We travel abroad in our twenties for all the right reasons, but all the right reasons are vague: It’s good for us to experience the world, to discover ourselves; it’s a rite of passage. We never stop to clarify these motivations too specifically — that would be defeating the purpose, killing the mystery — and in any case it’s probably best we don’t. The experiences we have overseas and across borders are rarely the ones we anticipate. The selves we discover turn out to be rougher, crueler, and stranger than we had hoped. We have only to look to literature’s 20-something expat hall of fame to see that going abroad is so often a dirty business, rife with sexual misadventure, spiritual upheaval, moral dysphoria, and selfishness in extremis. Fortunately the journeys still are, in a weird way, good for us. And, if nothing else, an expatriate tale always makes for one hell of a read. These novels and memoirs about 20-somethings abroad — from Henry James’s The Portrait of Lady to Caleb Crain’s recent novel, Necessary Errors — should be required reading for any millennial who’s contemplating fleeing to another country, has already touched down in a foreign locale, or who has returned to their homeland and is now tasked with making reverse-culture-shock sense of their experience. Standard accounts of sightseeing, drunken revelry and goofy interactions with locals they are not: Instead, they’re stories about the less dignified — but far more lasting and empowering — consequences of seeing the world in one’s twenties.
Pious, ascetic, and modest to a fault, Dorothea Brooke's life ambition is to learn about the world and do charitable work for those less fortunate than she. On the cusp of womanhood, she marries Edward Casaubon, an aging scholar whose fund of knowledge and resources, she believes, will enable her to carry out these goals. Only after they’ve married and set off for a honeymoon in Rome does she begin to realize the truth about her husband — that he’s a crabby pedant who married her mainly to secure her services as a secretary and nurse — and, in turn, the truth about herself. Away from her homeland and its attendant ideas, adrift in an ancient city thousands of years older than her religion, Dorothea doubts more than ever her enterprise of a hyper-virtuous life, and as a result her grip on her principles — her rejection of beauty, her blindness to eroticism, her determination to be selfless — begins to slacken. By the time a charismatic painter, Adolf Naumann, and his handsome friend, Will Ladislaw, approach Dorothea and ask her to model for a painting, she’s all too willing to subscribe to their overzealous appraisals of her beauty. Casaubon grants permission, but it proves an unwise decision on his part: the idea that she is person of glamour and mystery — worthy of the love and vitality denied her by both her husband and her faith — has already lodged itself permanently in Dorothea’s mind.
Like Eliot, Henry James, too, gives us the story of young woman who shows up in Rome with trunkfuls of narrow morals and as-of-yet-unchallenged ideals. Isabel Archer, 21, a fable-like paragon of American innocence, leaves her home city of Albany with her cosmopolitan aunt to tour the great cities of Europe. She begins her voyage with a noble, Edenic vision of the future: She has “an immense curiosity about life,” a “fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible action.” But, within a few years of making port on the Continent, she finds herself trapped in a disastrous marriage to a fortune hunter and alienated from her family and friends. While in the throes of her misery, Isabel takes small comfort in her ancient Roman surroundings, and she does so for much the same reason 20-somethings take comfort in unfamiliar destinations still today: they remind her of how small her own problems are when viewed in the context of history’s broader brushstrokes. “To live in such a place was, for Isabel, to hold to her ear all day a shell of the sea of the past. This vague eternal rumor kept her imagination awake.”
Ernest Hemingway went to Paris in 1922, when he was 23, and it was during the stretch of “Paris years” that followed that he completed some of his best-known works (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms) and became a fixture of the cohort of writers and painters that would come to be known collectively as “The Lost Generation” (and later vulgarized in a schlocky 2011 film by Woody Allen). As far as accounts of writing, walking, talking, drinking, and starving in 1920s Paris go, A Moveable Feast is unrivaled. Come for the celebrity cameos (Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Sylvia Beach, and a very sexually insecure F. Scott Fitzgerald all make appearances); stay for the rare, pared down glimpse of a Paris that is — except in the imagination of Moleskine owners everywhere — bygone.
