Category Archives: Travel with Books

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen by Elizabeth von Arnim

In 1901 the writer, Elizabeth von Arnim, made a visit to the island of Rügen, the largest German island which lies in the Baltic. She had visited before and was equipped with maps and guidebook and a friend. They brought along a carriage with four horses, maids and baggage. Nothing much happened on the trip, although Elizabeth had hoped it would prove the basis of her next book. She had published Elizabeth and her German Garden to some acclaim in 1898. Undaunted by the lack of adventures she chose to invent some, along with a cast of truly awful characters, and sometimes pay lip service to the idea she was writing her own visitor’s guide. 

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen

Rügen is an island off the Pomeranian coast, renowned for its sandy beaches (and jelly fish apparently). In the novel, the guidebook she found in the library quickly proves to be inadequate for Elizabeth’s requirements, and after a few misdirections and silences Elizabeth takes pleasure in doing the opposite of what it suggests. She is enjoying the freedom to choose what to do and where to go. However events interrupt her idyll and her adventures take a different form.

She is a writer with a sense of the dramatic as well as the absurd, and we are invited from the outset to enjoy the vagaries of her trip. It begins when her carriage barely fits into the ferry across to the island but takes a turn for the worse when their young coachman, August, does not notice that his two passengers, Elizabeth and her maid Gertrud, have alighted. He has been warned not to turn around to look at the women, and so he travels on and on without them. When they finally catch up with him a challenge comes from one of the bystanders as he tells his story.

The crowd waited breathlessly. ‘I turned round,’ continued August, ‘and I saw nothing.’
‘But you said you would never forget what you saw,’ objected a dissatisfied-looking man.
‘Never, never shall I forget it.’
‘Yet you saw nothing at all.’
‘Nothing, nothing. Never will I forget it.’
‘If you saw nothing you cannot forget it,’ persisted the dissatisfied man. (31-2)

Such conundrums and frustrations follow Elizabeth on her adventures. Soon after this inauspicious beginning Elizabeth goes swimming and enters the cold water more or less on top of another woman who turns out to be her cousin Charlotte ‘whom I had not seen for ten years’. Charlotte’s marital situation drives the plot: she married an eminent English professor, much older than herself. She now wants to free herself from him and has left him to promote the cause of women. Actually she appears to be promoting the cause of Charlotte and overlooks other women and has no time at all to consider the servant class, such as the long-suffering Gertrud. The women continue the trip around the island together.

Not long after this Elizabeth’s path crosses the professor’s. He is looking for his wife, but quite happy to be distracted by any women he meets. He is, in truth, a bit of a lech. When Charlotte departs, Elizabeth and the professor give chase, and Elizabeth contrives a plan to bring them together.

Everywhere they go they meet Ambrose (Bosy) and his mother Mrs Harvey-Browne. Bosy is a good-looking young man, but he pays no attention to what anyone says but himself. His mother, however, is horrendous, and Elizabeth tries to avoid the pair on her travels. Mrs Harvey-Browne is the wife of an Anglican bishop and expects to be treated as a person of some status. It has not dawned on her that there would be little understanding of her status on the island as the Germans do not have bishops, and furthermore her status is acquired by connection rather in her own right. Sadly she is often mistaken, for example, refusing to engage with the professor, when they first met, as she mistakes him for a tramp. But worse, she is determined to be critical of everything – landscape, language, service, food, transport, the weather … 

Her negativity puts Elizabeth’s character into relief. Elizabeth is witty, funny and resourceful, prepared to see the best in everyone, to help them, and to enjoy the adventures on Rügen. All is chaos and good humour from her side, but indignation, crossness and self-absorption from the others.

Rügen is clearly a beautiful island with exquisite views and beaches as well as bracing sea bathing and dense forests. I read a second-hand copy of this novel but I don’t recall where I bought it. I was delighted to find a postcard tucked in its pages, showing a watercolour of the church in Bobbin, featured on Elizabeth’s journey (246-249). The artists is W Teich.

