Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Travel Doctor

By Marc Stengel

It's easy to discern the reason for Luigi Monga's popularity as professor of Italian and French at Vanderbilt University: He is so irrepressibly good-natured that one is likely to consider him the inspiration for the "affable Italian" stereotype--or, in his case, the affable Milanese stereotype. A less obvious, but professionally more significant, reason is his pioneering stature in the field of Renaissance travel writing. For the last 15 years, the good dottore Monga has raised from musty obscurity an arcane and polyglot collection of journals by 16th- and 17th-century Europeans for whom travel was not an occasional leisurely diversion but an often arduous adventure.

"People--even my colleagues--often ask me, `Travel journals? Are they really literature?' When I started in 1980, '82, there were very few people who wrote about travel literature. Now hodoeporics--from the Greek hodos, which means `a way, a path,' and poreio, `to travel'--is becoming very popular.

"My philosophy is that the journey is an important thing. In my introduction to Hodoeporics: On Travel Literature [U. of North Carolina, 1996], I take a certain liberty with the opening words of the Gospel of St. John: `In the beginning was the Road.' Well, as a matter of fact, a few chapters later, Christ Himself says, `I am the way.' Now, I didn't make that pun. He made it. But either way, in the beginning, there was a road, because you cannot consider any writing, any story, without acknowledging the narrative's motion either through time or space. The travel component--the `viatory' component of literature--is fundamental.

"Travel is travail--the words come from exactly the same etymological root. And then there are the fundamental meanings of `error' and `vagrancy.' Consider, for example, the concept of earthly paradise in whichever religion you choose; it always represents a moment of stasis, of rest--nobody moves. But when they were kicked out of the earthly paradise, the first couple began to `err,' to wander off. In other words, they started a life of pain and sacrifice. Travel and travail are connected in this way."

A Greek and Latin classicist by training and a specialist in Renaissance pastoral poetry when he first arrived at Vanderbilt, Monga soon despaired of this crowded academic thoroughfare. In the early '80s, almost by accident, he discovered a scrawled, handwritten journal recounting an anonymous Parisian's travels to Rome, Naples, and Sicily in 1588-89. He published a deciphered and edited (i.e., "redacted" in academese) transcript in 1983 and has continued to pave his way in this new direction ever since.

Road warrior Luigi Monga Photo by dennis wile

"I started with French travelers to Italy. Then I caught up with an Italian merchant making his way through Europe, followed by Italian, French, and English people visiting Italy. And now it's Italians--two Venetian ambassadors, to be exact--describing Spain in 1572 and 1592, respectively. It's very interesting, because it's the end of the reign of Philip II and the beginning of the Spanish decline. Over this 20-year lapse, you can actually see the handwriting appear on the wall.

"Travel journals have to be considered in an interdisciplinary way. They provide sources of information for many things--the history of taste, for example, or of business practices, leisure customs, even sexual mores, disease, and banditry. Then, too, travel is also discovery and confrontation--of `the self' and of `the stranger.' Everybody who writes about his or her travels ends up creating a new experience, and it seems as if you cannot really do justice to such an experience without adding something of your own to it...unconsciously, perhaps."

Signs and Events

* Bill Morris signs All Soul's Day, 5 p.m. June 6 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. In this Vietnam-era thriller-plus-love-story, fact and fiction fall into headlong embrace in the back of a '54 Buick. At first, Morris' Navy-vet protagonist thinks all he needs to make Bangkok his perfect ex-patriot home is a fleet of all-American sedans. But when he meets Anne Sinclair in Saigon, her U.S. Information Service credentials draw the happy loving couple straight into the path of Southeast Asia's tumbling Domino Theory in 1963. Morris, once a Nashville resident, will sign and sample his new novel from Avon Books.

* Don Cusic signs Eddy Arnold, I'll Hold You in My Heart, 6 p.m. June 11 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. Next in line in this year's cavalcade of Music Row inside peeks is Don Cusic's biography of the beloved Eddy Arnold. It's a classic rags-to-riches tale, tracing Arnold's trajectory from rural Chester County (near Jackson, Tenn.) to the top of the country and pop charts (28 times, to be exact). Director of Belmont University's Institute for Music Business Studies, Cusic chronicles Arnold's obvious talent and his quiet influence at the dawning of music's big-business transformation. The book is published by Nashville's Rutledge Hill Press.

* Anne Byrn signs Food Gifts for All Seasons, 7 p.m. June 16 at Bookstar. Bring the viddy-cam and a notebook to document Anne Byrn's on-site demos of easy eats and party treats. 'Tis the season to be ho-ho-hosting, and Byrn's new kitchen tome makes "hors d'oeuvring" for the masses look so tastefully easy that the book was nominated for the '97 Julia Child Award.

* Michael Sims signs Darwin's Orchestra, 7 p.m. June 19 at Bookstar. Nashvillian (and occasional Scene contributor) Michael Sims will sign and read his masterful "almanac of nature in history and the arts," published by Henry Holt. An erstwhile bookseller himself--at the late, lamented Mills Bookstore--Sims has accomplished a hard-to-categorize yet easy-to-enjoy collection of insights and meditations that touch upon almost any topic imaginable.

* Steven Womack presents a workshop on "The Structure of Fiction," 1-4 p.m. June 21 in Room 314, Tennessee State University, Avon Williams Campus. Nashville's mystery-thriller raconteur par excellence will reveal all the secrets behind the craft of his award-winning novels in this workshop sponsored by the Tennessee Writers Alliance. Cost is $30 for TWA members; otherwise, it's $40 for non-members, unless you pay a joint registration/dues fee of $55. Womack will discuss both the art and the technique of writing.

