December 21, 2009

Levantine Adventurer

Category: History :: Permalink

A couple of weeks ago, I read W. H. Lewis’s Levantine Adventurer: The Travels and Missions of the Chevalier d’Arvieux, 1653-1697. W. H. (“Warnie”) Lewis was the brother of C. S. Lewis and his area of expertise was the history of seventeenth century France, a period he referred to as The Splendid Century. Though I have read a lot of C. S. Lewis’s works, I hadn’t read anything by his brother. And so, having discovered that the local library had Levantine Adventurer, I requested and read it.

I knew nothing about this time period nor, I must confess, about the Chevalier d’Arvieux before reading this volume, which is largely a summary of his memoirs. At first, the narrative seemed a bit dry and assumed some knowledge I didn’t have, but before long the story itself began to interest me. D’Arvieux spent most of his adult life in the Levant, both working as a representative of the king and traveling for pleasure. Lewis has read the travel memoirs of d’Arvieux’s contemporaries — Spon, Thevenot, and Lucas — as well as of more recent travelers, and he frequently compares d’Arvieux’s descriptions with theirs, in a way that is sometimes illuminating. Consider this passage:

Kinglake [a 19th century traveler] and d’Arvieux both visited Damascus and I know no more striking example of the gulf which separates the romantic from his predecessors than their respective descriptions of the famous gardens. First Kinglake:

They bring back to your mind the memory of some dark old shrubbery in our isle that has been charmingly unkept for many a day … all through the sweet wilderness a loud rushing stream goes tumbling along till … in the lowest corner of the garden it is tossed up in a fountain by the side of a simple alcove.

Now d’Arvieux:

Although rustic they are delightful. They are surrounded by fruit trees which furnish the town with all kinds of fruit, both for eating in season and for turning into conserves all the year round. Caravans carry these fruits to Seide, Beirut, Tripoli and other places … One cannot imagine how prodigious is the consumption of fruit in Damascus (90-91).

At several points, it becomes obvious that Lewis considers d’Arvieux a better memoirist than these others. As he writes in his “Foreword,”

My own impression is of a man who enjoyed every minute of the business of living, whether he was eating, drinking, money-making, sight-seeing, or engaged in the petty diplomacy of the Council Chamber; though to be fair to him he more than once showed considerable diplomatic skill on a larger stage. With all his gusto d’Arvieux was neither ingenuous nor an enthusiast, but a good-humoured cynic who observed the follies of mankind with an indulgent eye, qualities which stood him in good stead as a memoir writer, where he is crisp, vivid, and generous; not so oppressively archaeological as Spon, Thevenot, or Lucas, and mercifully lacking in the bombast of Nointel…. d’Arvieux’s work has the unmistakeable ring of truth, and I agree with his first editor, Labat, when he says that “one never tires of reading these memoirs because they are a continuous blend of the useful, the instructive, and the pleasing” (8-9).

I suspect that Lewis saw d’Arvieux as a kindred spirit. Lewis’s own good humor shows up frequently in this book. He has a knack for picking out interesting tidbits from d’Arvieux’s account, holding them up for us to wonder about (is it really possible that the lions of a certain area were so timid that the women doing their washing could simply shoo them away?) and, even better, humorous anecdotes.

For instance:

Teonge, chaplain of the English frigate Ginny — by which I suppose he means either Guinea or Jenny — records with gusto their dinner on February 4, 1676, when in the cabin the afterguard demolished “a gallant baked pudding, an excellent legg of porke and colliflours, an excellent dish made of a pigg’s petti-toes, 2 roasted piggs, on (sic) turkey cock, a roasted hogg’s head, three ducks, a dish of Cyprus burds, and pistachioes and dates together and store of good wines.” His diary for February 5 begins with the entry, “Captaine not well this day” (112-113).

Or this:

To our ideas all these ships, especially the coaster, must have been abominably uncomfortable, particularly in heavy weather. Lucas, on a two-day passage in a small craft bound from Chios to Smyrna, got no sleep, “being importuned unceasingly by the babble of ninety women passengers.” Who were they, one wonders, and how did they come to be travelling alone? Thevenot took passage in a country ship, a caique, from Chios to Egypt in 1656 where the accommodation was so cramped that though he had the purser’s cabin, when he and his servant were in bed “there was not six inches of room left”; and as a caique “was almost round” and could sail only with the wind dead aft, their progress was leisurely. In this curious craft the unlucky man endured des vomissements horribles and in the intervals “blamed bitterly my own stupidity in quitting my ease to go voyaging”; though he was a trifle comforted by a large dose of opium administered by a sympathetic Turk. d’Arvieux, a much tougher man, caught out in a gale aboard a similar craft, has little to tell us except that he restored the courage of some despondent Moslems with tots of brandy. “Is it wine?” they asked suspiciously. No, no, only brandy, said d’Arvieux soothingly, after which they drank freely. Lucky for them, he concludes, that le bonhomme Mahomet had never heard of brandy (113-114).

Once started, I am tempted to keep looking up passages to quote. One can imagine Warnie Lewis, at work in his researches, regaling his brother or all the Inklings with these sorts of anecdotes.

While the anecdotes make the book particularly enjoyable, though, its value also lies in its illuminating observations. As the contrast with Kinglake above makes clear, he was he not a romantic, loving wild gardens. D’Arvieux preferred his gardens with the trees all in straight rows, and the sight of a garden prompts him not to raptures over sublime nature but to reflections on fruit.

But D’Arvieux is also not at all a contemporary of ours and he doesn’t share our attitudes. Lewis writes:

… no place in the Empire contained a larger population of burglars and highwaymen, a fact which gives d’Arvieux an opportunity to describe in detail the ghastly punishments of impaling and flaying alive. It is this sort of passage which suddenly reveals to us the gulf by which we are separated from a man of the seventeenth century. We jog along with d’Arvieux through the Levant, appreciating his good nature, his dry humour, and feeling that we should have got along famously with him, when all of a sudden we find him watching the infliction of horrible tortures with less emotion than he would show over a Greek inscription or a ruined temple (51-52).

There is more in this volume: descriptions of customs in many lands; the strange story of the battle over which Roman Catholic sect could say mass in the building in which d’Arvieux worked; episodes of amazing incompetence on behalf of the French government’s representatives — none of which, perhaps, may sound particularly interesting in themselves. But there you would be wrong. With good humor and keen insight, Lewis tells a story that overcame my initial ignorance and indifference to that time and place and made me want to read more.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:40 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “Levantine Adventurer

  1. Kata Iwannhn » Books I Enjoyed Most in 2009 Says:

    […] * W. H. Lewis, Levantine Adventurer: The Travels and Missions of the Chevalier, d’Arvieux, 1653-1697. This is the first book I’ve ever read by C. S. Lewis’s brother. I found it in the Medford library. My review is here. […]

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