Here are links to other posts on Bookword featuring novels by Elizabeth von Arnim:

Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim (August 2021)

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim (July 2021)

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim (November 2020)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (August 2017)

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen: by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1904. It was reissued by Virago in 1990 with an introduction by Penelope Mortimer. 199pp 

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Letter from New York by Helene Hanff

Readers will be aware of the charming exchange of letters contained in 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. Two people who never met exchanged letters about books and life, in the post war era. Helene Hanff was in New York and Frank Doel worked at Marks & Co, the bookshop in London which she approached to supply her with the books she wanted. The two generous souls had exchanged letters for many years. After Frank died Helene created and published the book. It was 1970.

84 Charing Cross Road was immediately successful on both sides of the Atlantic largely for its charm and wittiness. Women’s Hour, a weekday programme on the BBC radio, commissioned Helene to produce a 5-minute letter from New York every month for six months. She began in October 1978 and the six months extended to nearly six years, until 1984. These contributions to the BBC have been collected into this lovely edition, published in 2023, Letter from New York.

Letter from New York

The background to all the letters is her studio apartment on East 72nd Street in Manhattan. She describes the community in the building, the friends and dogs who live there, and the surroundings, especially Central Park. She returns again and again to stories about her neighbours, their dogs, their approach to New York weather, and the daily life lived in ‘the last small town in America’.

The community in which she lived was strong, varied, and lively. Her cousin, in her introduction, describes how convivial Helen Hanff was, always entertaining friends and welcoming newcomers. Some of the connections in the building came from the shared use of food storage facilities, especially when it came to Christmas parties.

On Christmas Eve my pies will once more be up in 1-B in Nina’s freezer, and my sweet potato casserole and homemade cranberry sauce will be down at 4-F North, in Richard’s refrigerator. He will bring them up an hour before dinner, when he has to come up anyway to take the turkey out of the oven for me because one year I dropped that. I’m small and the turkey wasn’t. When he comes up to Christmas dinner Richard has to bring along his hot tray and his good carving knife. After dinner he or Arlene’s Mickey will wheel my tea cart full of dinner dishes up the hall, so I can put them in 8-E’s dishwasher, since Alan and Susan go to Susan’s mother’s on Long Island for Christmas. (165)

Spare keys are distributed in a similar way. Such arrangements reflect as well as foster good neighbourliness. Neighbours in summer sit together on the front steps watching life on the pavement and recommend services, shops and occasionally share dogs. If it sounds somewhat idyllic, that’s because she is constantly upbeat, never one to dwell on the difficulties of life, unless it’s finding the right clothes for a wedding.

She takes us around Central Park, and one episode persuaded English listeners to send wildflower seeds for a neglected area. She and her friends frequently attend concerts and services in churches, theatre performances, inside and in the open air, and the many parades and street parties that took place on New York Streets. She gives us some history and information about the geography of New York city and some of its notable inhabitants. 

Being a monthly newsletter, the rhythms of the year, the seasons, the celebrations, the changes in the city are documented for us. We become familiar with her friends, and especially Arlene, who happily passes on clothes to Helene, and has the delightful habit of giving her twelve presents every Christmas. She describes the collection in January 1983:

I don’t remember when Arlene started giving me twelve Christmas presents, one for each of the twelve days of Christmas. She’s been doing it for years. (We fight about this every year. I always lose.) A few are expensive, all twelve are useful, but they always include three or four so far out they have to be explained to me. […]
Number 12 was two bright terry cloth mitts, each the size of a football, the two joined by a length of rope. First you wash your hair. Then you sling the rope around your neck, slip your hands into the enormous mitts and dry your hair with them. (141)

I haven’t visited New York since 1969, but this book made me feel nostalgic. And her cousin Jean Hanff Korelitz reports the same reaction in the introduction: 

These charming pieces bring back the New York of my childhood, the storefronts and fashions, the errands and quirks and tastes and smells of the city I grew up in. (16)

There are two other charming aspects of this book. One is the illustrations by Bruce Eric Kaplan on the covers, the bookmark as well as the chapter headings.