* Note these also: Don Keith signs Wizard of the Wind, 2 p.m. June 7 at Bookstar; "Literary Lights" series at Davis-Kidd Booksellers featuring Connie May Fowler reading from Before Women Had Wings, 7 p.m. June 5, and Lewis Nordon reading from Lightning Song, 7 p.m. June 10.

Nothing but the truth

Phantom Islands of the Atlantic, by Donald S. Johnson (Walker and Co., 1996, $21.00) As Mother Nature abhors a vacuum and rushes to fill one in, so will human nature supply the most persistent mysteries with elaborate explanations unencumbered by fact. Before there were UFOs to test the limits of credulity in this age of self-congratulating scientism, a veritable constellation of unidentified islands surfaced in the wake of Cristobal Colon's first forays into the deep seas beyond the edges of his charts. In Phantom Islands of the Atlantic, seaman-writer Donald S. Johnson charts a scenic path to and through the archipelagoes of the imagination that transfixed Europe during the Age of Discovery. His engaging blend of storytelling and geography, history and detection yields a bounty of insight into our once-and-future yearnings for El Dorado or the Garden of Earthly Delights.

From our present New World perch atop destiny-made-manifest, it is hard to imagine a time when the Atlantic Ocean was filled not merely with bounding main, but also with islands peopled by strangers waiting to shower explorers with riches. It was a time when 11,000 Christian virgins could seek escape from martyrdom in the pre-Columbian Caribbean (hence the Virgin Islands), and when Celtic dreams of earthly paradise could coalesce into reality along the shores of a Fortunate Isle to the west, Hy-Brazil. These presumed destinations existed because "the line far exceeds the word in its authority," as Johnson puts it: Since gossamer lands like Buss Island, Frisland, and Antillia of the Seven Cities appeared vividly upon the sea charts of our ancient mariners, their existence went unchallenged, their origins unsought.

The precise locations of such islands, however, were coveted. For each one of his cartographic detective stories, Johnson provides a fascinating account of the island's peculiar, informing myth. In 1555, the Isle of Demons seemed hell, not heaven, on earth: It harbored "evil spirits or demons, being of a nature intermediate between gods and men...vying with each other to torment civilized man" with their hellish screams. With every failed attempt to confirm its existence in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence, Isola des Demonias skittered across the sea charts, one step ahead of every next explorer's attempt to fix an exact latitude and longitude like a butterfly pinned and wriggling on the wall. Ultimately, Johnson identifies this demoniac conundrum as Fichot Island, near Newfoundland and Labrador, where hell-screeching gannets and fellow sea-birds once nested, according to French explorer Jacques Cartier, "as thick ashore as a meadow with grass."

Johnson asserts that "history and geography are so entwined that the study of one is scarcely possible without the other." Affirming this thesis are his accounts of the expeditions to find Frisland and Buss Island, in which larger-than-life figures like Martin Frobisher, the brothers Zeno, and John and Sebastian Cabot navigated uncharted seas in their often disastrous quests for territorial and material reward.

Perhaps Johnson ignores the covert role of 15th-century Welsh and English mariners in charting North America's Atlantic seaboard because he is unaware of findings published by Arthur Davies in the journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1984. Surely the prevailing atmosphere of secrecy and half-truths at that pre-Colombian time can account for many of the spurious depictions of islands and coastlines that ambitious cartographers appropriated a bit too uncritically for their maps.

Johnson is generally successful in re-creating the heady climate of 14th- and 15th-century navigation, when a surfeit of gullibility combined with a dearth of geography to urge mariners ever westward across the Atlantic. The reader may marvel at the risks undertaken in the name of mere legend--and at the many personal and commercial calamities suffered as a result. But for all our modern skepticism about ancient tales of phantom Fortunate Isles, the fact remains that, half a millennium ago and just as predicted, a vast new world like no other did indeed arise out of the western sea.

The dog-eared page

"There is a certain educated English voice that is both correct and malicious. Jan Morris has such a voice. It is not deep but it is languid, and the maleness that still trembles in it makes it sultry and attractive. There is nothing ponderous about her. She shrugs easily and is a good listener, and she laughs as a cat might--full-throated and with a little hiss of pleasure, stiffening her body. She is kind, reckless, and intelligent."--Paul Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea (Penguin Books, 1984)

"The leaping rivers flood over the great plains./...Some poor fellow seizes a hill-top; another, in a dinghy,/Rows where he used to plough, and one goes sailing/Over his fields of grain or over the chimney/Of what was once his cottage. Someone catches/Fish in the top of an elm-tree, or an anchor/Drags in green meadow-land...."--Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid, 41 BC-18 AD), Metamorphoses, translated by Rolfe Humphries (Indiana U. Press, 1983)

"With his marine clocks, John Harrison tested the waters of space-time. He succeeded, against all odds, in using the fourth--temporal--dimension to link points on the three-dimensional globe. He wrested the world's whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch."--Dava Sobel, Longitude (Walker and Co., 1995)

"The history of any ancient town is as much the history of its inhabitants' nightly pillows as of any practical activity that they perform by day. Floating on its softly upheaving sea-surface of feminine breasts the island-city of mystery gathered itself together to resist [the] wedge of rational invasion.... The psychic history of a place like Glastonbury is not an easy thing to write down in set terms."--John Cowper Powys, A Glastonbury Romance (Overlook Press, 1987)

To comment, cavil or compliment, your e-mail is welcome at historix@bellsouth.net

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