22 October 2012

Through the Unchanging East with Robert Barr

The Unchanging East; or, Travels and Troubles in the Orient
Robert Barr
Boston: Page, 1900

Robert Barr died one hundred years ago yesterday. I spent much of the morning, afternoon and evening with the man. Yes, I did. The Measure of the Rule (1907) may be Barr's most autobiographical novel, but it's with The Unchanging East that you really get a sense of his character:
When the steamship company sent me their printed rules and regulations, one item therein immediately attracted my attention. It was to the effect that no passenger was allowed to bring liquor on board with him, so this reminded me that certain decoctions were grateful and comforting, as the advertisements say, besides there always being a pleasure in breaking the rules; so I at once brought four bottles from Caledonia in case I should meet some personal friend...
Only a fool or a teetotaler – same thing, really – would pass on the opportunity of joining a man such as this on his travels.

Barr begins in a hansom cab bound for the Manchester docks:
A thick autumn fog, saturated soot in suspension, enveloped the town. The drive from the station proved most unattractive – I should not care to liken it to a trip in Hades for fear of exaggeration, because Hades at least is warm, and I believe the atmosphere must be more clear than that of Manchester.
Mancunians are not alone. The overly sensitive will wish to gird themselves; nearly every place and every people come in for a ribbing on this voyage. Not even the people of Scotland, the land of Barr's birth, are spared. Witness, if you will his comments on that petite Maltanese land mass we 21st-century English speakers know as Gozo:
The island should by right be inhabited by Scotchmen, for it possesses a coin valued at one-sixth of a cent, and if, as the saying has it, the farthing was invented to enable the Scotchmen to contribute to the cause of religion, then the islands of Goza [sic] and Malta should be three times more attractive to us Scotchmen than any other spot on earth.
The only people to draw complete and unqualified praise are "the Druses", whom Barr describes as "a most admirable people, extremely hospitable, ready to share their last crust with any stranger who happens along, invariably refusing money for the services they may render a traveller, and they are always fond of a joke."

Where other fin de siècle travelogues glaze the eyes, Barr's dry humour and observations make this a book that I would not put down. This isn't to say that there is not unpleasantness, but for much of the journey, our author's "troubles" are trivial: street vendors try to take advantage and trips by rail prove uncomfortable. He witnesses no violence, and relays old news of massacre and slaughter with the cold hand of a statistician.

The unchanging east? No longer. Much as I enjoyed the journey, throughout it all I couldn't help but wonder about the grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren of the Syrian women who looked out from the frontispiece.

Object: Two compact, bulky volumes bound in white cloth. Each is 256 pages in length and features 41 plates, one of which captures Black John, "a character the like of which is probably to be found nowhere else than in the Levant."

Access: The problem, of course, is that sets are so often broken up. Only two complete sets are listed online, but both are crummy ex-library copies. Ignore the dealer who describes his offering as "Very Good" – for library discards this is an impossible condition. Putting a set together is a tricky thing in that the work was issued in two separate bindings – one green and one white. Just one copy of volume one is listed online (US$20.00). Volume two (US$18.95 - US$25.85) is three times as plentiful, which is to say that it's not plentiful at all.

Headaches might be avoided by simply buying the single-volume English edition, published in 1900 by Chatto & Windus, except that it seems an even more uncommon beast. The only copy listed online is another library discard. The bookseller is honest – perhaps because it came from a church – describing its condition as "Fair". There was no Canadian edition.

As with so much of our literary heritage that is now in the public domain, print on demand monstrosities abound, Most are offered by folks who don't do the courtesy of indicating exactly which of the two volumes they're crapping out. Pictured right, with a cover photograph of the great northern pines of the Mediterranean, is the excrement offered by infamous Nabu Press.

Twenty-one of our academic libraries, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and the ever reliable Toronto Public Library have copies.

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  1. These travel narratives from long ago are more fun than the history books, aren't they. Getting someone's take on what they saw at the time just is thrilling.

  2. So glad to have happened upon this blog and your comments of "The Unchanging East". James Barr was my great grandfather (his son Allan Barr was a famour portrait artist, and my Mom's dad). My Mom gave me an original edition (matching) of both volumes, which I treasure. Like you, when I read it, I was mesmerized in his early travel in those interesting areas. I have been trying to collect as many original editions of my grandfather, and his brother, Robert Barr, who was a more prolific writer. If you have any additional info, would love to hear from you. Janet Matthew

  3. Whoops, I made a mistake on the last blog. Unchanging East was written by Robert Barr, my second great uncle, not by my grandfather, James Barr. James Barr was also an author and I am working on a Family History right now, and I mistakenly got mixed up on the last blog entry. A great book by James Barr, of the same ilk of Unchanging East, in a way, is "Laughing in A Wilderness". A Canadiana Classic and the same wry sense of humour.

    1. My apologies, Janet, I've only just discovered your comments, which somehow ended up in my spam folder.

      This is the first I've heard of James Barr. Thank you. He is certainly a figure worthy of further research!

      Though I have six or so Robert Barrs in my collection, the only other I've read is In the Midst of Alarms. I'm afraid I was a bit disappointed, but don't let that put you off from giving it a read. I'm long overdue for another foray.

    2. I have a list of all the Robert Barr books and short stories, and the James Barr Books. Are you interested? I could send as an attachment to an email. Yes, I have In the Midst of Alarms which I read years ago. I have been trying to collect 1st editions which is becoming more difficult.

    3. Please do! My email can be found in clicking on the "ABOUT ME" column to the right.

      I know what you mean about Barr books becoming more difficult to collect. Would that I had started twenty years ago when I first became interested in the man.