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The topics vary, but the words are ever nurturing

Times Staff Writer

Give it all. Nicholas Delbanco has shown throughout his career that the finest quality of a writer is to be generous. A highpoint of his 2001 essay collection, “The Lost Suitcase,” (the title refers to a missing cache of Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts) is “Letter to a Young Fiction Writer,” in which he looks back at his own beginnings and speaks in a warm, nurturing tone to any budding writer who might be listening.

That same tone enriches Delbanco’s “Anywhere Out of the World,” a new collection of nine essays on such varied topics as Scandinavian literature and the narrative strategies of John Fowles to Delbanco’s friendships with writers including James Baldwin, John Gardner and Ford Madox Ford. He never met Ford -- but, as he explains, that doesn’t matter:

"[S]ometimes in a quiet house, when staring at the bookshelves’ sag or breathing that particular must attaching to a sea-thumbed page, I see Ford Madox Ford,” Delbanco says in tribute to the writer he calls “an old man mad about writing.” “I hear him, though I never saw or heard him while alive. We can be haunted, can’t we, by ghosts who wheeze through carious teeth that literature is marching....”

“Travel, Writing, Death” seems a blunt, bold subtitle, but it’s the center word that this book is really about. Delbanco looks at the world and sees clusters of stories just as a mystic looks at the sun and sees a chorus of angels. He’s never without his Olivetti portable typewriter. His affinity to writers of other times, like Ford, leaps centuries: Rock wall pictographs in a remote African mountain, he writes in “Letter From Namibia,” confirms that man’s need to express himself in written symbols has ancient roots.

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That experience is recounted in a conventional travel essay. Elsewhere Delbanco plays more loosely, more expansively with what travel and travel writing are. “Travel writing is ... coeval with writing itself,” he says in the book’s title essay. “We move and remember the place that we left; from a distance we send letters home.”

This definition is liberating, inclusive and, to use the word again, generous. He makes travelers of us all, reminding readers that a backward glance at one’s childhood, like any trip to some exotic realm, involves a “sense of distance and a world elsewhere.” So don’t be frustrated if you haven’t sailed the South Pacific or walked in St. Peter’s Square (with all the recent papal coverage, it’s hard not to want to), other journeys matter too. There are “inward-bound” ones, Delbanco explains, in which grand adventures are less important than the “distance traversed by the wandering self.”

When he was a writing student, Delbanco was encouraged by John Updike, who read a draft of Delbanco’s first novel, “The Martlet’s Tale,” and recognized an emerging talent. A good turn begets more good turns: Since then, Delbanco has been a founding director of the Bennington Writing Workshops and a writing professor at the University of Michigan. The nurturing voice in his prose is almost certainly the one also heard in his classes.

Collegiality among writers matters to Delbanco: Early in his career, he published “Group Portrait: Conrad, Crane, Ford, James & H.G. Wells” in honor of this belief in a community of letters. And, after a severe coronary blockage made him feel the Reaper’s breath on his neck, Delbanco’s appreciation of his ties to others was heightened, an experience he describes here in the essay “Strange Type.”

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Sandwiched between considerations of Hemingway and Malcolm Lowry, Delbanco describes the chest pains he ignored until, in the middle of a summer writing program in New York state, he had to be rushed to a hospital. The ensuing weeks of fear and treatment were balanced by the company of his friends and family, and by the presence of literature -- all of this is in contrast to the essay’s sections on Hemingway and Lowry who, despite artistic achievement, were lonely exiles whose ends were disastrous.

Even though Delbanco says the story of his near-death experience has “no real moral,” one wants to say, Don’t worry, Nick, did those ancient wall painters in Namibia worry about such things?

His stories are rich in insight, making even a momentary perusal of “Anywhere Out of the World” worthwhile.


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