Hilaire Belloc—poet, novelist, essayist, biographer, historian, polemicist and propagandist—was a writer so prolific and versatile that it is almost impossible to designate any one of his works as best or even representative; but THE PATH TO ROME is in many ways as typical as any in revealing his intellectual attitudes, the nature of his faith, his outlook on the world, and the qualities of his style.
The book is an account of a walking tour that Belloc made one summer from Toul, in eastern France, across the Alps in Switzerland, and down through northern Italy to Rome. Throughout the book Belloc provides a great many digressions: accounts of the people and the scenery, essays on society and character, stories told to divert the reader much in the manner that Laurence Sterne used stories in his accounts of his travels, observations on language, culture, universities, and poetry. But Belloc’s principal digression from the theme of his walking tour is his constant reference to and discussion of the Roman Catholic faith. Although THE PATH TO ROME is not a symbolic journey into Catholicism, it is an attempt to get at the essential meaning of experience by observing the area as closely as possible, just as, for Belloc, Catholicism was the religion which expresses the essential truths of experience. Catholicism is an important theme in THE PATH TO ROME; the religion gives the digressions a sense of direction, just as Rome itself provides the geographical direction of the tour.
Throughout, Belloc provides maps and sketches that he himself drew. The maps, all complete with directional arrows toward Rome, show the villages he passed through and the mountains he crossed in Switzerland. The mountains are drawn with faces, passes, and routes clearly shown. The sketches of buildings and churches that interested him along the way are also drawn with a great deal of careful detail. Twice, on his walking tour, Belloc persuaded himself to take short train journeys. In both instances, once just before he reached Milan and once not far from Siena, Belloc was almost out of funds. Had he continued walking, he would not have had enough money to buy the minimum amount of food to sustain him on his walking tour. Thus he saved time and took the train to the city where his money was waiting for him.
THE PATH TO ROME is written in the first person. But Belloc frequently interrupts his monologue by means of a character called “Lector” who derisively jibes at the author for any pretentious statement or complains when the narrative is broken off to pursue one of Belloc’s pet theories. The author answers Lector and often puts him down.
Lector is a convenient device for Belloc, a means of focusing the reader’s attention on the particular point or digression the author is eager to make. For example, Lector’s interruptions allow Belloc to go on about human pride and pride in the intellect, one of the sins that he finds most harmful among human beings. Lector is also a means of self-satire, for he sometimes complains after the author has indulged in a passage of purple descriptive prose, reminding the author of his original dedication to simple and careful writing. Lector, in other words, gives Belloc’s account a wider perspective, allows the reader to see that the author, while strongly immersed in his own observations and point of view, is also wise enough to detect the possible...
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