Category Archives: Travel with Books

Bookword walks in Gargano, Italy

Reading in Gargano

In April I went walking for 7 days in the Gargano Peninsula, Puglia, on the heel of Italy. We had brilliant sunshine and many beautiful walks through wooded hills, olive groves, along beaches and strada bianca. There were twelve of us in the group – a captive sample for a reading survey. And everyone had a book to talk about.

The Walking Group

My survey

My idea to ask everyone what they were currently reading was inspired. I got to talk to people about my favourite topic – books. I was given many recommendations. And it was a brilliant opening to talk with the other walkers.

What I found out

The only thing the 12 readers had in common was the ability to forget the title, author or both when responding to my questions. ‘Errrrm,’ they replied, every one of them. Some titles and authors we worked out together, some were produced later. It was a salutary corrective to my anxieties about titles and their importance. I blogged about that some time ago: On the tricky topic of titles.

Non-fiction

Three people were reading non-fiction:

  • A biography of Modi,
  • Francis of Assisi: a revolutionary life by Adrian House, and
  • Daniel Kahneman’s book called Thinking Fast and Slow (2011).

Since the conversation often opened out to discuss other reading habits I wasn’t surprised to hear that one walker read books about bridge and another told me about her success with the elimination diet in The Virgin Diet by JJ Virgin.

Fiction

Most of us were reading fiction. Many of these choices were linked to places people had visited.

  • My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (a possible candidate for the older women in fiction series?). The original is in Swedish.
  • Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare (2005)
  • The Cashmere Shawl by Rosie Thomas (2011)
  • House of Birds by Morgan McCarthy (2016) (a possible candidate for the older women in fiction series?)
  • A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman (2015) (already in the older women in fiction series)
  • Stone Cradle by Louise Doughty (2006)
  • A novel by Lee Child

Fiction for Southern Italy

The Night Falling by Katherine Webb (2014) was my choice for the holiday, a historical fiction based in Puglia (but not Gargano) in the 1920s when times were very hard and the Fascists were beginning to gain power through violence. I enjoyed the story of our heroine less than the historical context, revealed in the countryside we walked in.

Support for our walk was provided by Matteo, who was keen to provide some recommendations for reading about his part of the world. I have to admit to ignorance about the history of the people of Italy, good enough on political change such as the Unification, but lacking any detail. Carlo Alianello has reinterpreted the Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy.

Matteo also recommended other Italian writers: Giovanni Verga (1840-1922), one of the first Italian realist writers – verismo. His novella Rosso Malpelo (evil red hair in English) is well known. Zola is thought to have learned from Verga. Gianrico Carofiglio is a writer of legal thrillers, based on his career. Translated by Patrick Creagh he has written Involuntary Witness and A Walk in the Dark.

It was my idea of a perfect week: walking, reading, talking, good food, sunshine and all in the beautiful country of Italy. Many thanks to my all my fellow walkers and ATG holidays.

Vieste coastline

Related posts and websites

Tripfiction is worth a look before a journey.

Earlier this year I posted about Bookword in Iceland.

Last year I went to Cevennes, France and reflected on the journey of Robert Louis Stevenson with his donkey.

Over to you

Do you have any Southern Italian reading to recommend?

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Bookword in Iceland

Reading and travelling are both experiences of visiting new worlds. I like combining them and set about finding bookish connections when I’m on the move. I went to Iceland in February. Not my idea, but my brother is celebrating what people call a ‘big birthday’ and I said I would go with him. He hoped to see the Northern Lights. I’m up for such things, especially when I get to visit a new place. Here are some bookish reflections on my brief time in Iceland.

Strangers in Iceland

In 2009 Sarah Moss went to live in Iceland with her partner and children. She had a contract for a year with the University of Reykjavik. 2009 was the year following Kreppa, the Icelandic term for the financial crash. Kreppa ended the years of silly and false money-making in Iceland. People were suffering.

Sarah Moss is a novelist, author of Night Waking (2011) and The Tidal Zone (2016), both excellent novels published by Granta. The book she wrote about her time in Iceland is categorized as ‘travel’. It is not like any travel book I have read. It is more of a what-I-noticed-when-we-lived-in-Iceland-for-a-year kind of book. It is called Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland. I recommend it even if you are not planning a visit.

From Names for the Sea I got the impression that Icelandic people may look and behave like other Western people, but actually they are very different. Icelandic people have sense of themselves as distinct, and what it means to be Icelandic, and a pride in their country and culture. They like the perception that theirs is the safest country in the world (1.1 murders a year are committed on average. Sadly, the week before we visited, Birna, a young girl was murdered. There were searches and a vigil and a man from Greenland has been arrested.)

Our sense of Iceland, as tourists, was that we should not be stressed. They had everything covered. Coaches and minibuses crisscrossed Reykjavik, fetching tourists from hotels and taking them on tours, information always provided about the arrangements. Even when our minibus broke down on the way back to the airport, a substitute was quickly fetched, and we proceeded with very little problem, delay or stress.

During her residence Sarah Moss found food banks, half finished blocks of flats and a poor exchange rate. We did not see the first two, but it was not cheap if you kept calculating the cost of things in £££s.

‘Icelanders knit everywhere,’ said Sarah Moss (281). The only person I saw knitting was a woman in the wool shop I visited, who demonstrated the way in which they hold their needles and wool. Icelandic sweaters and other necessary warm garments are widely available. I bought some yarn – how could I not?

I also learned from Sarah Moss that Icelanders take a coat with them all year round. In February this was not really in doubt. But in Reykjavik, we had rain and wind and the worst combination of these I have experienced this winter. But the temperature during the day never dropped below freezing. Out of the city it was another story.

