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Travel Writing That Goes No Place

BOOKS. Merle Rubin, who writes from Pasadena, Calif., specializes in reviewing literature for the Monitor.

RUNNING IN PLACE: SCENES FROM THE SOUTH OF FRANCE by Nicholas Delbanco, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 231 pp., $16.95

SOCIETY hostess Elsa Maxwell is often credited with turning the South of France, specifically the Cote d'Azur, into a fashionable summer resort in the 1920s. (Before that, it was a place ``resorted to'' chiefly in the winter.) But Provence, the region of southeastern France that includes that stretch of coastline, has a long history of colorful associations: Roman Gaul, the Albigensian heresy, the medieval troubadours who virtually invented ``romance.'' A land of sunshine, olive trees, olive oil, garlic, honey, lavender, and perfume, Provence has held a special appeal for painters, who reveled in the clear brilliant light of the region.

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The South of France must hold special associations for author Nicholas Delbanco, one presumes, or he would not have written a book on the subject. But whatever this region may mean to Mr. Delbanco, very little in the way of inspiration, information, interest, or pleasure is conveyed in the lifeless pages of this very derivative, poorly organized, and monotonously written book.

Delbanco first visited the region as a college student in 1961. He returned subsequently at various periods of his life: as an aspiring young writer carrying on a love affair with an aspiring young singer, as a newly married husband and father, and, in 1987, as a mature parent of adolescent girls.

The narrative shifts desultorily back and forth among time periods, a hodgepodge of banal, pretentious ruminations on predictable topics, excruciatingly tiresome snippets of Delbanco family conversations, and dull anecdotes about semi-famous people Delbanco has met, but oh-so-tastefully refuses to name for fear of invading their ``privacy.'' (Insofar as his gifts for rendering a memorable character, telling a good story, or choosing a revealing incident are negligible, he would seem to be in little danger of delineating anyone's personality, let alone invading their privacy!)

Here is how he renders a woman he calls ``Lilo Rosenthal'': ``She said, `You must call me Lily,' and invited us to tea. She wore yellow trousers and a silk shirt with a floral pattern. Her jewelry was silver, and her bracelets matched her earrings and the pendant at her neck. Her hair was dark brown, meticulously coifed, with just a streak of gray; reading glasses dangled from a cord. Her eyes were brown and green.'' (Greenish brown or one brown eye and one green? one wonders.)

Only in the case of meeting that very famous American-in-exile, novelist James Baldwin, does Delbanco decide to drop the pseudonymity. It's just as well, because the only lively aspect of Delbanco's account is the vivid image Baldwin's name conjures up.

The descriptions of places are as weak as the descriptions of people. Driving south from Paris, Delbanco doesn't even attempt to evoke the changes in the landscape - probably because he senses he can't compete with so many other writers who have done it so well. Instead, he lists the place-names en route.

``An excellent writer is among us,'' proclaims the dust-jacket quote from the New York Times (mercifully unattributed), ``and if we neglect him, we shall have to apologize to posterity.'' I somehow doubt apologies will be in order: This weak excuse for a book appears to have been supported by more grants than were needed to build Lincoln Center. The author of 10 less-than-memorable novels, a story collection, a disappointing book called, ``Group Portrait: Conrad, Crane, Ford, James, and Wells,'' recipient of Guggenheim, NEA, Yaddo, and other fellowships, Delbanco is director of the MFA in Writing at the University of Michigan and something called the Hopwood Awards Program.

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Scion of a well-off banking family who fled Germany for England during the war, Delbanco grew up in America, graduated from Harvard, and began his writing career with a contract in hand for an unwritten first novel. As a young man, he toddled off to Europe, because he'd heard that's what writers (like Hemingway) did. But it would be unfair to blame Hemingway as an ``influence'' on Delbanco's style. This book is, indeed, underwritten: not only in the sense of being flat and colorless, but in the sense that it is the product of a career underwritten by a vast, uncoordinated, self-perpetuating system of grants, fellowships, writing programs, and awards that all too often seem to foster the overprivileged and the undertalented.

Readers in search of first-class travel writing to liven up the remaining days of summer would be well advised to skip this little side trip to Provence in favor of Ford Madox Ford's tribute to the region, or perhaps the work of the accomplished novelist, biographer, and travel writer Sybille Bedford (who spent time in the South of France herself). Bedford's splendid, ``A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller's Tale from Mexico,'' first published in 1953, has been reissued in a handsome paperback by Eland/Hippocrene Books Inc. (319 pp., $10.95).

Here one finds the keenly observant eye, the knack for focusing on telling incidents, the elegant style, and the sense of adventure that can make travel writing as illuminating as travel itself.

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