The other is that this is a lovely book in itself: the design, the paper and smart yellow livery of the binding. Well done Manderley Press. It’s another success for an independent small publisher.

Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff

She was born in Philadelphia in 1916 and was largely self-educated. The books she requested from Marks & Co were to feed her habit of self-education. She made her living as a writer. Her apartment block in New York was renamed Charing Cross House in her honour, after her death in 1997.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. My thoughts on this earlier book on Bookword blog in August 2018.

Letter from New York by Helene Hanff, first published in 1992 and reissued by Manderley Press in 2023. 176pp 

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Returning to Judenplatz, Vienna

This is my 801st post on Bookword. For some of this week I am in Vienna and to celebrate being here and so many posts, I am recycling one of my very first. Just over ten years ago I visited this city and was profoundly moved by the Judenplatz, Jewish Square. I plan to revisit this moving place on my current visit. Here is what I wrote ten years ago.

From Bookword March 2013

It is a Catholic city on a Sunday morning, but Vienna was quiet and without church bells. The Judenplatz (Jewish Square) was calm. The metal ring of the horses pulling the tourist carriages could be heard from the surrounding streets. The churches were emptying, and families were returning home after mass, bundled into coats and scarves against the spring cold. As they greeted their neighbours or stopped to talk their voices rebounded from the genteel walls of the buildings, five storeys high, painted in white or palest cream and with tall, elegant windows.

In the centre of the square is a statue of Lessing, an Enlightenment figure, hated by the Nazis who destroyed the original. The replacement was made after the war and at certain angles the head appears to be out of proportion and awkward. Mozart lived for a while in a house on the corner. There is a plaque commemorating this on its wall.

Near Mozart’s house is a second plaque, brass with Latin lettering, celebrating the cleansing of the city of its Jewish population in 1421. Above it is a little vignette, an angel witnesses a cleansing. The story goes that the Jews were burned at the stake and to save others from such a death the Rabbi himself killed many of his congregation.

A heavily built young man came into the square while we pondered the celebration of this barbarity. He was in his early 20s and a little overweight.  He wore a t-shirt, faded gingham shorts and moccasins. He took off his shoes and placed a small pile of short candles and a rose bud on the floor. He lit the candles and lay beside them on the concrete. After about ten minutes he replaced his moccasins and loped off over the cobbles and disappeared, leaving the candles to burn. 

They guttered in a pool of wax in front of the library door. This is Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial for the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis in the Second World War. Around the base of the monument are listed in alphabetical order the names of the 45 places where the Austrian Jews were murdered, from Auschwitz to Zamosc. It is a library, but you cannot enter. There are no handles on the doors. It is made of concrete, resembles a bunker. The external walls of the library are made from books, cast in concrete, their spines facing inwards. They are closed books. We can never read their stories.

We stand and contemplate this grey structure, such a contrast to the other public memorials and statues in this city, most of which are decorated with gold. In the fashionable Graben shopping street (think Bond Street), for example, stands the Pestsaule, which celebrates the departure of the plague from Vienna in 1692. Even this writhing column is topped with golden tangled figures. The Holocaust Memorial was unveiled in October 2000. It is monumental yet understated, absorbed into its surroundings yet unmissable, calming yet shocking, moving yet without human figures.

I think these contradictions arise because of the books. The idea of a concrete book is one from which we recoil and then return. The library represents what could have been, what should not have been and what, having been imagined and realised, must be chronicled and not forgotten; and from which we must learn. And the Jews are the people of the book. 

Later that we day, after we had witnessed Don Giovanni taken down to hell at the Opera House, we passed through Judenplatz again. Evening was turning to night and easing the contradictions of the memorials in the square. The exquisite beauty of Mozart’s music could coexist with the horrors of the Fifteenth and Twentieth centuries. It was possible to fancy a hubbub of conversation, laughter and words among the library stacks and the unwritten books.