Independent People

And now I am wading through Halldor Laxness’s novel Independent People. It’s a long story (more than 500 pages), an epic, about Bjartur a farmer in the desolate countryside, who is determined to become independent, who sees independence as the ultimate goal of all his labours. And labour he does, against the elements, bad fortune, hapless neighbours, the death of his first wife and a determined child. And Bjartur pays the price for his stubbornness.

Set in the early twentieth century, but describing life as it had been lived for many centuries, Laxness spares no detail of the crofters’ lives. Meetings of the men, coffee, rounding up sheep, falling into the Glacier River, the governance, relationships with neighbours … it’s all here. Especially the snow and the coffee.

Pingvellar National Park

What, I wondered, is the value of independence in an environment where cooperation and collaboration are clearly more likely to achieve desired outcomes?

Halldor Laxness, 1906 – 1998, published his novel in 1934-5. He produced other novels and translations, and wrote for the theatre. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

Halldor Laxness 1955

Other bookish things

I need to reconnect with the Icelandic Sagas. The shops offered a hefty and attractive Penguin edition, but it seemed crazy to add such an object to our suitcase and to pay the Icelandic price. Iceland was only settled from 870. People had lived there before, but not successfully. The inhospitable landscape and climate would put off most folks. This is the stuff of good stories.

One of the many, many tours offered to tourists was The Game of Thrones Tour. We swam in the Blue Lagoon instead.

Our hotel had a bookshelf for guests. Prominent in the collection was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, one of President Obama’s recommendations, and one of mine.

I’m not a fan of Nordic-noir, or whatever genre in which you would include Icelandic thrillers. There are plenty.

Go to Iceland! It’s another country; they do things differently there.

Book details

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (2012) Granta 358pp

Independent People by Halldor Laxness (1934-5). Translated from the Icelandic by James Anderson Thompson and first published in 1946, in translation. Available in the Vintage edition. 544pp

And go to TripFiction’s website to find other location-based fiction.

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Exeter Station and a publishing revolution

What’s the connection between Exeter Station and a publishing revolution? Let’s be precise, it’s Exeter St David’s Station, there being other stations in Exeter. As I frequently pass through or catch a train to and from Exeter St David’s I was entranced to discover that it was the site where Penguin Books originated.

A book for the price of a packet of fags

The story goes that returning from a weekend with Agatha Christie, at Greenway above the River Dart, Allen Lane had to wait on the Exeter station platform. It was 1934. Already working for Bodley Head, frustrated by the shortage of cheap and portable books, and no doubt influenced by recent contact with a popular author he conceived the idea for the Penguin paperback. The paperback revolution began.

271 AllenLane

It was probably not so much the soft covers but the desire to produce books for the same price as a packet of cigarettes that contributed to the success of his idea. A note for younger readers: smoking was not at that time considered a danger to health or a socially unacceptable activity.

Not on our time

The idea was not immediately taken up enthusiastically by Allen Lane’s employers, Bodley Head. They did not think it would be successful, and required him to do the work for his publishing idea in his own time. Fortunately he had colleagues who did support the idea, including one who came up the idea of the slightly comic penguin that would become identified with the new format. One of the team was sent off to London Zoo to draw the penguin for the original colophon.

271 penguin

Later the format was expanded to Pelicans (non-fiction and blue) and Puffins (for children). The original orange covers of the Penguins later diversified into green for detective novels, black for classics, and other colours, such as purple for essays.

Democratic

Allen Lane’s intentions were anti-elitist. In All About Penguin Books in The Bookseller May 1935 he said the project would be a success if

these Penguins are the means of converting book borrowers in to book-buyers.

He was, he said, aiming at nothing less than

the popularisation of the bookshop and the increased sale of books.

The first titles

Penguins Books began with ten titles.

  • Agatha Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  • Dorothy L. Sayers The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
  • André Maurois Ariel
  • Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms
  • Mary Webb Gone to Earth.

Other authors were Susan Ertz, Compton Mackenzie, Eric Linklater, Beverley Nichols and E.H. Young.

According to a story in History Today, one enthusiastic reader was responsible for Penguin books being selected by the Woolworth’s buyer: Mrs Prescott.

A key moment came when the book buyer for Woolworth’s, a man named Prescott, was approached. He did not like the sample he was shown, but his wife’s enthusiastic reaction changed his mind (or so Penguin legend has it) and he ordered 63,500 copies. That meant that at least the first Penguins would not make a loss. (Richard Cavendish, History Today)

Another note to younger readers: Woolworth’s was an early version of Poundland-type shops but with a shade more class. It went under in the great bankers’ crash of 2008, and I’m not going to remind you about that, because you should know.

271 Allen Lane and Lady Chat

The trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence in 1960 was one of Penguin Books finest hours. The battle to have the book declared obscene was lost despite the claim made by the chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones that it was ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’. Mrs Prescott probably turned in her grave.

Original Penguins Livery

You can still pick up early Penguins in second-hand shops. Most of mine have telltale pencil prices inside the cover, or addresses of previous owners, often institutions. The early editions are very attractive, irresistible even. I treasure mine. Don’t get excited about my copy of Ariel by Andre Maurois in the photograph. It’s a 1985 facsimile. The others are pre-war editions.

271 My penguins

Book sales at Exeter St David’s Station today

Allen Lane’s experiment was a success. For a time. Penguin Books has been swallowed up by the commercial publishing giant Random House. And at Exeter St David’s Station the only books sold today have to be tracked down in the dingy cave that is WH Smith’s. The book selection is at the far end of the shop, reached by squeezing through passengers buying magazines, sweets and fizzy drinks for their journey. The shop stocks best sellers, fiction and nonfiction. Nothing I was tempted to buy and I doubt whether Allen Lane would have thought much of the selection either.

