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“THE ART OF EXILE – A Vagabond Life” by John Freely (Published in 2016 by I.B. Tauris Publishers, London and New York. No New Zealand price known)

I do not know if you have ever had the experience of wanting very much to like a book because you like the revealed personality of the author and most of his attitudes and you know that he has much to say but - alas – you find the style of the book so unsatisfactory that in the end you are disappointed in it.
This has been my experience with the Irish-American author John Freely’s The Art of Exile, which is subtitled “A Vagabond Life”. [To the best of my knowledge, this newly-published book is not available in New Zealand and I have been able to read it only thanks to an American friend who lent me a copy.]
Born in 1926, John Freely wrote The Art of Exile to appear near his ninetieth birthday. It is clearly intended to sum up his life, and that life has been a most interesting one. Freely’s family were very poor people from Kerry in the underdeveloped south-west of Ireland. His parents emigrated to New York when Freely was an infant, but they did not find riches in the New World and they were once or twice so disheartened that they returned to Ireland for brief spells. Nevertheless, New York finally became their permanent home. Even so, life was hardscrabble, especially as Freely’s father was frequently out of work, and even when he was in work he was capable only of unskilled and lowly-paid labouring jobs such as digging ditches or being a gravedigger. Freely’s mother of course produced a very large brood - eleven children.
This scenario could be the set-up for a piece of “misery lit” like John McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. But The Art of Exile is no such book as it is clear that despite poverty, despite having to survive the Depression years, and despite the father’s heavy drinking, this was a happy and cohesive family. The boy John Freely did not do well at school. His only love was reading, he flunked most subjects and he dropped out of high school with no qualifications to his name. In the Second World War, and at the age of eighteen, he joined the US Navy and saw service as part of the force that provided some assistance to China as it sought to repel Japanese invaders. When Freely quit the navy at the end of the war, he was twenty, unskilled and not sure what to do with himself.
But then he received some life-changing advice from a priest:
            I asked Father Ryan for advice on what I might read to educate myself after I left the Navy, for there was little chance that I would go back to school. He looked through his desk and handed me the catalogue for the Great Books programme… The curriculum began with Homer’s Odyssey and ended with James Joyce’s Ulysses, and included not only the Great Books but also works about the authors themselves and the times in which they lived.” (pp.38-39)
Before he found real work, the young ex-navy man decided to goof off for a year, living off the modest pension for which former servicemen were eligible. He says:
During the 52 weeks that followed I read through the entire curriculum of the Great Books programme, starting with Homer in Chapman’s translation of 1595, and ending with James Joyce’s Ulysses.” (p.64)
It was only when he was near the end of this programme that he learnt he was eligible for a free college education thanks to the generous G. I. Bill, which was then having the effect of lifting many American working-class former soldiers and sailors into middle-class lives. Not even able to boast of a high-school diploma, and never having shone in mathematics or the sciences, Freely was still able to get into NYU and study what most people would regard as the most daunting pure science – Physics. Amazingly, he shone. He gained a PhD, had articles published in prestigious scientific journals and was offered a research position at Princeton. He was now qualified to teach Physics at university level and, for the rest of his working life, teaching Physics and courses on the history of science became his basic livelihood.
But this was not the focus of his life. His Navy days led him to love travel and his particular interest was the civilisations of the old eastern Mediterranean. He met his wife Dolores – always nicknamed Toots – in the late 1940s, and they made a “pact” (pp.65-66) that they would spend their life travelling together. They were to have three children who were all given distinctively Irish names - Maureen, Eileen and Brendan. (Maureen Freely is now herself a novelist and noted translator of Turkish literature.) But even with children in tow, they now began to live the “vagabond” life of the subtitle.
John Freely took up teaching positions in English-language colleges in Istanbul and this city was to be his base for most of the years that followed, with occasional visiting fellowships at English and American universities. From Istanbul he and Toots – sometimes alone, sometimes with the children – made yearly trips to the Greek isles, to Anatolia, to Romania, to Venice, to Spain and Southern Italy. Thus their life continued from the 1950s to the 1990s, and as it did so, Freely wrote, or collaborated in writing, dozens of travel books, travel guides and historical studies of the places in which he sojourned for long periods. Nearly forty books are credited to him – most published by major firms such as Penguin.
