BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : The Great Novelist as a Travel Writer : EDITH WHARTON ABROAD: Selected Travel Writings, 1888-1920; Edited by Sarah Bird Wright ;St. Martin's Press $22.95, 216 pages


Years ago, I wrote a travel article based on a trip to Egypt in which I wanted my mix of ancient history, modern politics, literary references and personal experience to come together in a densely textured evocation of place. But I bumped up against the great dilemma of travel writing.

Although it is an expansive mode, allowing for writing of the most personal kind, there is no getting around this basic question: How profound can you be about a country you've visited for only nine days?

In this latest collection of Edith Wharton's nonfiction writing about her turn-of-the- century travels in the Mediterranean, I was touched to discover the great American novelist not only exploring the genre's possibilities but gamely wrestling with its limitations as well.

To begin with, this selection, largely culled from magazine articles and essay collections, is an eclectic mix, some of it barely deserving of the title travel writing. The more conventional pieces include descriptions of a four-month cruise to North Africa and Greece on the Vanadis, a chartered steam yacht, which Wharton took in 1888 at the age of 26 with her husband, Edward Wharton, and a friend, James Van Alen--possibly one of the happier periods of her passionless and difficult marriage.

Then there is a cerebral tour of Italian villas and gardens and other Italian sights, more art history than travelogue; a couple of lighthearted motor excursions through France in 1906 and 1907, with her husband and writer Henry James, and excerpts from "In Morocco" (1920), her last travel book.

Some of this work was written before Wharton made her name as a novelist. Although there are touches of her great storytelling ability and satiric wit, one senses the novice struggling to find her voice.

"Hard as it is to write of these things vividly, it is harder still to forget a first sight of the Bazaars of Tunis," she labors in "The Cruise of the Vanadis," which is based on a journal Wharton never intended for publication.

Even the later selections, written during her most fruitful period of literary activity-- beginning with her masterpiece "The House of Mirth" (1905) and culminating in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Age of Innocence" (1920)--even those only prove she is a better novelist than travel writer, more successful at describing the upper-crust New Yorkers she despised than the European landscapes she loved.

For Wharton the novelist surely would not have allowed quite so many repetitions of vague descriptive words like "picturesque" and "charming."

The book's other flaws are intrinsic to a genre that encourages superficiality. She has the kind of breathless romanticism that comes from not knowing a country well, or from deliberately shaping a place to fit one's own imaginative needs--as one always does on vacation, of course.

Clearly, "Edith Wharton Abroad" is just a minor trickle in the stream of Whartonalia (letters, biographies, reprints of short stories and novels) that has gushed forth in recent years, along with various film versions of her works, most notably Martin Scorsese's 1993 version of "The Age of Innocence."

With all its drawbacks, though, the book does offer insights into a more privileged era--before the great changes wrought by the automobile, air travel and mass tourism--when only the affluent could travel for fun and even a vacation in Europe could be a genuine voyage of discovery.

Architecture lovers will derive pleasure from Wharton's precise descriptions of French and Italian monuments, like Fontana's "famous water-theatre" near Frascati, which sounds like a 16th-Century theme park. And some passages have a storytelling tension that almost reveal the novelist at work.

We catch Wharton's excitement at being shown around George Sand's house by a maid who as a child helped the great writer make little dresses for her son's puppet theater.

In the best travel writing, from Herodotus and Marco Polo to Bruce Chatwin and Pico Ayer, description is subsidiary to the narrative, which tells a story both about the observer and the observed.

Edith Wharton's travel articles tell us about her slightly patronizing, patrician manner; her longing for harmony in people, landscapes and houses; her preference for the company of intellectual men, and her ability to disguise her deepest feelings with learning and humor.

But even in her most powerful pieces--on the French trenches and the Moroccan harems--there is a barrier between Wharton and her subject. Too many chunks of description lie static on the page, clearly demonstrating that the great chronicler of upper-class American life will not be numbered among the celebrated wanderers of the world.

Rather, these travel pieces read like workouts in a kind of word gym where Wharton may be seen sharpening her powers of observation for greater works to come.

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