Jessa Crispin's collection of personal essays about creative people and European cities is hard to categorize. It is bold, amusingly self-deprecating, desperate and adventurous and, at times, unconvincing. It is, perhaps, the least happy travelogue ever written.
The prelude to her travels finds her in Chicago, extremely dissatisfied with the direction her life has taken and not knowing where to turn. She resolves that she will turn to the dead "writers and artists and composers … who were willing to scrape their lives clean and start again elsewhere." The project, then, is to travel to cities that these creative expats lived in and to allow the dead to guide her through her problems.
So she moves to Berlin, where American psychologist William James sought community and found alienation. Crispin tells us of James' inability to learn German, to meet romantic partners, to make friends. Encountering similar failures, Crispin is cheered by this spiritual father, and what lifts the project is Crispin's ability to coat episodes of gloom with humor.
On a mountainside in Switzerland, she studies the exiled and impoverished composer Igor Stravinsky, whom she admires for his ability to make use of what resources remained to him. In other essays, Crispin considers marital hatred (Somerset Maugham in St. Petersburg), the legacy of war (Rebecca West in Sarajevo) and the bravery of marrying into adventure "and its twin, fear" (James Joyce's partner/wife, Nora Barnacle, in Trieste).
As Crispin travels, imaginatively retracing the experiences of predecessors, she is by turns distraught and heartened. Her emotional life is a wreck. She hears from her married lover sporadically, hoping for and dreading the idea of him visiting. In the South of France, she tells us, "I am drunk and sobbing on the floor"; there are frequent moments like this.
At other times, though, Crispin's self-revealing, self-evaluating prose is challenging and brave. In St. Petersburg, she wishes she could tell people that the purpose of her project is "to find reasons to keep myself alive." And in the end, she speaks eloquently for the value of community: "Maybe the trick is to push violently at your own boundaries, to find your own contradictions, and use your teeth and nails to destroy what separates you from something else."
Crispin's technique of locating herself in the lives of adopted expats is a wonderful organizational device, but credibility is worth exploring. Her reading of Irish activist/actress Maud Gonne, for instance, is simplified to the point of distortion. In Crispin's account, Gonne is essentially British radical chic, acting out against her British father by supporting the Irish rebels.
Gonne's life in France is presented as a kind of refuge from restrictive Ireland. Yet Gonne's worries about custody of her children (before 1916) and England's refusal to give her a visa to Ireland (post-1916) likely played a part in her decision to reside in France. Is Gonne — and are the other figures — conveniently tailored to suit the essayist's needs? How much this matters is up to the reader.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.