Cries of joy are the normal response to word that Eric Newby has published a new book. Newby has been delighting readers for almost 30 years with his books about far places. He is a classic English travel writer: daring and adventurous on the one hand, urbane and highly literate on the other. He is a marvelous storyteller. A good if amateur historian. He can find an interesting side to just about anything. If Newby had to, he could probably write a good book about a week's visit to Beltsville, Maryland. And people in Beltsville would enjoy it just as much as people in London or Singapore.
In one key way, however, Newby differs from others of his kind -- that is, from such predecessors as Sacheverell Sitwell, Rose Macaulay and Dame Freya Stark. To a person, they saw the world with an aristocratic eye, and the mere American reader may occasionally weary of their lofty approach to middle-class people and ways. Newby is about as free from class feeling as it is possible for an Englishman to be. That, as Mark Twain would say, makes his books restful.
On the Shores of the Mediterranean is the account of an immense circular journey that Newby and his Slovenian wife Wanda recently took. (Those who have read Newby's war memoir When the Snow comes, They will Take You Away will remember Wanda. He met her in 1943, when he was an escaped POW and she a member of the resistance.)
The journey begins in northern Italy. The Newbys live in England but have a vineyard in Tuscany where they go to make their wine, each fall. Not supervise, make. In fact, they made the vineyard, too, By hand, Newby dug a 60-foot trench four feet wide for each row of vines.
First they took a train south to Naples. Then they went in the other side of Italy to Venice. then through Balkans, including forbidden Albania, and including a visit to Wanda's cousin, who works as a waitress in a Slovenian country inn. Through vast reaches of Turkey, where the ruined classical cities come at the rate of aboutone every 20 miles. Through North Africa, including forhidden Libya. Through Gibraltar, Spain, jFrance, and so, having gone clear 'round the Mediterranean, back to their vineyard.
So long a trip naturally included adventures of many kinds. In Naples they spent a good deal of time with employes of the Bellomunno family, monopolists of the horsedrawn hearse business. Eight black houses to pull your body to the cemetery if you're an ordinary rich person. 10 if you're special, 12 If you're a real pezzo grosso, like the shipowner Achille Laura, who died in 1983. Between outings with Bellomunno entourages, they made friends with cigarette smugglers -- -- who in Naples have a powerful union and formally negotiate with the police.
In Venice in the winter they found the bar where actual Venetiams make their assignations. Newby,s description of the two types of Venetians they encountered there is not just good reading, it seems to me first-rate sociology, and here in Venice he begins that long series of historical flashbacks which fill much of the book and which are one of its charms. One learns, for example, of the Venetian habit, in Renaissance times of rerouting rivers for the benefit of their lagoon, often to the utter ruin of whatever neighboring piece of coast they stole the river from.
Newby does not simplly attack the Venetians as shameless river thieves. He's too fair-minded for that. He sees clearly the need they had -- and as befits a good vineyard digger, he admires, the skill with which they scooped out new beds. He just also sees the harm they did.
This double vision characterizes the whole book. In Egypt he spends a morning inside the Great Pyramid (it reeks of chemical deodorant in there, he reports), and then he gives a bit of pyramid history. I found myself getting downright angry as I read of the Arab role in the history. From about 2650 B.C. until A.D. 820 -- for 3400 years -- the Great Pyramid was faced with huge blocks of limestone: a dazzling white skin eight feet thick. Then in 820 an Arab ruler named alManun, acting on a rumor that there was a secret chamber inside, filled with ancient maps and wonderful entrance. So he had vast fires build on the side. ''When the stones were red hot, vinegar was poured on them, and they shattered.''
That only ruined a small portion of one face. Sultan Hassap in 1856 went further. Over the next hundred years he and his successors removed the entire casing -- the whole 22 acres' worth of limestone blocks. What vandalism! Newby thinks so, too, But he immediately adds that Hassan used his share of the loot to build a mosque, ''the finest example of Mameluke architecture in Cairo.''
There are hundreds of stories in the book -- Albanian stories, stories about climbing Mount Olympus in the fog, a wonderful set-piece describing dinner at one of the last palace-hotels in the world. Nearly all good in themselves, they fit together to make a true whole.
This is the more remarkabale in that Newby freely allowed himself to take shortcuts. For example, when he and Wanda arrive in Israel, he observes that Tel Aviv is unique -- a city like no other in the world. Then he adds calmly that ''it was too much of a handful to write about.'' So they go to the Beneij Beraq Station and catch the 8:13 to Jerusalem. (He is brilliant on Jerusalem, past and present.)
Or, again, Algeria, which stretches along the Mediterranean for 650 miles, is represented in the book by a single page. On that page he and Wanda decide to skip it, because they're tired of riding buses across North Africa.
Worst of all, the great trip itself turns out not to be the odyssey it at first seemed, but a composite, plut together out of at least five journeys made over a period of two or three years.
But a writer as good as Newby can get away with a lot. The book not only survives, it remains a thing to greet with cries of joy. And if we're lucky, maybe someday Mr. Newby will devote a volume to Tel Aviv -- and, who knows, maybe one to Beltsville, too.