Saturday, October 3, 2015

Michèle Longino's "French Travel Writing in the Ottoman Empire"

Michèle Longino is Professor of Romance Studies at Duke University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, French Travel Writing in the Ottoman Empire: Marseilles to Constantinople, 1650-1700, and reported the following:
Page 99, as it happens, is from the end of Ch. 3 of French Travel Writing in the Ottoman Empire: Marseilles to Constantinople, 1650-1700. The book examines the writings of six French travelers in the Ottoman Empire – a jewelry merchant, an ethnographer – tourist, a diplomat, an artist, another merchant trading mainly in Persia, and an antiquarian. The six travelers wrote volumes; they edited parts of their writings themselves, but often it was up to others to make sense from remains of copious notes, and shape them into readable books. They were the most popular reading of their time. Chapter 3 focuses on a Marseillais polyglot turned diplomat, Laurent D’Arvieux, and it recounts his story – travels to Tunis, Algiers, Constantinople, Aleppo, as well as other places, most notably Paris, and provides an eloquent example of the kinds of treasures one might hope to find in these tales. However, it requires real commitment to plow through not only the travel writings, but also the included documents the travelers considered to be of important explanatory value for their stories. D’Arvieux was a frustrated diplomat who never felt he received the degree of royal recognition he deserved. He was constantly elaborating his story with testimonial documentation to shore up his account of how things were and went. To the degree that the travelers were faithful to their journals, providing entries for each day of the year, their accounts could be repetitive and monotonous. And above all copious. So for today’s reader, it can require great patience and persistence. But in the end the reading is a rewarding venture. A question to ask of this sort of book that fixes on 17th-century observations by Frenchmen of the Ottoman world is whether we do not, in so doing, simply recycle and thus perpetuate notions and attitudes about otherness, precisely the presuppositions and prejudices succeeding generations have labored so hard to shed and overcome. But there is also value in considering how deeply ingrained many of these cultural positions are; it helps us to understand why they seem so resistant to change today. The reader will be the judge of whether French Travel Writing succeeds in entering into this world, and if it conveys a faithful impression of the Ottoman world from these outsiders’ perspective without simply reciting the usual idées reçues. At the same time, the book aspires to give an idea of how different individuals approached the challenge of writing about their travels, about themselves, as they moved about the Mediterranean in early modern times.
Learn more about French Travel Writing in the Ottoman Empire at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue