My aim on TraveLit is to introduce readers who share my love of travel literature to good books they may not know about. Mostly classics, some new, the books cover travel in its many forms, from exploration to tourism. Along with reviews, TraveLit also brings together provocative, entertaining travel quotations and reader recommendations. I welcome comments on the readings, the reviews, the quotations, or the fascinating enterprise of travel itself.

TraveLit--A blog about travel literature

Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Review: By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy

November 13, 2018

By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy
By George Gissing. Project Gutenberg. First published, 1901.

In the late 1890s, the writer George Gissing set off on a trip to Southern Italy, an intensely personal journey into Magna Graecia with its ancient Greek ruins. “The names of Greece and Italy draw me as no others;” he writes; “they make me young again, and restore the keen impressions of that time when every new page of Greek or Latin was a new perception of things beautiful.”

Not everything on this rugged journey was beautiful, but Gissing retains his passion throughout, as he travels south from Naples to Calabria and on to Sicily. In Paola, he reflects on Hannibal and the Visigoths. In Taranto, he finds that the fishermen—“their lithe limbs, their attitudes at work or in repose, their wild, black hair”—remind him of “shapes pictured on a classic vase.”

He searches for the Galaesus, Horace’s “beloved river,” and in Metapontum, he thinks of Pythagoras, said to have died there in 497 BC, “broken-hearted at the failure of his efforts to make mankind gentle and reasonable.” Gissing observes that “In 1897 AD that hope had not come much nearer to its realization.” Nor in 2018, this reader would add.

Beyond the allusions to classical history, Gissing describes the daily experience of his trip, vividly recreating scenes—the albergo filthier even than the other filthy albergos with its inedible food and its swindling innkeeper; the surprise of a tasteful building that turns out to be an abattoir; the restaurant where two military men enter together but sit at different tables conversing by shouting across to one another.

Present and past converge dramatically when Gissing falls ill in Cotrone and, in the grip of fever, hallucinates ancient scenes in detail—“great vases,” “sepulchral marbles,” “halls of feasting,” even Hannibal’s soldiers. “The delight of these phantasms,” he says, “was well worth the ten days’ illness which paid for them.”

By the Ionian Sea is, as its title makes clear, the story of a ramble—“a walk for pleasure.” Leisurely, erudite, and quirky, it offers readers a journey not only into the classical and 19th century past, but also into the past of travel writing.


Selected Works

Travel Memoir
"Loved this book, which appears to be but is more than an account of an anthropological expedition, more than a travel book, more than a memoir."--Barbara Beckwith, author of What Was I Thinking?: Digging Deeper into Everyday Racism, barbarabeckwith.net.
***
"It is undoubtedly the best written account of, and reflection on, fieldwork I have read, and --perhaps -- the best book on fieldwork (period) I have come across. --Joel Savishinsky, Professor of Anthropology (Emeritus), Ithaca College, author of Trail of the Hare.
Nonfiction
“An impressively insightful, deftly written, accessibly articulate, expertly knowledgeable, and decidedly analytical survey of…book reviewing today.”
Midwest Book Review
Anthology
“Captivating stories in an anthology of epistolary fiction from the last 50 years.”
Kirkus

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