271 ExStD

Ironically, at No 1 in the fiction shelves was Girl on a Train. I doubt I will ever read a book with ‘Girl’ in the title unless I am persuaded by someone whose judgement I trust.

Penguins I loved

My love of reading was fostered in the ‘50s and ‘60s by Puffins, and later by the Pelicans that no self-respecting teenager aspiring to be an intellectual would be without. I read Freud from them, and soon discovered ST Bindoff’s Tudor England. And on and on, through many adult novels, history books, polemics, art collections and suddenly here we are in 2016. Books, Penguin Books. And it all began at Exeter St David’s.

Related books and posts

JE Morpurgo Allen Lane, King Penguin.

Jeremy Lewis Penguin Special, The Life and Times of Allen Lane

Stephen Ware, ed Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors 1935-1970

Banning Books on this blog November 2015

Allen Lanes files are held at Bristol University Library

 

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More bookish things in the Cevennes

At the end of May I went walking in the Cevennes region of France. The area’s most famous literary connection is with Modestine, the donkey. The previous post looked at Robert Louis Stevenson and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Now I consider three other books connected with the area.

Le Rozier

  1. Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead

The Cevennes lies in the southern part of le massif central. Northeast of Robert Louis Stevenson’s route lies the large plateau Viverais-Lignon where the villages, farms and forests are frequently cut off in winter and require effort to reach at other times of year. It is high, remote and isolated. It also has clean, restorative air and, long before the Second World War, had been a place for the French to improve their health during the summer months, especially children.

257 VofS cover

During the time of Vichy government and the occupation of France hundreds, perhaps thousands of people fled from the German occupiers to the plateau. First it was the Spanish refugees from the Civil War in Spain; then the foreign Jewish families who had escaped to France and needed to hide from the occupying German forces when France was defeated; then it was the French Jewish families, who had been assured of the protection of the Vichy government and then betrayed; later on, the Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO) introduced national service for the French to work in Germany and many people went into hiding to avoid the STO; and the Maquis, the local resistance movement also found cover on the plateau. Most of these people survived the war.

La Causse Mejean

The book tells the reader what happened, but also asks the question, what was it about the people of the plateau that enabled them to successfully defy the demands of the occupiers and to shelter these fugatives?

The geography of the plateau made it excellent for hiding.

The bravery of individuals and the determination of the organisations that hid those in danger, especially the Jewish children, was another feature.

There was a history of Protestant resistance, stretching back to the bloody wars of religion in the 18th Century, described in some detail by Robert Louis Stevenson in his book of 1879. Some of the pastors were pacifists, all dedicated to assistance. Two sects, offshoots of Plymouth Brethren, were present on the plateau, austere and with an entrenched privacy and resistance to asking questions. Even some of the local police turned a blind eye to the hidden children.

It’s an important story, but was not an easy book to write, Caroline Moorehead tells us in an article Caroline Moorehead on Village of Secrets: ‘I received warnings’. The warnings came from a group who wished to preserve the story of the heroism of a single man, whereas she celebrates the efforts and commitment of the whole community. It was not a story of a single hero. There was no monopoly on goodness, she explains.

And as a footnote, Albert Camus spent two winters on the plateau, writing La Peste.

Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France. Caroline Moorehead (2014) published by Vintage. 374 pp. Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

  1. Trespass by Rose Tremain

257 Trespass cover

This novel was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize in 2011. I read it when it was published and these comments are from my notes.

This was quite an easy read, but the story felt a little unresolved. It concerns disputed property in the south of France, and a vivid family past. A parallel story concerns a gay English woman who writes and gardens in the same area, whose brother wishes to buy a property in the area to recover his sense of self. Their stories collide badly, and little resolution is made, except by the perpetrator of the murder, who is not apprehended. This did not leave me with a sense of calm, a story ended. On the one hand satisfying revenge is had, on the other people have been plunged into grief and trauma as a result.

It’s quite a short novel, and told from a number of perspectives. Resentments, built up over long lives, are well portrayed, but it is hard to know whose story this is, and why one should care. Ultimately it feels like the rich middle class English causing rifts and damage in their new colonies.

Trespass by Rose Tremain, published by Penguin in 2011. 384pp.

Aver Amand

  1. Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

257 Verne_-_Voyage_au_centre_de_la_Terre.djvu

And then there was Jules Verne, greeting us in the limestone caves of Aven Armand. The tour of the caves used the device of his novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth to introduce us to the fantastical stalagmites and stalactites. It was slightly dodgy as Jules Verne wrote his book before the caves were found. But the idea of great scientific discoveries being made in the 19th Century, the excitement at the new knowledge, especially about the age and development of the earth, was a point being made. Did you know that it takes a century for the stalagmites to grow 1 cm? The literary connection gave me an excuse to include a photo

257 Jules Verne

Relevant posts and websites

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes (June 2016) on this blog.

Trip Fiction for advice on fiction related to your journeys.

Reading Guide for Trespass by Rose Tremain.

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Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes

256 RLS coverIn the autumn of 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson set off with his donkey Modestine, spending 12 days travelling in the French region of the Cevennes. This is a mountainous area north of Montpelier. They covered 120 miles together, travelling south from Le Monastier (near Le Puy) to St Jean du Gard.

Last week (May 2016) I travelled, in much more luxury but also on foot, from Ganges to Millau. This route took us further south, crossing from East to West. My companions were 13 walkers, guided by a professional tour leader, looked after by a wonderful tour manager. No donkeys, but a lonely cow, with bell joined us for an hour one day.

