I want to say A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan is cheeky, but “cheeky” is a British word and this book is French. So very French. Mac Orlan haunted the bohemian cabarets of Montmartre in the early 1900s. He wrote chansons for a living—those wobbly French bar songs with an accordion huffing in the background. After his death he was revealed to be the pseudonymous author of dozens of “spanking tales”—pornographic stories with an emphasis on flagellation. So yeah, he was French as hell. But this book, somehow, is cheeky.
A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer is an essay—just 63 pages of primary text, in the new paperback edition from Wakefield Press—that comically, relentlessly tries to drive a wedge between people who have adventures and people who merely read about them. With all the eloquence of a wine-drunk lecturer at the Sorbonne, Mac Orlan pontificates on the nature of adventure and the proper way to experience it.
We must never forget that adventure is in the imagination of the one who desires it. It fades when you think you have grasped it, and when you grasp it, it isn’t worth a glance. It is nothing. So you have to be careful not to meet this nonexistent goal through normal means.
“Through normal means” would involve setting sail on the high seas. Mac Orlan much prefers to stay at home and read about other people’s adventures—specifically in the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Joseph Conrad. (But fuck Jules Verne, he says. Verne is “completely lacking in art and sensitivity and can only appeal to apprentice botanists.”) The real adventurer, argues Mac Orlan, sits in a chair, reading the classics.
Through the great suffering of men of action, sedentary men obtain many delicate and varied little pleasures, which together give to the banquet of life a warmth worth appreciating.
Devilishly, Mac Orlan advises his readers to groom an “active adventurer”—a friend who can be duped into traveling the world in your place, so that you experience his life vicariously. The book is dripping with Mac Orlan’s sly mockery of everyone involved—readers, doers, and especially himself. It’s as if he anticipated the century of boob tubes and Internet wormholes that would follow, and he became the first to satirize it. Two decades before James Thurber wrote his famous story, Pierre Mac Orlan dashed off this bold manifesto for the Walter Mittys of the world. It’s good, cheeky fun.
– Brian Hurley