The woman who would come to be known as “the high priestess of the avant-garde” began life as an adult early, enrolling at Berkeley at 15, marrying at 17 and giving birth to a son two years later. By her mid-20s she had already perfected the kind of banal, soul-draining bourgeoisie existence that we prefer to think of as a scourge reserved for those in their 30s and 40s. Bored, stunted, she applies to study in Paris. Scholarly though she is, her academic objective is pure pretext: Her true ambition is to open her intellectual and sexual vistas, to find out if she’s “anything outside the domestic stag, the feathered nest.” Sontag’s time in Paris, the account of which dominates the latter half of “Reborn” (the first of three planned volumes of her journals), proves to be far more enlightening — and disruptive — than she could have ever imagined. No sooner does she immerse herself in the “café scene” of expatriate artists and intellectuals than she embarks on a torrid lesbian affair that introduces her to entirely new landscapes of eroticism and desire. It’s in Paris that Sontag will develop the fascination with sensuality and pleasure that will influence the essays in her groundbreaking collection, Against Interpretation. And the lessons she learns about herself and her needs prove impossible to forget: “The thought of going back to my old life,” she writes, “it hardly even seems like a dilemma any more …. How hard to thrust my hand through the cobweb curtain. All those years, and I couldn’t do it, I didn’t have the will …. And now, it’s so easy — I’m already on the other side from which it’s impossible to return.”
If the theme of travelling abroad as a means of sensual awakening runs rampant through the Western canon, it reaches its fever pitch in André Gide’s slim, radical novel, The Immoralist. Considered obscene when it was published in 1902, it tells the story of a puritanical Parisian scholar named Michel who, at the age of 25, travels with his new wife to Tunis, Tunisia where he takes perhaps too much of a liking to the beautiful Arab boys who loiter around the city. Setting aside the more salacious details of its plot line (and the grim consequences of Michel’s hedonistic enterprise), the novel is, at core, a portrait of an over-cerebral consciousness awakening to its body and the immediacy of reality. Michel has lived his entire life in his head, and it takes uprooting himself, immersing himself in the “African earth … drunk with water, bursting with new juices,” to re-learn how to live though his senses.
In his final days at Brown, Mitchell Grammaticus, one of three central characters in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, tries to explain to a professor of religious studies his decision to travel to India after graduation. “The world had been formed by beliefs he knew nothing about. ‘That was the beginning,’ he said. ‘Realizing how stupid I was.’” When it comes to the infinite gradations of faith that lie outside the ivied cobblestone of Providence, Mitchell is indeed stupid, and his voyage to India is as classic a tale of spiritual education as W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge or Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. Grammaticus’s year in India holds many a surprise in store — there will be a head-shaving, a Mother Theresa sighting, and a Salinger-invoking recitation of the Jesus prayer — but his experience will resonate with any 20-something who’s confronted celestial matters while abroad: “He had got in the habit of walking around Calcutta in the presence of God. It was something every child knew how to do, maintain a direct and full connection with the world. Somehow you forgot as you grew up, and had to learn it again.”
In the late 80s and early 90s, owing to both its ornate architecture and attractive exchange rate, Prague became for Euro-bound Americans what Rome had been for Dorothea Brooke and Isabel Archer in the 19th century and Paris had been for Hemingway and Sontag in the 20th. Caleb Crain’s new novel, Necessary Errors, tells the story one such American, a recent Harvard graduate named Jacob Putnam who travels to the Czech capital in 1990, partly witness the fallout of the Velvet Revolution and partly to come to terms with his own sexuality. Critics have rightly placed Crain’s novel in a lineage of narratives about idealistic young Americans washing up on European shores only to have their spirits mangled and corrupted by the realities of adulthood — and it certainly contains all the trappings of one. But it also contains, in breathtaking passages scattered throughout, that thing that no 20-something expat, no matter how wised to the world, can say they haven’t experienced: homesickness. Here’s Jacob, in Prague, pondering the American penny: “The portrait of Lincoln was ugly and noble, and Jacob took off his glasses to look more closely …. The idealism seemed to be in Lincoln rather than in the coin’s design, which was homely. It was so homely, in fact that there was a kind of democratic grandeur to it. It was the most beautiful currency in the world. Jacob was on the verge of tears.”