NOTE

Since that visit I have also been to Auschwitz and wrote about my visit and some bookish connections on this blog. You can find that post here

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Bookword in Naples

For months and months now I have been feeling restless, wanting to get away, away from Covid, from daily life, from staying at home and making soup (as a friend said). Since March 2020 I had spent just 4 nights from home, when I visited my sister in Cumbria. I enjoyed that very much, but by the New Year I wanted more. I am not claiming any specialness in these feelings. Readers of this blog may well have had similar emotions.

So earlier this year I booked myself onto a cultural tour of the ancient world around Naples. I imagined that it would either be cancelled or postponed, but in the event neither happened, and at the end of April, I took my Covid Pass, my clothes for warmer places and my masks and flew to Naples.

The tour focused on Greek and Roman archaeology around the Bay of Naples: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum and its temples, Pozzuoli Amphitheatre, and, where Pliny the elder died, Castellammare dell Stabia. Dominating the bay was Mount Vesuvius. 

Forum, Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background

For as long as I knew about it, I had wanted to visit Pompeii, and was in awe of the volcano and its eruptions. The one that buried Pompeii in ash and pumice happened in AD79. More recently it erupted during the Second World War. We were assured that it always gave warnings of any impending eruption, but it is acknowledged to be active. So, we climbed up it and looked into its crater, and found a steaming vent, which was a little alarming, but the worst that we experienced.

For this post on Bookword I present some books and poems that relate to Naples.

Pompeii: the life of a Roman town by Mary Beard

Told with her trademark verve and questioning style, she reveals the daily life of those who lived in the town before the eruption, casting a critical eye on the archaeological evidence and what people have made of it. It’s a very readable guide. It’s very much more than a guidebook, more an introduction for an intelligent reader who doesn’t want to be fobbed off with the myths that surround the ruins. 

Pompeii: the life of a Roman town by Mary Beard, published by Profile Books in 2008. 360pp

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

This is a novel about two girls growing up in the poorest district of Naples in the ‘50s, narrated by one of them. The Neapolitan Quartet, of which this is the first volume, has been very successful. The attraction, I believe, is in part the attraction of soaps: family drama, struggle against circumstances, many characters, the development of the limited cast of characters, and several vivid and violent scenes.

Readers of the post on this novel in December 2021 will know that I am not a huge fan and you can see my original comments in full here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in English in 2012 by Europa Editions. 331pp. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag

Another novel, this one by the renowned intellectual Susan Sontag, published in 1962. It is a long time since I read it, possibly more than 20 years, and my copy seems to have disappeared from my shelves, probably in a ruthless cull to send it on to other readers through Oxfam.

I remember that it concerned the triangle, possibly the ménage à trois, of William Hamilton, Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, his beautiful wife Emma, and her lover Admiral Lord Nelson. William Hamilton studied volcanoes, and perhaps is one of those few men whose is famous because of his wife.

Although praised by eminent critics for its literary qualities, I’m afraid that my memory of this book has largely escaped.

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag, available as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Pompeii by Robert Harris

And this third novel I might read following my visit. It’s set in the town if its title at the time of the eruption and was recommended by Richard E Grant in his BBC programme Write around the World.

The story follows a water engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, who has arrived in Pompeii to deal with the problem of the failing water supply. He gets caught up in a corrupt plot, an assassination attempt, love for Corelia, and of course the eruption. 

Pompeii by Robert Harris, published in 2003, and available in paperback.

In the footsteps of Shelley:

It is said that Percy Bysshe Shelley loved this area, but he wrote Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples. Poor man, his dejection outweighed the wonders of the place:


Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,

You can find the full poem here.

And Primo Levi made connections to other deadly events:

Primo Levi was imprisoned in Auschwitz as an Italian Jew during the Second World War. He survived the Holocaust, but his writings reveal the damage done. A poem he wrote is translated from the Italian as Girl of Pompeii or Girl-child of Pompeii. The poem links the plaster cast body of a fleeing child at Pompeii with the Holocaust, through Anne Frank and the Atom Bomb, through a schoolgirl in Hiroshima. 