Walking in France

RLS was suffering from a broken heart when he set out. He was 27 years old, already a veteran traveller, and destined to go on travelling, ending his life in Samoa. He came from Scotland, son of a lighthouse builder.

RLS was also a writer, and most people first meet him as the author of Treasure Island or Kidnapped. [Pause for people to mutter Aaah Jim lad! And Black Spot!] He published his account of his trip with Modestine in the year after his journey: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. He gave no reason for his journey, being a devotee of travel for its own sake.

Why any one should desire to visit either Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied by our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? (12)

Cevennes

RLS’s present was very exacting and he experienced many ‘needs and hitches’, not least in his relationship with Modestine. Most of the time he was on his own (except for the donkey) and at night, if there was no convenient auberge, he slept under the stars. He spent one night in a Trappist monastery. Trappists take a vow of silence. As he approached, with some trepidation, he met Father Apollinaris near the monastery, Our Lady of the Snows. They walked and conversed together.

‘I must not speak to you down there,’ he said. ‘Ask for the Brother Porter, and all will be well. But try to see me as you go out again through the wood, where I may speak to you. I am charmed to have made your acquaintance.’

And then suddenly raising his arms, flapping his fingers, and crying out twice, ‘I must not speak, I must not speak!’ he ran away in front of me, and disappeared into the monastery door.

I own that this ghastly eccentricity went a good way to revive my terrors. (18)

256 Gorge

He describes the details of his adventures with wry good humour. More than once he sleeps outside, rarely disturbed by people in this remote region. One night he leaves the village of Bleymard and camps among the pines. In the night he awakes.

256 travels-with-donkey

The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still. By the whiteness of the pack-saddle I could see Modestine walking around and around at the length of her tether; I could hear her steadily munching at the sward; but there was not another sound save the indescribable quiet talk of the runnel over the stones. I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars. …

As I thus lay, between content and longing, a faint noise stole towards me through the pines. I thought, at first, it was the crowing of cocks or the barking of dogs at some very distant farm; but steadily and gradually it took articulate shape in my ears, until I became aware that a passenger was going by upon the high-road in the valley, and singing loudly as he went. There was more of goodwill than grace in his performance; but he trolled with ample lungs; and the sound of his voice took hold upon the hillside and set the air shaking in the leafy glens. (55/56)

RLS the Walker

Map of RLS's route, licensed by Creative Commons

Map of RLS’s route, licensed by Creative Commons

It struck me that RLS does not report those things that occupy most walkers: feet, especially any blisters, tired legs or knees, whether the weather will hold, the next meal, all matters physical. Rather he focuses on Modestine’s limitations, which are great. Some ascents are too steep for her. Sometimes she refuses to walk. She meets a fellow donkey and wants to socialise. RLS has to learn how to encourage, entreat and provoke Modestine to carry his luggage: a switch, a goad, whistling, and pulling. It is a constant source of anxiety to him that he must treat this animal in ways he would rather avoid. Eventually, after 12 days, they reach St Germain de Calberte, but the donkey’s physical state means she can’t continue to Alais (today called Ales) as intended. So he sells her and she is gone before he realises that he will miss her, grieve for her.

He tells us about his struggles with Modestine, his luggage, finding the way, meeting various characters, the history of the region (known for being a stronghold of Protestants in a bloody struggle in the previous century) and innumerable conversations about religion. ßHe notes the telegraph wires, the railway, surveyors preparing for new tracks. But other signs of mechanisation are few.

Dartmoor Donkeys

Dartmoor Donkeys

His generosity of spirit, his belief in getting along with everyone, in the pleasures of travel for the adventures it brings, and his reluctance to goad Modestine, these are the charming characteristics of this account.

My journey

My journey did not coincide with RLS and Modestine’s. I went with no purpose but to enjoy the walking, the countryside, the company, the food and wine. I began to understand Modestine’s reluctance as we struggled up steep and rocky paths, and descended more of the same. Some tracks were forbidden to car and bikes, but there was no sign of any donkeys (except perhaps that pile of poo).

No entryOur journey lay over the high plateaux, in May awash with numberless wild flowers, overseen by larks and vultures. Our views were spectacular, the pine woods quiet and fragrant, our way up the slopes serenaded by nightingales.

And …

Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson, first published in 1879. The edition I used is published by John Beaufoy Publishing ltd, Stanfords Travel Classics. 95pp

There is a useful website on Robert Louis Stevenson here.

The next post on Bookword will look at other Cevennes-related reading.

 

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Books for all Seasons

Here is a little indulgence: a challenge to find four books I’d read, with each of the seasons in the titles. A kind of structured serendipity. Nothing significant emerged from the combination, but I do get to recommend the four books.

Les 4 saisons par ou d’apres Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) via Wikimedia

Les 4 saisons par ou d’apres Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) via Wikimedia

If on a Winter’s Night a traveller by Italo Calvino

Translated by William Weaver

211 If on coverThis is the ultimate meta-novel. Calvino addressed the reader in alternate chapters. Every interpolated chapter begins and explores some aspect of novels. The reader chapters considers reading and writing, culminating in a discussion between readers in a library, who all read in different ways and to different purposes.

As well as a serious exploration of books and reading this novel is full of playfulness – such a good quality in writing. Playing with the reader, as reader. I think it’s great and I need to read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller again soon.

If on a Winter’s Night a traveller … by Italo Calvino (1998) published by Vintage Classics

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

211 Begin of Sp coverI enjoyed this story of an expatriate in Moscow in March 1913 for 12 months, whose wife mysteriously disappears and leaves him with his three children. The place is beautifully evoked, with believable detail. It is a very enigmatic.

