I’m breaking my cardinal rule of never reading something while in a bad mood, and unfortunately this review will suffer for it. Lynne Tillman’s 1991 book about drifting around Europe in the 1980s, vagabonding with people she meets along the way, has all the earmarks of a great book. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as it deserves, mostly because of the buzzing undercurrent of unease that zapped while I was reading it, entirely unrelated to the book. Her narrator is a single woman, breezily floating from London, to Paris, to Istanbul, to Milan, to Venice, to Barcelona, etc. etc. on her mother’s dime along with her meager savings. None of the people she meets will believe that she’s not independently wealthy because of her flitting hither and thither with nary a care in the world. Strangely, everyone she meets all seem to know each other, this tightknit community of people surfing through Europe, running bookshops or selling antique jewelry on Portobello Road. She shuns typical sightseeing for more lounging around in hotel beds, writing and then ripping up postcards to people.
I did like her characterization of Gregor, the Barcelona recluse who sounds like one of my ilk. “Gregor reads voraciously and keeps a diary that he writes in scrupulously each day at a desk surrounded by small fileboxes in which are stored annotated comments about what he’s read. He’s disciplined, a vegetarian, and his home is nearly bare, except for a vast wall of books which I’ve referred to as his Berlin Wall. Irony, yes? he asks. All of Freud, in German and English, Melanie Klein, Christa Wolf, Hegel, Marx, Handke, books on Hollywood film, Dickens, Stendhal, Flaubert, Resnais, Duras, biographies galore. He tells me he sometimes is transfixed in front of his books, awed and dismayed… Though he doesn’t like to see people–he is, he insists grimly, compulsively counterphobic–he knows many and keeps a stack of notebooks near his telephone, with names and addresses of the interesting people he’s met.”
Her narrator buys the local paper wherever she is, despite not reading whatever language it is in. She sums up the great thing about not getting to know people very well, “There’s a perfection in the incomplete way in which we know each other.” On traveling alone, “Mornings, according to a voluntary routine, I sit in the garden and have a roll, jam and cappuccino while observing couples, primarily, and the occasional single, who, like me, must project an air of isolation, resilience, industriousness or tranquility. The virtues of silence. I’ve been silent for days, except with Tony [the hotel desk clerk]. At breakfast, as at lunch or dinner, I try to hit on the right amount of self-absorption, as if being with myself is close to constant delight.”