Since the anguish of each belongs to us all
We’re still living yours, scrawny little girl …

You can find several translations of this poem on the internet.

A fresco in Castellammare

I feel restored by my trip to Italy and by the literary connections made there. I might even reread Virgil’s Aeneid. 

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The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Eleven years ago, in January 2011, I joined a cruise at Tromsø, Norway, going north and then east to Kirkenes, a few kilometres from the Russian border, far inside the Arctic Circle. It was an amazing trip in many ways, not least because of the dark landscape through which we sailed. This was a time of the year when the sunrise was also the sunset.

Sunrise/sunset Kirkenes Norway January 2011

When I was given The Mercies for Christmas I was intrigued to find that it was set in the same area, on an island, Vardø, which we had sailed passed. The dark story matches the darkness of the landscape. In the early seventeenth century, there were dark deeds afoot, cruel attitudes to people who had little power, and men who would profit from the misfortunes of others.

The Mercies

On the remote island of Vardø there was a small community, living off the sea, far away from King Christian IV in Copenhagen. The king wanted to unite his kingdoms, even the farthest reaches, through the power of the church. 

In 1617, on Christmas Day, a sudden, brief and brutal storm destroyed the fishing fleet that had set out from Vardø, and the men were all lost. They left behind a village of women who had to find ways to live out the rest of the winter and continue their lives thereafter. When they were almost out of food, the women set about fishing and managed to survive until the spring. 

This part of the story is narrated from the point of view of Maren, a young woman who lost her fiancé in the storm, along with her brother and father. We see how the women work together to survive until they begin to divide into the pragmatic group, led by Kirsten, and the church group headed by spiteful Toril.

In pursuit of controlling the people of Finnmark, the king’s Lensmann, a fanatic known for ridding the seas of pirates, summons Commissioner Cornet from Scotland to bring the people of Vardø to order. On the way through Bergen he picks up a wife, Ursa. Her point of view now joins Maren’s. Ursa is naïve and unskilled in the arts required of a wife on Vardø. Maren comes to her aid and the two become friends. Ursa’s husband begins his campaign of bringing the women to order. He is a fanatic Calvinist, and so he sees the independence of the women as a challenge to the church’s authority.

The plot takes on a darker form as first the Commissioner goes after the Sámi peoples who live in the area, including Maren’s sister-in-law. And then he finds witchcraft among the women of Vardø. Two of the women are arrested, imprisoned in the grim Vardøhus and when one, Kirsten, will not confess, she is given a public trial by ducking. If you float it is proven you are a witch, if you don’t you probably drown. You lose, you lose.

As the two young women draw closer and the search for more witches looks as if it more of the women of the island will be arrested, tortured and put to death, the two women are forced to act.

 

Off the coast of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle, January 2011

Fanaticism, more than the dangers from the elements, or the harshness of life on the island, threatens the women of Vardø. This novel is based in historic truth. There was a storm, and witchcraft was ‘discovered’ and prosecuted in Finnmark, prompted by King Christian IV. There is a memorial to the women on the island by Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois. You can see it in the illustration for the review of The Mercies by Sarah Moss in the Guardian here

Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This is the first adult fiction book by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She earned many awards for her children’s fiction, including for The Cartographer’s Daughter (2014). Born in 1990 and currently living in Oxford, Kiran is also known for her poetry.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, published in 2021 by Picador. 342pp

Thank you, Sarah, for another interesting novel set in the past, featuring women who are determined to live as they decide.