The beginning of spring comes as Nellie reappears. We have only just found out where she went and why. The relationships of all these quirky characters are not cold, but spring returns with hope. However we know that within a few months Europe will be at war and Russia convulsed.

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988) published by 4th Estate

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

65 Winifred coverElizabeth Taylor’s eighth novel is about love of many different kinds. It is also about love’s tendency to appear and disappear as the title suggests. The summer changes their experience of love for all the characters. Elizabeth Taylor knew what she was doing in this, her eighth novel.

Kate Heron is around forty and has recently married for the second time. Her husband Dermot fails to find suitable employment. Lou, Kate’s sixteen year old daughter falls for and hangs around the chaplain, Father Blizzard. Kate’s son Tom is used to having girls at his beck and call, has become practised in letting them down gently when he moves on to the next one. But he is smitten with Araminta, the daughter of a neighbour.

It is Dermot’s lack of fibre (as they would say) that pushes the story to its conclusion. While there is tragedy, sudden and brutal, all does not end badly for Kate in a conclusion that does will satisfy all readers as we are unsure what kind of future Kate will have. The final short chapter allows us to see how where love leaves her and the other characters, a year on from that summer season.

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor re-published in 1973 by Virago Modern Classics.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

204 4tet in Autumn coverFour people work together in an office, doing unspecified work. The two men and two women are all single. Their lives have little in them, although each has made a small effort to do something, whether it is to engage with the church, admire her surgeon, collect milk bottles, be bitter or plan for retirement in the country.

The women retire, and the death of one of them brings the others together in a strange way. ‘But at least it made one realise that life still held infinite possibilities for change’, the novel concludes. On the way to this conclusion, every tiny action or event is squeezed by the quartet for its meaning and engagement.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym (1977) published by Pan/Picador Books

Related posts

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald reviewed on Bookword January 2014

I could have included The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald in the posts about Books in Moscow a few weeks ago.

I reviewed In a Summer Season in my series on the novels of Elizabeth Taylor in the winter of 2013.

I reviewed Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym for the older women in fiction series recently.

Have you any recommendations of books for a season?

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Bookword in St Petersburg

We followed Anna Karenina and took the train from Moscow to St Petersburg. It is the tourist route. The countryside of Russia was flat, spacious, dominated by coniferous woods, rivers and dachas, occasionally interrupted by communities of brutalist concrete blocks of flats before quickly giving way again to the dark green trees.

Wedding of Alexander II and Princess Alix of Denmark in 1894 by Laurits Tuxen in The Hermitage. The future Edward VII is amongst those attending. Via Wikicommons.. ( http://gallerix.ru )

Wedding of Alexander II and Princess Alix of Denmark in 1894 by Laurits Tuxen in The Hermitage. The future Edward VII is amongst those attending. Via Wikicommons.

I had less idea of St Petersburg from books than my out of date image of Moscow (see earlier post To Moscow with Books ). But this is the city of Anna Karenina and of Peter and Catherine the Greats. In the nineteenth century in this city the aristocracy spoke French, they lived a glittering life of an elite more distant from the serfs (emancipated only in 1861) than from the upper classes in Europe within which the royal famiiy was intermarried.

Unexpected bookish things in St Petersburg

201 Bks in St P hotelIn my hotel room I found two books, part of the rather racy décor which twinned sage and lime green, pasted bordello-like wallpaper on the corridors, and rich round colours on the uncomfortable seating in the foyer (cherry red, bubble-gum pink, royal purple etc). Books in the bedrooms? My books were Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Books were a feature of every room, but apart from an opera libretto I didn’t find out what other guests had been given.

201 Idiot cafeOne evening we dined in The Idiot restaurant. How could we not? I expect there are pubs in London named after Dickens’s novels, but can you imagine Pride and Prejudice Café, or Middlemarch Diner? It was a good experience. The décor was suitably writerly and the lighting very low and gloomy. I was disappointed to hear a tourist ask the waitress how it got its odd name.

History in St Petersburg

You expect to find a city’s history written on its buildings: the wide boulevards of Paris that prevented revolutionary activity; Amsterdam defined by its canals; Berlin’s triumphal   Brandenburg Gate. Although Moscow was full of monuments to the three great Russian victories (over Napoleon, and Germany in the two world wars) I expected to see and hear more of St Petersburg’s history.

On the face of it St Petersburg wears its history proudly. Its buildings in the centre of St Petersburg still present the city of Peter and Catherine the Greats and the deposed Romanovs. The French influence is everywhere, in the pastel buildings, the wide spaces, the palaces.

201 Winter PalaceThis city saw some of Russia’s most significant 20th Century events: the square of the Winter Palace was the scene of the Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1905. A peaceful demonstration of striking workers came to meet the Tsar, and were fired upon at will be the troops. This event lead to the first Russian Duma (parliament) and the beginning of the end of Romanov power. The Palace was stormed by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

The Peterhof, a post-war reconstruction

The Peterhof, a post-war reconstruction

The Siege of Leningrad (the name of St Petersburg at that time), we were told, lasted nearly 900 days (8th September 1941 to 27th January 1944) and that most of the centre was destroyed. We were given no idea about the human damage. Despite huge destruction the city was reconstructed and rebuilt within three years rather than modernised. So all those marzipan buildings are reconstructions?

The façade of St Petersburg presents a very modern European city then, a reconstruction where the difficult events of the 20th Century are laid aside. There is more people’s history in the novels I read.

  1. The Ice Road by Gillian Slovo

201 iceroad coverThe ice road is the route across the lakes that saved the people of Leningrad during the siege. It is no easy road, of course.

