My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is actually two books in one: both are the playful, tongue-in-cheek musings of a young French soldier confined to small quarters who takes on the style of travel narratives for considerably shorter journeys.
In A Journey Around My Room, de Maistre has been confined to 42 days of house arrest for dueling. But de Maistre knows how to make lemonade out of his lemons: he takes the opportunity to tour his own room as though it were a foreign country. In the introduction Alain de Botton puts it this way: "Wrapped in his dressing gown, satisfied by the confines of his own bedroom, Xavier de Maistre was gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we've already seen."
Making excellent use of his classical education, de Maistre's prose is witty, urbane, sparkling - all those wonderful adjectives I don't get to use often enough when talking about nonfiction (though they always seem to come up with 18th-century French writers). He inspired Marcel Proust and later writers, and it's obvious why. I've added this book to my list of favorites, and look forward to rereading it someday soon.
The second book, A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room continues the story a few years later. We get to know the fates of Joannetti the servant and Rosine the faithful dog, but we also get another journey into de Maistre's mind as he contemplates the night sky.
As I was reading I was strongly reminded of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Written by an eleventh-century Japanese court lady, it has a similar effervescence and beauty - though a markedly different culture informs Shōnagon's writing. I think these two writers would have been a perfect match for each other, could they have met. (In my imaginary dinner party of great writers of the past I'd seat them together.)
De Maistre is an admirer of the satirical masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (more commonly called Tristram Shandy) by Lawrence Sterne, so that classic shaggy dog story may be a good fit if you enjoy de Maistre's two journeys.
It's best to let someone like de Maistre speak for himself - from A Journey:
"A nice fire, books, pen; how many resources there are against boredom!"
"When you start to investigate a question, you usually adopt a dogmatic tone since you have secretly already made up your mind [...]; but discussion awakens objections, and everything ends up in doubt."
"Today is the day when certain persons on whom I depend say they will restore me to freedom. As if they had taken freedom from me! As if it had been in their power to deprive me of it for a single moment, and to prevent me from exploring at will the vast space that always lies open before me! - They have forbidden me to roam around a city, a mere point in space; but they have left me with the whole universe: immensity and eternity are mine to command."
from A Nocturnal Expedition:
"And then, who can flatter himself that he will always live with the people he loves? Similar to those swarms of little flies that you see spinning in the air on fine summer evening, men meet by chance and for only a very short time. And they are lucky if, in their rapid movement, they are as skilfull as the flies and don't dash their heads against each other!"
"The horrible emotion of envy has only ever once, on one single occasion, entered my heart, and it was an envy of cranes. I followed them with jealous eyes to the limits of the horizon."
"If we assign limits to creation, however remote those limits may be, the universe appears to me no more than a glowing point in comparison with the immensity of empty space surrounding it, that dark and dreadful void in the midst of which it seems suspended like a solitary lamp."