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I was seduced by scenes of Italy in sunshine and by the endless smiles of Richard E Grant on the BBC programme Write around the World. I think it should have been Read around Europe. I was seduced into giving My Brilliant Friend a second chance. Seeing the streets of Naples in the sun and the tunnel through which the girls try to escape and find the sea, seeing all that made me suspect I had missed something first time round when I read My Brilliant Friend back in 2015. My response to that first reading had not been very favourable and I had not continued with the Neapolitan Quartet.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend is the story of two girls growing up in the poorest district of Naples in the ‘50s. The novel is narrated by Elena, written many decades later. She is known familiarly as Lenu. She describes Lila, from the outset as mean, selfish and very spirited. She is also clever, and she and Lenú are connected from their first days in school. Everything in school seems to come easily to Lila, and Lenú looks up to her, sees her as her reference point. Their relationship is defined by their surroundings, including their families and the traditions of the neighbourhood and by their gender.

All the children in the neighbourhood are controlled through violence, and through a strong sense of hierarchy of the families. Lila’s father is a shoe repairer while Lenú’s is a porter in the city hall. Poverty is everywhere in post-war Italy. The novel is set against the background of the gradual economic improvement of the time.

The girls try to look beyond the neighbourhood, to speak in Italian as well as dialect, to learn Latin and Greek. Both hope for wealth and fame, at first through writing a novel together, and later they become more realistic: Lenu studies hard and successfully although there is little admiration for her success from her family or the neighbourhood. Lila takes her own path, giving up on school and eventually settling for the wealthy Stefano who appears to want to change the rules of the neighbourhood, to escape the domination of the Solara family.

We see the two girls growing apart. Lenú can see that Lila is imprisoned by the district, limited by it, defined by it. Lenú sees a life beyond for herself. Indeed, the novels in the quartet are framed to show that in her 60s Lila has erased herself, while Elena is living comfortably in Turin. 

So, this novel and the three novels that follow make up the Neapolitan Quartet and they have been very successful since they appeared in translation in 2012. Readers recommended them to each other and got lost in the unfolding story. Novelists of the calibre of Elizabeth Strout and Zadie Smith extol their virtues. 

I have wondered what the fuss is about. It was only when I came to the final scene, the wedding, that I understood what the detail of their lives had been building up to. It was hard work for not much gain. I suspect that the attraction is in part the attraction of soaps: family drama, struggle against circumstances, many characters, the development of the limited cast of characters, and several vivid and violent scenes.

It is a dense novel, and evocative of both its time and place. But even on a second reading I am not tempted to continue with the quartet. I would love to know what people have enjoyed about it to make it so successful. I am not alone in finding that My Brilliant Friend failed to live up to its reputation.

Who is Elena Ferrante?

And there is mystery surrounding the author. She has demanded anonymity and does not engage in speculation about her identity. Is this a publicity stunt? Of course, several people have taken it upon themselves to identify the writer, claiming a translator, and a professor and a male writer. 

I can’t think that it matters who Elena Ferrante is. I am reminded of the old joke about who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. It is claimed that it was another writer of the same name.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in English in 2012 by Europa Editions. 331pp

Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

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Bookword walks in Orkney

My friend Sarah has many good ideas. We have been friends for 40 years but as we live 180 miles apart we have not seen each other since October. Sarah suggested we do a virtual walk, somewhere where there was a route we could follow and visit interesting things along the way. We chose St Magnus’s Way in Orkney: the route is 55 miles long, begins in Egilsay and finishes in Kirkwall on Mainland, following a route themed on the saint’s life. 

So we began our walk on 1st March, spending a little time, virtually, at the bird sanctuary on the small island of Egilsay and looking up the story of the saint’s death, and at photos of his church. Then we followed a rocky path along the north cliffs of the Mainland arriving in Birsay after three days. The next bit of the route was a flat and straight road between some of the lochs that can be found all over Orkney. We arrived in Dounby on 7th March.

By this point my researches had roused in me a desire to visit Stromness (mostly because of the music, Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davies which I play on the piano) but also because it has a reputation as a pretty town with a museum that contains a whale’s ear drum. And more than that, we both wanted to visit the Neolithic archaeology of the island, and St Magnus’s Way would not be taking that in. So we diverted to Skara Brae.

And here, my friends prepare yourselves, I sustained an injury by twisting my ankle and breaking it. I was not able to continue the walk. So we consulted on whether to give up, perhaps to start again later. And here was Sarah’s second brilliant idea: we should hunker down in a bothy and read books about Orkney until I was fit to continue.

