth; even thirty years later, in his novel The Wreck of the Cassandra, he was having a character declare, “All this talk about inner serenity, all this Asiatic poise and delicacy—well, it’s nothing but a veil to hide the horror underneath.” Rather, I think, it’s a reflection of the fact that he was always better with descriptions and character than with cosmic judgments; his boyish sense of wonder is consistently more convincing than his clutches at sophistication.

As a guide to how Asia really looks and feels—the horsemen in the snow, the cobblestones under moonlight—his book is almost impossible to improve upon. The Aleppo he describes—“streets white and dry and hollow like tunnels…Syrians [sitting] drowsily on rugs”—is not the Aleppo I saw four years ago, but I wish it had been; his intuition seems closer to the heart of the real Aleppo than my experiences do. And when he goes to my parents’ homeland, he not only catches the clatter of Indian roads, the cacophony of bullock carts and trucks and bicycles, as well as any traveler going there today might, he throws off, in a casual aperçu, the fact that Indians regard their roads more as gathering places than as thoroughfares. This perception not only explains why the country is so exasperating for anyone who wants to get anywhere (it’s enchanting for those who like dallying en route); it also begins to suggest why Indian conversations are infuriating for anyone who is hungering for conclusions. It also, of course—as so much in The Asiatics—tells us how to read the book we’re holding in our hand, which shies away from resolutions.

There is often an element of projection in the young man’s descriptions in the novel—he sees Aleppo as “restless” and, just sixteen pages later, a Turk is pronouncing, “These are such restless years!” (serving, again, to suggest a whole world newly put into motion). When he walks into a room full of Russians, the narrator decides, “They really didn’t know what they wanted; they hadn’t the slightest idea of what might be worth having.” And yet there’s never a sense here that he is seeing these places in the light of his preoccupations or assumptions. Indeed, part of what is so magical about the book is that the narrator himself changes as quickly as the scenery; he seems no more settled than his moods do.

In most travel books, what guides us is the very distinctive sensibility and presence of the author, who sometimes seems to stand between us and what we want to be seeing; here the author is too unformed to be obtrusive. “In a way you look older,” says an Englishwoman, asking how old the young traveler is, and getting back the answer twenty-two. “And in another way you look younger. First one and then the other.” Two hundred pages, and many lifetimes later, a servant boy in India is saying, “You have a face like a boy’s but a smile like an old man’s!” What they—and everyone else—are responding to is the central figure’s confounding mix of innocence and precocious worldliness.

A highly gifted reader, Prokosch knew how to excavate places from the pages of books. “Cambodia is a haunted country,” he writes, forty years before the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, “full of shadows, full of ambiguous little hints of the past,” all but implying (correctly, as I see it) that the horrors later launched by Pol Pot and his henchmen to some degree sprang not just from themselves, but from something in their country’s spirit and its soil. More profoundly, he caught, even seventy years ago, the ironies of a world in which a Muslim will chastize an American for coming from a country with “no god” and in the next breath will ask to be taken to America (growing angry when refused).

It is easy to be troubled today by Prokosch’s calling the people he passes “savages,” or describing them as “tomcats…haughty, filthy, secretive creatures” and “hopelessly stupid and violently coarse” of countenance. He was, inevitably, a creature of his times himself, unable to intuit and write in the idiom of the twenty-first century. But to call him an Orientalist is, I think, to get things exactly the wrong way around: if anything, his problem was not that he was too eager to conquer other cultures, but too ready to give himself over to them. And what he is describing, as much as Meshed and Baluchistan and Malaya, is the very state of foreignness, the delicious unease of being on the road, where an attractive stranger invites you to spend an evening with her and you don’t know what lies behind her invitation—or what lies behind your accepting it. People are strange to one another, on the road more than anywhere.

As a boy, Prokosch tells us in his memoirs, he grew up on books like The Tattooed Countess and The Princess Zoubaroff. He also devoured the works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, the fairy tales of Russia and France and even India (as a dark-complexioned student in Europe, he actually earned the nickname der kleine Indianer). But deeper than that he had the romancer’s soft spot for the savory. In those same memoirs, he notes, with careful nonchalance, that his father was obliged to leave Austria for America “because of a scandal involving a duel.”

He was never able, one feels, to resist a moment of glitter. Yet even as a young man, Prokosch could see that the essence of any romance is its familiarity with grit. Throughout his travels, he finds at least as much suffering as beauty and is always as clearly attuned to deceit and horror as to wonder. He has—as most of those around him do—a young man’s ruthlessness as well as his sense of adventure. Thus the Buddhist rest house he comes upon in the Himalayas in The Asiatics is “a foul hut” and the nuns he meets nearby are cynical and “button-eyed with cruelty.” The bookkeeper’s clothes in the maharajah’s palace are “fetid” and the young ruler himself “narcissine.” Places glow, constantly, in the light of the narrator’s attention—Himalayan peaks gleam “clear as diamonds,” rice fields sparkle like “glittering mirrors,” “charming man-made lands to the right and left of us [shine] like lacquer in the sunlight.” But the scenes themselves are also shown as “desolate and filthy,” the people within them “coarse-featured, thick-lipped, savage-eyed.”

