The Morality of Landscape
Reading Stanley Crawford’s Travel Notes is like being in a tailspin. A safe one, perhaps, but a tailspin nonetheless. Everything is not as it should be; you feel disoriented. You go up in the air, then plummet; then you are safe on the ground. But you don’t stay grounded. Before you know it, you’re up in the air again, and have no idea how high you are or how much higher you might go.
(Calamari Press, Reprint edition, March 1, 2014)
Inviting comparisons with airplanes seems appropriate: The book opens with one. But it’s a Stanley Crawford airplane—more specifically, it’s an invention of Crawford’s narrator. It does not get off the ground. It travels by rolling on a runway all the way to its destination, for seven hours and 45 minutes, with the pilot “judiciously raising whichever landing gear was threatened by an obstacle.”
A little further into the book, there is another airplane, a vintage biplane. This one is a means of escape. The definition of the word escape, in this world, is to keep traveling. What needs escape is stagnancy, immobility. But the aforementioned rolling airplane is not the answer. A series of bizarre events have led the narrator to be among some people in transit who are at a standstill, and so our narrator’s journey is also stalled. But he meets an aviator among them, and discovers an airplane under a tarp on top of a bus. Then, one night, he and the aviator steal the airplane, intending to fly away in it. But they do not fly. Instead they sit in the airplane on a dirt road for some time while the aviator works the instruments as if they are in flight. But they go nowhere until finally the narrator, with his journey again stalled, slips away from the biplane, back again to the open road. Such are the events as they are written down in his journal. Crawford’s book, Travel Notes, is his journal. Nothing is as it seems. The first line of the book: “The airport was a shack.” It is all absurd and entertaining.
This book, originally published in 1967 and now by Calamari Press (with captivating cover design), is prefaced with: “All landscape is moral,” unattributed. Travel, then, is concerned with charting our human character, the good and the bad of it. The tone of this, as brief as the line is, implies that the narrator believes the aim of visiting new landscapes is a moral imperative. Crawford masterfully posits this at the outset. But it is then turned inside-out and undone. Like many absurdist works, this book is, in its refusal to be a morality lesson, a morality lesson.
The irony is not easily missed here in the narrator’s act of experiencing cultures while missing them entirely, even dismissing them. Early in the book, the narrator walks through a “dull provincial town” at the Famôus Lake, encounters a crowd, and yells at them, “Does anyone speak English here?” Someone behind him replies in a low voice, “We all speak English, you fool.” This must have seemed to speak too directly to the irony at hand, because promptly the narrator undermines meaning with a comedic turn: “But then I was suffering from indigestion. Incredible flatulations!” In another scene, at the center of a crowd’s heated discussion, the narrator keeps experience at arm’s length:
I stood and smiled. When one understands nothing it is best to feign the idiot, both easy and foolproof. […] My interpreter waved his hands, shouted everyone into silence with a verbal torrent, now went on towards a softly worded conclusion. That is, there seemed to be words in here, though when you listen to a foreign language you can never be certain.
Though much of the book is about language, this—the narrator’s writing exercise—is often consciously aware of and distracted by the form (it changes at times), the tools (the notebook, the recorder), the act of jotting travel notes, and the meaning of it all. In one instance on the train: “The jostling of the train makes writing difficult, even those quick little jabs I make and which are indecipherable except by my closest of former friends.” Another time, on the meaning of this writing exercise: “No, the only new fact that I can communicate in all humility to the armchair traveler is that the Ruiñs are now being visited by myself, a unique historical event whose significance is not for me to comment upon, far from it.” Though, of course, the narrator here is making a comment. And much of these are delightful asides. Especially one found on the last page, a kind of summit in this journey: a clever, entertaining, and moving description of a new notebook—a new means of escape.
In journaling, the narrator reveals his obsession with the work of it and its meaning. All of this evokes a vulnerability. The quicksilver of vulnerability makes him seem more an everyday person, one who can be hurt in a way that seems believable, even familiar, to the reader. In one instance after his notebook is taken, he writes on found paper, “Man is most vulnerable through his manuscripts.” In another instance, in a mood of regret and ultimately loss, he says: “the train will always go faster than I write.”
He goes in circles. He encounters himself again and again. Early on, at a hotel, he falls into a room that is a duplicate of his own: “Under the floor which collapsed was a room identical in every respect, down to the last detail, including my traveling things, to the room I am lying in right now.” In another place, while walking through a “silly town” he discovers “a cast iron manikin of myself sitting on a bench.” It is as if the reader is attached to a spinning wheel of his tape recorder, something he has had with him since the opening of the book and which he describes as “my expensive tape-recording system which takes up half one wall of my bedroom” (in a rented suburban villa). Late in the story he plays his recordings to entertain some policemen with “the latest results of my travels.” The sound that issues is quiet and cacophonous and clattering at times. All in, it is analogous to the Travel Note—bits of recordings that are “not too coherent.” But, like the interpreter, there are words in there, of which you can never be quite certain.