Friday, March 08, 2013

How to Travel Incognito

London based publishers Prion have sometime now been re-publishing most of the classics from around fifty to hundred years back, from the stiff-upper-lip-Brit humour (notice the 'u') to the more unabashed slap-the-back American ones. Authors include (complete list) E. F. Benson, Saki, Jerome K. Jerome, Max Beerbohm to Anita Loos, James Thurber, Mark Twain, S. J. Perelman across the pond to the relatively obscure E. M. Delafield (Diary of a Provincial Lady). I picked a relative unknown for me, How to Travel Incognito written by Ludwig Bemelmans.

Ludwig Bemelmans, born in Austrian Tyrol in 1898 and a colorful personality in his times, was raised by his uncle who was a successful hotelier. The book has a nice introduction by Robert Warnick on Bemelman's real-life adventures -- shot a staff in his Uncle's hotel and ran off to America by 16 with two pistols to "fend off hostile Indians". Bemelmans is not exactly obscure, for he is a popular author for children and has written more than fifty books, most of them light-hearted and humorous. How to... is also written in similar style. It is a collection of easy adventures by the protagonist, semi-autobiographical, set in 1950s France.

Monsieur Le Comte de St. Cucuface is an aristocrat fallen on hard times, with his head and appetite held high, living on parties. He convinces our protagonist, Ludwig, to travel 'incognito' with him, as the Prince of Bavaria and join the fun. And so the adventures begin in post-war France, gallivanting from one hotel to another buffet through bar-rooms, gobbling gastronomic delights to gaffes, from one castle to another party via train journey that gets misdirected. Each sojourn is spruced with a story of local color, some interesting others plainly boring. And in the end, all misadventures along with the adventurers come to a happy tepid ending.

Here is a sample from the wacky prose to prick your interest:
"The painter Dali once told me that turtles are very useful. They make excellent ashtrays," said St. Cucuface. "The way to do it is simple: you take a turtle of medium size, a young one, preferably between fifty and seventy-five years of age, and you have a jeweler attach a metal rod to its shell. On the top of that an ashtray is put, a detachable ashtray that you may take off in order to have it cleaned. The advantage is that since the turtle always tries to get under something, it will always be next to a couch or an easy chair where you want the ashtray."
"Very practical," said the Princess.
"And besides," added St. Cucuface, "when you leave, you can say to the housekeeper - 'Good-by, and don't forget to feed the ashtray."
Such passages and a re-working of Sleeping Beauty into a really wacky story, slipped in as part of an adventure, are the high-points. The book entirely is not that way, interspersed with several un-interesting passages that tested my resolve not to skip, saved only by occasional one-liners that promised more and the contextual line-drawings by the author. I am reminded of an observation on the music of Richard Wagner that goes something like: His music has beautiful moments and awful quarter-hours. But then, I would always complete reading such honest books than feeling lost and guilty over certain literary-tomes.


  1. Ludwig said...

    We Ludwigs have always been great travel writers.