Normally this time of year, I’d bring you the harvest report from around the block and beyond. I’d be checking in on the chickens, asking after the sweet corn crop that filled up a neighbor’s front yard, admiring some sugar pie pumpkins and finding out if anyone ate nearly as many romano beans as we did at my house this summer. Man, those beans were good.
But alas. While my neighbors gather in their late summer tomatoes, and the cabbages get serious about fall, I’m plopped on the sofa with my right foot on the coffee table and my left hand in a cast. OMG, you might say! What manner of drama have we here?
Thanks for asking. It’s been a Wile E. Coyote kind of summer, so laugh if you like. I do. In June, I tripped over the cord to my laptop, flew into a wall, and broke my nose. In July, I hiked a few too many miles in the Sierras and acquired a stress fracture in my foot. Ten days ago, I took a little spill on my bike (which I could still ride with my tender foot) and broke my fall with my hand.
So you might say I’ve had some weeks of unplanned relaxation. Which puts me in mind of Xavier de Maistre, who also spent time under house arrest. 42 days to be exact, in the year 1790. His crime: participating in a duel. Or as he put it, you “present yourself to [your opponent] with your chest bared, and you run the risk of getting yourself killed by your enemy so as to be avenged on him.—Obviously nothing could be more logical, and yet you come across people who disapprove.”
Ah, the wit of a man reared on Rousseau, Montaigne, and Laurence Sterne (of Tristram Shandy fame). De Maistre, not a man given to self pity, spent his 42 days engaged in a new form of travel and happily for us, wrote it all down. The delightful result, translated by Alain de Botton, is A Journey Around My Room.
A cheeky, philosophical, erudite and down-right funny book, A Journey Around My Room does, indeed, follow de Maistre as he puts on his traveling clothes and journeys from his pink and white bed to his armchair to his desk. But the pleasures of the itinerary lie elsewhere. As he announces when first setting out, inviting us along, “we will travel in short marches…yielding merrily to our imagination, we will follow it wherever it pleases to lead us.”
As a result, it’s a book of diversions, side trips off the path. In describing that path, de Maistre mimics the travel books of his era: “Once you’ve left my armchair, walking towards the north, you come into view of my bed.” But then comes the digression: musings on the “theatre of the bed,” stage of so many human dramas: birth, love, death, comedy, tragedy, farce.
In short, the journey is non-linear. At one point, de Maistre, startled by a beggar outside his window, falls over in his armchair. He lies there for several chapters while pondering the treatment of the homeless in cities, and his own callous heart. At another stopping point, he falls asleep by the fire and dreams that Hippocrates, Aspasia, Plato, and Pericles all sit down around the fire, except for Pericles, who “alone remained standing so as to read the gazettes.”
The book’s chapters are all polished little gems, essais in miniature. Its comedies come in many forms. In scenes that reminded me of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, de Maistre is alternately thoughtless and affectionate toward his wise and patient servant Joannetti; and absurdly adoring of his little dog Rosine (a personality in her own right). He sometimes lapses into meta-writing about what he’s writing, or declares that he won’t write a whole chapter about his dried rose—hardly worth the trouble—and then does. He describes the etchings on his wall, opines that painting is the most noble of arts, and presents the pièce de résistance among his collection, the mirror. For “what picture could anyone present to you, gentlemen…[and] ladies, more sure of meeting your approval, than the faithful representation of yourselves?”
Amid the dramas, dreams, flights of fancy, musings and social commentary that make up its droll meanderings, the book’s longest running joke arises from de Maistre’s philosophy of the soul and body. Or as he calls them, the soul and the beast, or the soul and the other. Thus it is that while the other is held captive, his soul (or mind) can travel where it will.
This philosophy also explains how our beast might continue reading the words on the page while our mind wanders and can’t recall a single word after. Or how it is that when de Maistre one day set out for the King’s palace, he trusted his beast to transport him while is soul enjoyed “its meditations on painting.” The beast, however, did not go to court as instructed, but ended up at the door of a certain Mme de Hautcastel. His soul catches up just in time to stop the beast from entering alone. We are left to imagine the results had the beast done so.
Before leaving you to your own wanderings, let’s stand here a moment where de Maistre’s journey intersects with ours. For when traveling near his library, de Maistre finds himself overwhelmed with gladness and possibility. For here, the poets and novelists transport him, he shares his woes with “a thousand imaginary characters,” and there are so many strange events to relate, he “would never end if he tried to describe the thousandth part” of them.
With the French Revolution (which he loathed) raging in Paris, far beyond his quiet room in Turin, de Maistre’s 42 days were filled with a well-stocked mind amid the company of books. Reading A Journey Around My Room has transported me away from self-pity for my broken bones. Worse things can happen than a forced convalescence and a good slow read.
Glad reading wherever you travel, and don’t forget to celebrate the harvest.