Great writing, in its most official forms, comes to us in novels or book-length works of nonfiction. Some readers, myself among them, find as much pleasure in the distinctive offcuts, literature’s offal: books of letters and essays, diaries, collections of food and travel writing, volumes of criticism.
Diane Johnson is best known as a novelist (“Persian Nights,” “Le Divorce”); she has published just one book of travel writing. It’s called “Natural Opium: Some Travelers’ Tales,” and it appeared in 1993, when the author was in her late 50s. It’s not just my favorite work in her estimable and varied oeuvre; it’s a misanthropic masterpiece of the genre.
What makes Johnson such a lively travel companion is that, for the most part, she detests traveling. She is alert to every fraud, insult, cliché and bleach-whitened smile. She is in touch, as we all are when traveling, with her inner troglodyte.
“Why was I not, like a nice person, simply content to be, to enjoy beauty and inner peace?” she asks on a dismal boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef. “Instead I must suffer, review, quiver with fears and rages — the fault, I saw, was in myself, I was a restless, peevish, flawed person.”
Restless, yes — flawed, no. By giving vent to all her thoughts and emotions while traveling, she has produced an especially humane and honest book. She has “tried to account for those moments of travel ennui or traveler’s panic we have all felt,” she writes, moments most travel writers omit.
Johnson has a foil in her essays: her husband, known here as “J.,” an even-tempered and admired lung expert and professor of medicine who travels frequently for meetings of an international infectious diseases council. He’s cool and rational; she frets and seethes.
Most of the exotic trips Johnson describes are for J.’s work. In one essay, the couple boards an emergency Concorde flight to London because J. has been asked to help save the life of an unknown V.I.P. who had a heart attack in Karachi, Pakistan.
It’s a complicated story. J. winds up feeling morally sullied, bought for the price of a fancy airplane ticket. Other essays take them to China, Tanzania, South Africa and Guatemala.
In an essay titled “Wine,” Johnson dilates upon learning, the hard way, the perils of asking your hosts in tropical countries for wine. It is not traditionally served there and frequently hard to come by.
She recounts, at a large dinner near Tikal, being brought a bottle of sweet wine (“Mogen David or something”) located after great effort, and feeling “shame to be the rich gringo whose imperative command sends the poor local off into the night on an hour’s drive for something she doesn’t even want.”
Johnson brings home offbeat souvenirs, but she broods frequently on the nature of gifts and gift shops. “What contempt the people who think up souvenirs have for other people,” she writes.
In one remarkable essay she accidentally leaves a souvenir of sorts (a fake Rolex) in a hotel room in Beijing. “It hadn’t even been worth writing to ask about it,” she says. When it is returned to her at her home in San Francisco, in person and at enormous expense, Johnson doesn’t have the heart to tell the deliverer that it is worth $10. Here as elsewhere, moral culpability is a theme.
“Natural Opium” takes its title from these sentences, early in the book: “I am not fond of travel under the best of circumstances — inconvenient displacements punctuated by painful longings to be home. For J., travel is natural opium.”
The book contains two essays that are as sublime as the very best short stories. One, “Cuckoo Clock,” is about 200 or so professors of medicine and their spouses who gather in Grindelwald, Switzerland, for a conference under the auspices of the World Health Organization. Invited one evening to a dinner gala, the guests find themselves winding and skidding up a steep, icy mountain road at night in buses they fear will overturn at any instant. The surprises have only begun. After a long dinner and much drinking, it turns out, the hosts have planned for them a two-and-a-half-mile toboggan ride back to their hotels, down the mountain, in the middle of the frigid night.
“Despair sealed my ears,” Johnson writes, as she considers “the other 50 or so sedentary, tipsy, maladroit, and terrified passengers — dignified international doctors transformed unwillingly into feckless adventurers defying death with their portly bodies and bejeweled wives.” They are underdressed and underprepared.
Johnson rides on the back of another doctor’s toboggan, envisioning herself, rear end dragging, “bouncing off my pillory and over the cliff.” It would not be sporting to give away the rest of this fairy-tale-like story.
Suffice it to say that “shame and chagrin” are involved, as well as an understanding of why “people lost in snowstorms simply stopped and froze in their tracks.”
The other near-perfect essay is “The Great Barrier Reef,” delicious partly because it is such a Baedeker of bummers: a grim hotel, a shabby vessel, bovine fellow travelers, appalling food, seedy crew members, bad weather, “barfing Australian senior citizens.”
The essay goes deeper. She and J. have only recently gotten together, and the trip will be a “sort of trial honeymoon,” on which “we would discover whether we were suited to live together by subjecting ourselves to that most serious of tests: traveling together.”
It’s a test she fears she will not pass. It doesn’t help that she’s reeling from a divorce and custody battle. About the court case, she writes, “It was as if a furious mob had come to smash with sticks my porcelain figure of myself.”
Johnson’s beautiful book is about how travel, too, pulls us apart and, in ways we do not expect, makes us whole again.