THE nearest thing to writing a novel is traveling in a strange country. Travel is a creative act - not simply loafing and inviting your soul, but feeding the imagination, accounting for each fresh wonder, memorizing, and moving on. The discoveries the traveler makes in broad daylight - the curious problems of the eye he solves - resemble those that thrill and sustain a novelist in his solitude. It is fatal to know too much at the outset: boredom comes as quickly to the traveler who knows his route as to the novelist who is overcertain of his plot. And the best landscapes, apparently dense or featureless, hold surprises if they are studied patiently, in the kind of discomfort one can savor afterward. Only a fool blames his bad vacation on the rain.