The City at Three P.M.: Writing, Reading, and Traveling goes beyond simple travel memoirs—it is an amalgamation of the present and past, historical and fictional, as well as smart and accessible. This blending creates a rewarding read for bibliophiles. While LaSalle is a professor, this book is not academic. He condenses years of reading, thinking, and writing into enjoyable essays that are nuanced and intelligent. Although he writes about attending the University of Chicago and teaching at the University of Texas, he feels awkward and nervous about the institutionalization of higher education. He cherishes the role of being an outsider and will not write priggish, jargon-filled prose even when the subject matter consists of arcane books. For example, when LaSalle writes about Flaubert’s Salammbô—a text of which I knew nothing about—I could follow along as he summarized, framed, and connected this text with his travels through North Africa. While the subject matter of this essay is a bit esoteric, the writing is vibrant, personable, and compelling. LaSalle doesn’t write down to readers; he brings them up.
This authorial positioning is established in the “The Saul Bellow Speeding Ticket.” In it LaSalle tells the story about enrolling at the University of Chicago to study English and creative writing under Bellow. While Bellow teaches at Chicago, he doesn’t teach creative writing—something LaSalle doesn’t find out until he arrives on campus. All is not lost. Bellow is a kind and welcoming professor who lets LaSalle drop by to “blabber” about writing. This short essay doesn’t really deal with travel but it’s very much about writing, mentorship, and positions of power. The core of this piece establishes what LaSalle values as a person as well as grounds his ethos as a writer.
“I’ve traveled to Buenos Aires to spend a couple of weeks for no other reason than I want to see if I can tune in on a bit of Borges’s metaphysics [….] I read Borges in the morning [….] Then in the afternoon I head out to some of the places important in his biography.” This is LaSalle’s typical approach to travel—he flies thousands of miles without a specific goal. These trips aren’t wild jaunts with late night drinking or dancing. The purpose is to solder the objects of the world with the words on the page through the merger of biographical notes, contextual details, and a lifetime of rereading. These trips are literary expeditions that encourage intellectual curiosity. Because after all, Borges’s fiction seems to exist outside of a cultural context. I can’t imagine what LaSalle expects to find in Buenos Aires that will unlock Ficciones. But maybe that’s the point. Travel isn’t a decoder ring that somehow unlocks the maestro’s metaphysics, but it does provide him a unique opportunity to take those years of reading and thinking about books on the road in order to gain new insight.
Let’s spend a moment to examine LaSalle’s writing technique, one that folds the actual within the fictional. In “Plasticize your Documents: with G. Flaubert in Tunisia”, LaSalle explores Flaubert’s Salammbô, “a lushly written near epic about ancient Carthage.” His day-long strolls through North Africa create a ripple from the present, to the past, to the fictional. We see Tunisia as LaSalle sees it, North Africa as Flaubert saw it, and the poetic representation of Carthage as Flaubert imagined it. Those three offer a richness of understanding through simultaneously bringing the author, the text, and the reader into frame. He does this a second time with Mexico and Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano. These essays indirectly make a case for why and how reading and travel enrich the quality of life. Visiting Mexico makes Under the Volcano a richer book, which in turn adds another layer to Mexico. Reading and travel orbit one another in a dependent dance, as do the actual and fictional. When either pair is thrust into a singular moment, the text attains a sense of multitudes—it obtains that richness and vibrancy one wants from writing.
So much of this book deals with how literature positively affects the reader. On the flipside, LaSalle dedicates part of his essay about Nathanael West to a more nuanced and rigid aspect of the literary world—rare book and manuscript libraries. There he declares his distaste for a bureaucratic gatekeeper who refused him access to West’s manuscripts at the Huntington, a private, non-profit institute in Southern California. Here is the snag—LaSalle needs a Ph.D. to view the manuscripts, which he doesn’t have. He points out that he teaches at the University of Texas as a full professor and has published a number of books. He follows with a moderate aside about significant contributions to literary analysis by non-academics (T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forester, Albert Camus, and Milan Kundera) as well as points to the “priggish, soporifically, jargonized, perpetual-grad-student prose” that makes contemporary literary criticism “unreadable despite how much extensive research it entails.” It is a great diatribe that got me jumping on the couch with excitement. I couldn’t agree more.
This essay taps into the duel nature of books. They are the original mass media. They can be easily replicated and resold. This has the potential to make books affordable and allow anyone with the inclination to access great writing. On the other hand, books can also be collectable items worth significant sums of money. So what’s valued? The story or the paper it is written on? And what good is a book if it is so valuable that nobody reads it? If nobody reads the book, does it stop being a book? I do like how LaSalle wants to have it both ways. It is slightly hypocritical. He preaches about being an outsider in academia throughout the book but then uses his status to get what he wants. While I’m judging him for this, I’d do the same thing. In the words of Uncle Walt, “Very well, then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
The City at Three P.M. offers a composite of memoir, travelogue, and literary journalism. The sum is greater than its parts. That is because the different pieces harmonize and offer the reader something that is stimulating and affective. Each essay reminds us that the activities of reading, writing, and travelling feed off of each other to enrich our life. These activities are far more significant than what is locked away in the rare book rooms.