So we did. We agreed to read Beside the Ocean of Time by the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown. I ordered a copy of Outrun by Amy Liptrot for Sarah. And I reread the account by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie, of a Neolithic village dig on the island of Westray, north of Mainland, in Surfacing.

Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown 

Thorfinn Ragnarson is a dreamy boy who is unlikely to make anything of himself, according to the school teacher on Norday, a fictitious island in Orkney. His daydreams form the chapters of this book, taking us from the time, long before the Vikings to the death of the island after the Second World War. He explores the rivers of Eastern Europe, just misses the battle of Bannockburn, helps Bonnie Prince Charlie, and with the islanders outsmarts the press gangs of the 18th century.

The island’s unchanging nature, the families, the crofts handed down through countless generations, the myths and legends of the islanders, their history, their rituals and needs are all evoked. The death of the island is sudden and brutal. It is used as an aerodrome in Second World War, and crofts, land, animals and people are erased despite their long history.

Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown, published in 1994 by Polygon books. 197pp. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 1994.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

I can see why this memoir was much lauded when it was first published. The writing is very clear, very unemotional and very sharp. She does not ask you to be sorry for her, although she got herself into terrible difficulties.

The first part of this book describes how the author was plunged into alcoholism, out of control in Hackney in the ‘90s. Eventually she decides she has to sort herself out. She returns to her childhood home in Orkney and through working on her father’s farm, for the RSPB and living more or less in isolation on Papay island through the winter, she achieves two years of sobriety.

The book is full of beautiful descriptions of landscape, finding meaning in astronomy, bird life, farm life and the ways of the islanders. Change, seasons, people’s fallibilities, these are the backdrop to her story. That the farm is situated just north of Skara Brae where I was hunkered down, lends more details to our walk and our delay in the Neolithic village.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2016) published by Canongate. 280pp. Shortlisted for the Wellcome and Wainwright Prizes in 2016.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet. She also has a way of connecting archaeology with people’s lives in her essays. She writes with great calmness and humility about her visit to the site of an abandoned Yup’iq village in Alaska which is being gradually washed away by the Pacific Ocean as a result of rising sea levels.

She visits another archaeological site, this one a Neolithic village on the island of Westray, north of Mainland in Orkney. The Links of Noltland are in danger from lack of funding. The dig has found a large community, built over centuries from stone, recently uncovered by the winds. If funds run out the elements will destroy what remains of settlements built on the remains of the homes of previous generations. You can find the link to my post on Surfacing here.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie, published in 2019 by Sort of books. 247pp

Now my ankle is good enough to make a slow progression towards The Ring of Brodgar, on its isthmus between two lochs: Stenness and Harray. We pass broch, tumuli, stone rings and cairns. This land has been occupied for perhaps 8000 years. Before the Vikings arrived, Neolithic and Bronze age peoples came and lived, farming and raising cattle, living among the seals, the migrating birds and on the edge of the sea. I move slowly with a stick and my friend for support.

And Sarah writes:

One of the most difficult aspects of the last year has been not walking with you Caroline. I value these days so much, for the sense of exploration and movement, and for the way we pace our talking along with our walking, sometimes offloading, sometimes musing, always laughing and learning.

So a virtual journey seemed like a good idea if it was all we could do. I’m not on the whole a great follower of travel guides, or reader of travel books, but we knew we needed a route where we could find views and terrain described. I must say though that it was photos and the BBC 4 archaeology programme that really captured my imagination at first, not the written word.  I quickly tired of St Magnus who seemed to have done not much to be sanctified and remembered so long. 

In a way your injury, forcing us to rest at Skara Brae, was a happy accident. Well, not happy obviously but a useful turn of events. I started to feel the wind, smell the sea and hear the birds right on the edge of this tiny island. Farewell to Stromness captures the excitement perfectly. Beside the Ocean of Time mostly disappointed me (I found the dreaming child so dull) but it does paint a picture of Orkney not as remote but as linked, through its widely-travelling inhabitants, to many world events and historical moments.

