Relative to, say, Balloon Boy, the recent death of Claude Levi-Strauss has received scant media attention here in the U.S. This is surely indicative of something, anthropologically speaking: the rate at which the world is going to hell, perhaps, or maybe just the low esteem in which we hold intellectuals – a vestige of the Protestant work ethic. But to write off Levi-Strauss, the great pioneer of structural anthropology, as an ivory tower egghead is to lose sight of the man completely. Few thinkers – you could probably count them on two hands – ranged more widely or had more impact on the humanities in the Twentieth Century.
Levi-Strauss’ most important ideas would become so ubiquitous that you probably already know them, even if you don’t know you know. From him, we got a dismantling of the notion of the “primitive” that has more or less stuck. We got the notion of culture as a kind of language, and of the “transformation” that can reveal the myths, kinship rituals, and exchanges of one culture to be homologous to those of seemingly disparate others. His work foreshadowed, that is, much of what we postmoderns take for granted.
What this account of Levi-Strauss and his poststructuralist legatees leaves out, however, is his almost modernist ambition to find the final homology, the original difference that transcends individual, tribe, and nation: left and right, or female and male, or The Raw and The Cooked. Levi-Strauss aimed, in his own complicated way, for the universal.
Many of his theoretical positions have since come under attack from subsequent generations of philosophers and anthropologists. But their durability attests to one of the overlooked secrets of Levi-Strauss’ influence. Almost uniquely among the thinkers with whom he is often grouped, Levi-Strauss is fun to read. (Well, Roland Barthes is fun, and a certain kind of person finds Derrida fun, but you know what I mean…) I have no training in anthropology, and my dabblings in intellectual history, as you can probably tell from the above, have been idiosyncratic in the extreme, but Triste Topiques, a hybrid of travel writing and anthropological investigation, engrossed me when I read it in graduate school. With the humane, passionate voice and insatiable curiosity of its author transparently clear, Tristes Topiques reminded me then, as it does now, of what anthropology literally promises to be: the science of man. It will be some time before anyone comes as close as Claude Levi-Strauss did to making good on that promise.
On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.