BOOKS: ‘Not Now, Voyager’

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NOT NOW, VOYAGER
By Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Counterpoint, $23, 175 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Apart from the many more substantial virtues of this stimulating, thoughtful book, it must be said at the outset that it has one of the best titles I’ve encountered in a long time. It’s just so perfect for this book, partly because of its allusion to that marvelous Bette Davis movie but also because of the irresistible manner in which those three words can be juggled into producing different, albeit complementary, statements. Clearly, Lynne Sharon Schwartz is a writer for whom words are a joy as well as an avocation, and her engagement with, and gusto for, them are infectious.

Ms. Schwartz begins this book by confessing that after her last novel “The Writing on the Wall,” which had been influenced by the events of Sept. 11, she wanted to do something diametrically opposite:

“When I was finished I felt as though I had been outdoors on a cliff for a long time, buffeted by winds, chafed and raw from exposure. I wanted to retreat to a padded room, close the door and rest from the world outside - both from living in it and writing about it. The next thing I wrote, I vowed, would be about the world inside my head; you can’t get any more private than that. I wasn’t sure what kind of book might result, but I wanted to try it … what emerged was a kind of attack on travel, the idea as well as the practice. An anti-travel polemic. This might be amusing and provocative, but I soon realized it was too simple-minded. My feelings were more ambivalent. I had enjoyed traveling in the past … I still looked forward to new adventures. I just didn’t want to move right now. Maybe not ever again, or at least not for a long time.”

As Ms. Schwartz takes readers through her processes of literary gestation, they can see what a discriminating, probing writer she is, interested in analysis of all stripes. But what makes “Not Now, Voyager” especially valuable is the way it allows us access into her mind, her art and her memory.

As she so accurately characterizes it, “What resulted, then, did become a travel book of another sort: an illustration of the mind on a journey or quest, pausing here and there, sometimes by design, sometimes by serendipity, lingering, occasionally returning. … In the end, I felt as if I’d managed to have my cake and eat it, a meal I’ve always relished. I didn’t have to move physically, but I’d been far afield and then circled back.” To herself that is, to her unique prismatic view of life and this is what makes “Not Now, Voyager” such a marvelous antidote to all those travel books that flood the bookstores and whose number she so definitely does not want to swell! Ms. Schwartz’s book is for those of us whose gorge rises at the prospect of yet another book about a summer in Provence or Tuscany or the Dordogne.

There is in fact no shortage of travel in these pages, from Ms. Schwartz’s first airplane flight as a teenager to Florida (she threw up all over herself and her cousin) to living in Rome in 1963 — when her husband was on a Fulbright there. There are sojourns in Hawaii and Jamaica among other places. And everywhere she goes as she revisits all these places and the experiences that came with them, Ms. Schwartz really engages fully with everything. She isn’t a traveler there so much as someone who manages to make herself a part of where she finds herself — and vice versa.

Such a process — or enterprise, for this is the level to which Sharon takes it — could so easily have degenerated into solipsism or unbearable egoism. But it is tribute to the subtlety of her writing and the quality of her meditations that it does not. If she is necessarily front and center of her story, she is generous in her glimpses of husband, parents and other family members — not merely as props or adjuncts but gracefully realized in and of themselves.

She is capable too of mocking aspects of herself, which adds to the palatability of her story and her own attractiveness as guide to her life experiences. She is blessed with a good memory for detail and for atmosphere: when she writes about living in Rome, you really do feel her excitement at all those novel sights, smells and sounds. Her allusions to the well-trodden travel paths — Camus, Arthur Waley, Matisse, Dorothea Brooke — are always apt and effective and there are some lesser-known ones as well, like Xavier (brother of the slightly more famous Joseph) De Maistre, author of “Voyage Around My Room” — obviously perfect for a book such as this.

As Ms. Schwartz concludes her book, she describes it as “a purging of the mood, and a valediction. Already I begin to feel the restlessness that longs for change, movement, novelty. Where to?” And what a successful purging “Not Now, Voyager” has been, for she has truly realized her ambition to write about “the world inside my head.” Having seen the quality of her mind and memory, we can feel quite confident that wherever this reinvigorated restless spirit takes her next, she will be a voyager now especially well worth accompanying.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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