The Ice Road is more than 500 pages long, and covers the story of several characters, told with different voices and points of view, from the early ‘30s to end of the siege of Leningrad. It follows their lives through the pogroms of Stalin and the fear that followed, including the outbreak of war and the siege. Their stories interweave as characters influence the outcomes of each others’ lives.

One theme of the novel is the corruption of ideals through the apparatus of the state and through the urge to survive. People make compromises for each other, make mistakes, love and care even when it jeopardises them.

The Ice Road by Gillian Slovo (2004) published by Virago 541pp

Shortlisted for Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction.

  1. The Siege by Helen Dunmore

201 Siege coverThis novel is tough, as fits its subject. It is less to do with the politics of the city more about individuals and what happens when they struggle to survive in extreme circumstances. We follow four people as their lives become smaller and smaller as a result of hunger and cold. As the siege persists their focus recedes from the higher aspects of human life, love, work, beauty, care for the family to brutal survival preoccupations, and surviving means letting go of loved ones and ideals. What matters is the search for food and for wood.

The Siege by Helen Dunmore published in 2001 by Penguin Books 320pp

Shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction

  1. Subtly Worded by Teffi

201 Teffi coverThe early short stories in this collection date from Teffi’s life in St Petersburg before the Revolution. She fled to Paris, as so many White Russians did, and continued to write there. Her story about meeting Rasputin reads as if it were an actual experience of encountering this mythic man (mythic even at that time). Perhaps it is an imagining in order to understand the phenomenon that got so close to the Tsar’s family and whose death is the stuff of legends.

Another story I enjoyed is called Tolstoy and it is an account of the author as a young girl calling on Tolstoy to ask him not to kill off Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace. I had heard the story on Radio 4 in April 2015 (no longer available) and been charmed by it. It reflects the power of fiction upon a young.

Subtly Worded by Teffi published in 2014 by Pushkin Press 301pp

Translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Candler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase.

Related links

Check out tripfiction.com for recommendations for reading in different locations.

The Goodreads list of Books set in St Petersburg is headed by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with War and Peace fourth on the list. Other classics are included, The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin by Pushkin, The Overcoat by Gogol, and Fathers and Sons by Turgenev.

That list reminds me of how many Russian classics I have yet to read.

Previous travel and book related posts on this blog are:

Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)

Tales from the Vienna Streets (July 2013)

Berlin Stories (Oct 2014)

Amsterdam Stories (Dec 2014)

Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

To Moscow with Books (Sept 2015)

 

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To Moscow with Books

What picture do you have in your head of Moscow? If you have never been, perhaps it is like mine: dark, threatening, sombre people and brutal buildings. And how was this vision built? Through films and news reports from the Cold War era. Who hasn’t seen the parades through Red Square? Who hasn’t heard about the eavesdropping, being tailed, the bureaucracy? The image has not been improved by recent killings of opposition folk: Alexander Litvinenko poisoned in London in October 2006, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya shot in Moscow in October 2006 and in February 2015 Boris Nemtsov shot in the back as he walked on the Bolshoy Moskvorsky Bridge.

Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro

The image of Moscow as dark, dangerous and mysterious may have been created by novels as well. In the first of the three discussed the Moscow location is an essential feature.

  1. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)

99 G Park coverThis is set in Moscow in 1981, the time of Brezhnev. Corruption is rife. There is an uncomfortable relationship between the Moscow city police and the KGB. Three bodies found frozen and mutilated in the snow in Gorky Park lead through the city, briefly to the border area beyond Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and ultimately to New York. It was the first in a series featuring investigator Arkady Renko.

The novel is mostly played out on the city’s streets and its buildings: offices, hotels and apartments. I read one climactic scene, a near-drowning in the University ponds, on the day we visited.

Moscow University with ponds

Moscow University with ponds

Martin Cruz Smith illuminates the physical appearance of Moscow in the early 1980s. Much of what he describes is still present.

Soviet gothic was not so much an architectural style as a form of worship. Elements of Greek, French, Chinese and Italian masterpieces had been thrown in the barbarian wagon and carried to Moscow and the Master Builder Himself, who had piled them one on the other into the cement towers and blazing torches of His rule, monstrous skyscrapers of ominous windows, mysterious crenellations and dizzying towers that led to the clouds, and yet still more rising spires surmounted by ruby stars that at night glowed like His eyes. After His death, His creations were more embarrassment than menace, too big for burial with Him, so they stood, one to each part of town, great brooding semi-Oriental temples, not exorcised but used. The one in the Kievskaya District, west of the river, was the Hotel Ukraina. (101)

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (first published in 1981), available from Simon & Schuster 559pp

  1. Snowdrops by AD Miller (2011)

199 Sdrops coverSnowdrops is a depressing story as no one in it behaves well. The narrator is confessing to his fiancée, but you feel he is unlikely to be forgiven by her. Miller describes Moscow in the first decade of twenty-first century, and the corruption in housing and the big oil companies. Snowdrops considers corporate and individual corruption through the narrator’s role in them. Weaknesses that leads to corruption are not only money, but also sex, fear, a need for attention, wanting to be right, fear of being wrong.

Two Russian young women pick up Nick on the Metro and take him for a ride, using his services as a lawyer to defraud their victim of her flat. The Cossack takes Nick and his fellow lawyers for a similar ride with investments in oil production. In both cases Nick gradually becomes aware of the scam, but does not speak out and prevent them. He colludes. It’s a grubby story.

The narrator meets Maria on the Metro, as he waits on the platform at Revolution Square, ‘where the civilian statues are – athletes, engineers, bosomy female farmhands and mothers holding muscular babies’ (8).

Moscow Metro, Revolution Square

Moscow Metro, Revolution Square

Snowdrops by AD Miller (2011) published by Atlantic Books. 273pp. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011.