It’s never difficult, as one goes through the book, to spot atmospherics that the young reader must have taken from J.R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday, or characters who seem to have sprung from the pages of Kipling or Freya Stark. The sense of eagerness, framed in a larger perspective, puts one in mind sometimes of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s later work A Time of Gifts, his exuberant account of hitchhiking across Europe toward Constantinople as an eighteen-year-old, taken in at every turn by compliant girls or hospitable strangers, yet written when the writer was in his sixties.

But the character Prokosch’s narrator most resembles, over and over, is Odysseus. Like Homer’s hero he shows an engaging willingness to be detained by sirens and Circes everywhere he goes, and to forget entirely about his destination. Like Homer’s character, he spots goddesses bathing in a river and, in one unforgettable scene, great caravans carrying corpses across the open spaces of Asia, proceeding to the Underworld. Like Homer’s creation, most of all, he sees that the fundamental story of travel is the contest between enthusiasm and realism.

As the book goes on, enthusiasm begins to lose the battle, and the very freshness that carried Prokosch so winningly across the page at the outset begins to fade. This is the plight of every traveler, perhaps, to tire along the way, to start comparing one place with another (and so not see either whole), even to long for the comforts of home—though in this last regard Prokosch is wonderfully free of any longing, no doubt because he was experiencing all his adventures while sitting in his house. And the ebbing of enthusiasm is generally seen as a figure for what happens to all of us as we get older, and settle into our positions, surrendering the wide-openness of youth.

But The Asiatics is uncanny in that it almost seems to describe the loss of youth and one can feel as if one is witnessing Prokosch turn into a different kind of writer before one’s eyes. The excited adventurer who began—“And on the hedge itself we could see the bees among the flowers, brilliant hovering bits of gold in the morning sun”—starts to write more and more of “utter weariness,” and when he meets an old friend, an Indian courtier, he sees that the man has “gained in self-confidence and poise” but “lost his freshness, his spontaneity.” It is as if a book that began as a celebration of youth turns into an elegy for its loss, and a witness of its passage into something else.

An ambiguous object of desire first met in Peshawar is met again in Saigon and revealed to be a murderess, cold-hearted in her pursuit of her own interests; the most charming wayfarer met along the way (and remet in Phnom Penh) is shown to be a crook, which makes his happy-go-lucky creed—“Move, move, keep on moving… that’s the way to survive”—something less exalting. Five times the narrator notes that people he has met again have changed; but we sense that the change is in himself.

In life Prokosch would write more than twenty books after The Asiatics and many of them rejoice in the diversions of travel. They mix classical allusions with Arabic settings and portraits of countesses who might have woken up that morning in the imagination of Somerset Maugham. Much like his early narrator, Prokosch himself as a grown man seems to have made a practice of going around the world, collecting the wisdom of his elders; as a teenager in Paris he sought out Joyce and Gertrude Stein, and later he would come to know Auden and Nabokov and Maugham himself, and Virginia Woolf (“What is a novel, my dear boy?” he remembers her asking. “Have you really thought about it? What is this so-called novel?”). One gets a sense of his raffiné, often privileged life by looking at the index to his memoirs, which jumps from Aeschy- lus to Lawrence Alma-Tadema, from Douglas Fairbanks to Euripides. Yet somewhere along the way Prokosch seems to have sensed that the very lack of driving purpose and overarching theme that was the beauty of his first book might prove a limitation at the end. And perhaps he realized, too, that, like his young narrator, he was better at collecting vivid characters and disappearing in their glow than in making himself heard. Listening was always more his thing than pushing himself forward.

Yet his memoirs end, touchingly, in exactly the place where his writing life began. “The yearning for meanings was the essential yearning of my childhood,” he writes in Voices, published when he was seventy-seven. “Like a child, I saw an inexhaustible amazement in the air, in the blueness of the sky or the wild excitement of the birds.” His ability to capture that excitement, and to bring those blue skies and birds into even a small room on Elm Street, New Haven—and then other such rooms across the world—meant that his work would live on long after he did. The memoirs conclude with their author, in his seventies, still lying in a hammock, turning the pages of Around the World in Eighty Days, and wondering, with an eagerness he made indelible (and ours), “what strange new excitement the day will hold for me.”

  1. *

    A very different version of this essay will appear as an introduction to a reissued edition of The Asiatics, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in January 2005.