My review of Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman ran today in the Boston Globe.
As the review makes clear, I really loved this book. It’s a smart, well-crafted novel with rich characters and a great sense of humor. Set in the early-to-mid nineteenth century, on the boarder of Prussia and Saxony, Traveler of the Century is a novel of ideas, many of which are teased out through the lively, engrossing dialogue that takes place in the salon of a charming socialite and in the cave of a wise old organ grinder. It was nice to read this book in parallel with Swann’s Way, as it was reminiscent of the “Swann In Love” segment (not so much in prose style, but in sentiment and subject matter).
There’s a lot going on in the book, but one thread that stuck out to me was the subtle and barely-noticeable mystery surrounding the main character, Hans. I’ll try not to spoil it, but I want to draw some attention to it since I think it’s easy to overlook. Throughout the novel, small details crop up that seem to make Hans uneasy. He possesses very old books that someone of his age and station would be unlikely to have. He is very concerned that people might see what’s inside the trunk he keeps in his room. He stops short of revealing details about his past to his paramour, Sophie, which he seems to indicate would be difficult to accept. Toward the end of the novel, Sophie’s father reveals that the one solid bit of biography we have of Hans is false.
The key to this mystery lies in the novels epigraph, a brief quotation from Franz Schubert’s Die Winterreise, an adaptation of poems by Wilhelm Müller, that points toward another literary traveler.
Traveler of the Century is a rewarding and enjoyable read, and like all great stories, makes you wish you had more time to spend with its characters and its vibrant world.