  1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966/7)

Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

199 M & M coverFor a view of Moscow in the early 1930s this novel of satire and phantasmagoria is hard to beat. Its subject are Stalin’s regime, which was approaching the height of its power, the madness and menace of the regime and the chaos it caused. I couldn’t tell you the story, it is outlandish and hard to follow. At the time I read it I noted that ‘after the mayhem in Moscow it got easier to follow, and I even found myself thinking I might go back to the beginning’.

This book captures the borders of the familiar world with a dystopia and made me wonder about some aspects of our visit to Moscow. The drive from the airport to the city centre for example. Four of us were crammed into one car. The driver shot forward immediately, as he did every time he saw a meter of road. In the dense jam on the route into Moscow he went off road onto the hard shoulder and positioned our car is such a way that other cars could not cut back in, holding a shouting match with one driver whose car was 2 cms from ours. When we reached Mscow he shouted at us. None of us understood Russian and he had no English. Perhaps we had a sightseeing tour. As he left us he blew a raspberry for we did not give him a tip. I have only been more frightened in Malta, where we drove round U-bends on the wrong side of the road, in defiance of traffic rules and gravity.

The Master and Margarita generated spontaneous approaches from people on public transport when I was reading it. The impression it left with me added to the sense that in Moscow everything might not be what it seems, something was lurking …

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (first published in 1966-7) and republished by Penguin Classics 396pp

And has it changed?

There is still violence on the streets of Moscow. You might notice that the memorial on the bridge where Boris Nemtsov was shot six months before is close to the domes of St Giles Cathedral and Red Square.

Memorial toBoris Nemtov, shot on this bridge in February 2015

Memorial toBoris Nemtov, shot on this bridge in February 2015

Armed men still parade in Red Square. These men were rehearsing for a Moscow Day celebration.

Red Square, rehearsing for Moscow Day 2015

Red Square, rehearsing for Moscow Day 2015

And Gorky Park is still popular, full of young people and a delightful place to visit with its dancing musical fountains, young people and kiosks.

Gorky Park, musical fountains playing Russian classics

Gorky Park, musical fountains playing Russian classics

Moscow was a surprise to me despite these. I found it was a lively and accessible city, with beautiful metro stations and helpful people just getting on with it.

Related posts:

You can find a list of 10 novels set in Moscow in the Guardian. It included classics such as Boris Godunov by Pushkin, War and Peace by Tolstoy and Three Sisters by Chekhov.

Also see Trip Fiction site to find location-based fiction.

Previous travel and book related posts on this blog are:

Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)

Tales from the Vienna Streets (July 2013)

Berlin Stories (Oct 2014)

Amsterdam Stories (Dec 2014)

Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

Coming soon: St Petersburg (Sept 2015)

 

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Bookword in Alsace

I spent the first week of May this year walking in Alsace. I took some reading, heard some excellent stories and came across some bookish things along the way. Here’s one of them, seen on a gatepost on our last day, walking through Ammerschwihr, a village between Turckheim and Kaysersberg.

174 stone girl reading

Reading in Alsace

I planned to read The Erl-King by Michel Tournier in my non-walking hours. It was the only Alsace-related novel I had found that interested me. But I didn’t finish it before my return. This was because

  1. I was also reading the fabulous Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, and thoroughly immersed in her erudite and fascinating writing about Frankenstein, Innuits, Che Guevara, apricots, the Grand Canyon and other equally engaging topics. Much of her book is about having a voice and the importance telling stories.
  2. I was worn out by walking up and up and down. I needed a wee lie down every afternoon.

I also took with me to read the latest in Peirene’s subscription: Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean. I will finish both these French books very soon and you may find more about them on this blog.

Stories in Alsace

On hearing about the witches of Riquewihr I amused my fellow walkers by exclaiming that the region must be one of the most sexist! The witches’ dispatch was necessary for the quality of the grape harvests, we were told. And the female saints of Alsace, in particular, had a very hard time: St Odile and St Richarde. Both were treated badly by men close to them who should have known better.

174 storks

Storks did rather better than saints. We came across this charming pair of storks in Katzanthal. Their ‘swinging’ habits could have contributed a few episodes to a soap opera. I think this is Marguerite and her new partner Arnold. But it might be Balthazar, her original partner, with her younger replacement, who currently ‘keeps him company’.

174 vineyardsOur walks provided ample stimulus for a storyteller’s imagination: castles, Hansel and Gretel houses, Heidi meadows and dark woods. And if the creativity lagged there was always the wine, the vineyards, the Rhine valley and the people we met along the way.

174 castles

Book Exchange

I nearly missed this delightful book corner in Ribeauville, as I was distracted by grit in both my eyes. But what a delightful and low key way of keeping books in circulation, with the added assistance or forbearance of the French postal service.

174 book box

Walking, Writing and Reading

In a section of her book I read Rebecca Solnit’s thoughts about labyrinths, reading, walking and books:

In this folding up of a great distance into small space, the labyrinth resembles two other manmade things: a spool of thread and the words and lines and pages of a book. Imagine all the sentences in this book. Imagine that they could be unwound; that you could walk the line they make, or are walking it. Reading is also travelling, the eyes running along the length of an idea, which can be folded up into the compressed space of a book and unfolded within your imagination and your understanding. (188-9)

This connection between some of my favourite activities – reading, writing and walking – is most satisfying and a good excuse for a post which is basically about what I did on my holidays!

174 Faraway coverI plan to explore more of Rebecca Solnit’s writing in the next post: Men Explain Things to Me. Meanwhile take this as a rather relaxed recommendation for The Faraway Nearby.