All this, you have to admit, is pretty good for a high school drop-out who, at the age of twenty, had little idea what he wanted to do with his life.
Freely’s tone throughout this memoir is optimistic and cheerful. He clearly loved what he was able to do for fifty or sixty years, and when he visits some ancient gods-haunted temple or other historical site, he is always ready to quote appropriate verses by Pindar or Alcaeus or Homer or Anacreon. He is very discreet. When mentioning various friends and university colleagues, he speaks no scandal (save when remarking on one administrator who was fired for incompetence). Without elaborating – he can (p.89) tell us of a friend in Istanbul associating with “somewhat scary young men with whom he would then disappear into the night.” (Hmmm). In one sentence only, he notes that his son attempted suicide and he brushes quickly over his daughter’s divorce.
Likewise it is to his credit that he indulges in very little name-dropping. In Chapter 4 he tells us that, when his daughter was a tot, she danced with an unknown Egyptian fighter-pilot called Hosni Murbarak – later president of Egypt. He had an interesting encounter in a restaurant with the famed Turkish novelist Yasar Kemal (author of Memed, My Hawk), where Kemal plucked a red hair out of Freely’s Irish beard to show his friends, and Freely plucked a hair from Kemal’s bared chest to show his friends. There are also a couple brief anecdotes about visits from the American novelist James Baldwin. But that’s it for name-dropping.
If there is a theme to be discerned – apart from Freely’s pride in his achievements – it is to be found in the elegiac note he often strikes. He is fully aware that his best travelling days were before easy air-travel and mass tourism began to crowd hitherto obscure places around the Mediterranean, which he once haunted. Of first visiting the reputed site of the fabled Troy he observes (p.99): “Tourism had not yet begun in Turkey, and so we had the site all to ourselves except for a Turkish gendarme who was guarding the ruins.” Of another site, he remarks:
I still have a photo of the temple that I took that day, and it remains as the enduring image of our early trips through Anatolia…. By the time [one of my books was published] the modern world had discovered this lost arcadia, spoiling it forever, but not in my memory, where it remains the same as it was when I first saw it in what now seems a golden age.” (p.126)
There are many other such statements in The Art of Exile, even some relating to his sense of a “lost world” when he revisited Ireland for the first time in eighty years and discovered people now have televisions and don’t go barefoot; or when he went to the New York neighbourhoods where he grew up. But I find much unintended irony in this sort of talk. He recalls researching and writing a guide book of the island of Naxos and then calls it “an evocation of the place as we first knew it, before it had lost its innocence to the modern commercial world.” (p.175) This shows no awareness that guide books, such as his own, would be one of the reasons that such places are now swarming for tourists. Indeed, the type of books Freely habitually wrote are largely marketed to potential tourists. A grimmer sort of irony is to be found now in his reference to halcyon days (in the early 1960s) in places like Damascus and Aleppo.
I won’t criticise Freely for indulging in one habit that some might find arch. This is his habit of picturing himself frequently as Odysseus the voyager and his wife (who died in 2015 after 64 years of marriage) as the faithful Penelope. But I guess I can indulge an old man on that one.
As you can, I hope, see, I have nothing against John Freely’s worldview, or his attitude to life, and I find his achievements admirable.
Why, then, did I find this book so disappointing and in the end (sorry) so dull?
It is because it reads like a bare chronicle, or perhaps even like diary notes that have been gracelessly worked up into an autobiography. From my summary, you might well assume that The Art of Exile is a book that bustles with events and anecdotes and the liveliness of a traveller’s life. It isn’t. It is a book that trudges year by year through the chronicle of where Freely held academic appointments, where he travelled with members of his family, which books he wrote and who published them and so forth. Repeatedly he seems to be “doing justice” to his life rather than letting us share its sights, sounds, smells and (above all) people. Indeed it is like an “account rendered”. I have the impression that Freely has already said at length what he has to say about the places he has visited in the many travel books he has written. The Art of Exile might be intended to give us the big picture, but it is a picture with all the colour drained out of it.

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