In the Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. Published by Granta Books in 2014. 254 pp

 

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Amsterdam Stories

142 Amsterdam BridgeAmsterdam, city of canals, bicycles and Anne Frank. I love it. In 2014 I visited twice, seduced by flights from Exeter Airport and by the reopening of the Rijksmusem. On both occasions I spent a whole day in the museum. Before the second visit I found a list of the ten best books set in Amsterdam, compiled by Malcolm Burgess. I chose two to read while I was there.

The book that dominates Amsterdam is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. But I’m going to sidestep it. I don’t underestimate its significance, charm and poignancy but Amsterdam is much more than the city where Anne Frank lived, hid, wrote and died.142 Am flowers

 

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom

Translated from the Dutch by Adrienne Dixon.

142 RitualsCees Nooteboom is, according to Malcolm Burgess, the greatest living Dutch novelist and Rituals is his masterpiece. It won the Pegasus Prize in 1981, having been published the previous year. I have to admit that I had not heard of Cees Nooteboom before. I think that this is because I am out of touch with European literature.

I found this a very interesting but troubling book. The Amsterdam setting is without special significance, although it had to be ituated somewhere and I did enjoy recognising some of the places mentioned in the novel.

I found time in the novel was a challenging aspect. There are three episodes related in Rituals, associated with three different people, the narrator, Inni Wintrop, and Arnold and Philip Taads. The Intermezzo is the first movement, set in 1963, the father Arnold Taads in 1953 and then the son leapfrogging ahead to 1973. It is an interesting approach for a novelist and highlighted dimensions of the relationships between the three men in an unsettling way.

The three men have some things in common, all attempt suicide; all try to find answers to the question of how to live by adopting the rituals of the title. Some rituals are formal or recognised: the Roman Catholic Church, Japanese aestheticism and tea rituals, Hari Krishna and nihilism. Others are rituals placed on life by the individuals to give it form: chasing women, selling art, organisation of time, daily rituals and so forth.

Cees Nooteboom appears to be asking how we make meaning from being alive, and how some attempts to understand life are flawed, meaningless and lead to nothing. He is also examining how time affects our understanding. I find this description of the older Tadd’s routines to be nightmarish.

Time, Inni learned that day, was the father of all things in Arnold Taad’s life. He had divided the empty, dangerous expanse of the day into a number of precisely measured parts, and the boundary posts at the beginning and end of each part determined his day with unrelenting sternness. Had he been older, Inni would have known the fear that dominated Arnold Taads demanded its tithes in hours, half hours, and quarter hours, randomly applied points of fracture in the invisible element through which we must wade as long as we live. It was as if, in an endless desert, someone had singled out a particular grain of sand and decided that only there could he eat and read. Each of these preappointed grains of sand called forth, with compelling force, its own complementary activity. A mere ten millimetres further and fate would strike. Someone arriving ten or fifteen minutes early or late was not welcome. The maniacal second hand turned the first page, played the first note on the piano, or, as now, put a pan of goulash on the stove on the last stroke of seven. (84)

This kind of philosophising seems to me to be a European phenomenon. Think of Meursault in Camus’s L’Etranger, dealing with the nothingness of life by committing a random murder.

 

Rembrandt’s Whore by Sylvie Matton

Translated from the French by Tamsin Black.

142 R's whoreThis novel is a complete contrast to Rituals: it was written in French in 1999, by a woman and is set in the seventeenth century.

The narrator is Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s mistress after the death of his wife Saskia. As the title indicates she is condemned by the elders of Amsterdam. Her story begins when she arrives in Rembrandt’s house as an illiterate maid, and takes us through the birth to her daughter to her death. She addresses Rembrandt much of the time. It’s an intimate account of the domestic life of the great master, his business arrangements and financial difficulties, his social relations and daily life in Amsterdam in the mid seventeenth century. Here’s an example taken from her early days in the house.

I always used to look down when I went in to see you. Even when Geertje sent me to your studio in her place with the herrings and the beer. I’d knock gently, three little taps at the door. Come in, you said, and I’d go in. And I’d wait, holding the plate and pitcher, and behind your back I’d watch the picture emerge from your painting. I could see that great greasy crust on the palette of nameless colours, and bladders of paints and pots of oil that smelled of garlic, the hen’s feathers, and lavender. I’d learnt to breathe slowly with my mouth open, and my eyes no longer stung.

Barent Fabritius had given me his hand and brought me right into the pupils’ studio, where the artist who crushes the paint watches the oils heat until they become clear; then he can break up the colour into them. Not too hot, make sure the hen’s feather doesn’t fry in the turpentine. Beside him, an apprentice is stirring the bones and the skin of a rabbit till they melt in a bain-marie – the steam coming off it’s disgusting. If they’re mixed with powdered chalk they’ll turn into skin glue. (19-20)

The research is used to make clear the concreteness of painting and etching, and a visit to the Rembrandtshuis makes clear the physical effort, the smells, textures, shapes and colours with which Rembrandt spent his days. In this way the novel drew me into the life of old Amsterdam and its people. And it was authentic enough to add to the enjoyment of my visit.

The novel’s theme is the importance of art and love over form and narrow-mindedness. But we are reminded that in the end even fate, death, will get you – for some in the form of the plague.

And I will also enjoy the National Gallery exhibition, Rembrandt: The Late Works (until 18th January and later in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum).

my desk this morning.

my desk this morning.

I may have started a new series of books and cities. The first two posts were

Tales from the Vienna Streets and

Berlin Stories

I’m planning a trip to Russia (Moscow and St Petersburg) next year. Any suggestions for related reading? Or any other books set in Amsterdam that you would recommend?

 

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