Mostly when I travel, not virtually but actually, I am interested in how people live in this place which is new to me. Literally how do they survive and thrive, and how do landscape and human behaviour interact here? What is important to them, and what isn’t? I am half way through The Outrun and although this is mainly the story of one woman’s journey into and eventually out of self-destruction, I’m appreciating a much broader impression of the physical and emotional context of life on Orkney. Sea and sky and land of course, and enviable familiarity with the sight and sound of so many different kinds of bird. But interwoven with all the natural beauty and the strong sense of community, grimmer pictures are painted of life for individuals and families: the smell of the ferry, the old freezer left to rust in the farmyard, her father’s caravan home, her job cleaning the accommodation for oil terminal staff, houses and farms left deserted and rotting away, boats breaking on rocks. It all feels very real and true, and quite different from a travel book.

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The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

This is such a strange book. When I had finished reading I asked myself what on earth was it about? I wrote two pages of A4 notes to help me answer that question and to prepare this blog post. You had better read the novel yourself if you can’t make out anything from what I say. 

The Towers of Trebizond is my contribution to the #1956Club. I have read two other novels by Rose Macaulay recently (much earlier ones, see below) and have several copies of her other works which I inherited from my mother. The edition I read was a 1959 reprint, from the Reprint Society. You can find out more about the #1956Club at two blogs: KaggysBookishRamblings and Simon at StuckinaBook.

The Towers of Trebizond

The novel is set in the decade following the end of the Second World War. It follows a small group of missionaries who go to Turkey to convert the population. There is Aunt Dot, probably in her fifties, who owns a camel and is an inveterate traveller. She wishes to emancipate the women of Turkey. Then there is Father Chauntry-Pigg who is rather high church and has an interest in certain styles of churches. He keep relics in his pockets. With them goes Laurie, Dot’s niece and the narrator, who has not much more to do that offer to be a companion and to write and illustrate the travel aspects of Dot’s projected book. She also helps care for the camel.

This foursome are joined by others from time to time. They arrive in Istanbul and pick up Halide, a doctor, converted to Anglicanism while studying in England and in love with a Turkish man, who wants a Muslim wife. There is David and Charles and a complicated case of plagiarism, connected with another book about travelling in Turkey. And Laurie’s married lover Vere meets her on the Mediterranean coast.

From Istanbul the missionary party set off for the eastern sea board of the Black Sea, and for Trebizond (modern day Trabzon) a city that once was at the heart of the Empire of Trebizond. Rose Macaulay writes beautiful passages about their travels. They move on to Armenia, close to the Russian border, and Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear. Laurie suspects they have entered Russia, behind the Iron Curtain at this time. With no news of them she travels on by herself with the camel. She meets her lover and after some time in Palestine and Syria crosses into Israel. From here she travels home, her journey having taken her to many biblical and archaeological sites. I greatly enjoyed the lively descriptions of her travels and of the history of the places she visited.

The pace changes when she get home as she (and we) wait for Aunt Dot and her companion to reappear. There is a sub plot about a book David is writing using the works of Charles, about his travel in Turkey. Charles was eaten by a shark. There are other ongoing dramas as well, including about spying (Dot and her companion spend time with Philby and McLean in Moscow) and lots and lots about the influence of the church on places, buildings, morality etc etc. And there is an episode about training an ape to play chess, go to church, drive etc etc.

It’s all pretty bonkers, especially when there is a fatality in the penultimate chapter. This seems like a huge plot event to raise at this point in the novel. But we have been given a tour of many different things, and Rose Macaulay appears to be saying – embrace everything, reject nothing.

Rose Macaulay

Here is another prolific twentieth century woman writer, and one who has been somewhat neglected in the last 50 years. Born in 1881 Rose Macaulay lived until 1958, having written 23 novels and a great deal of journalism, and other works. The Towers of Trebizond is perhaps her best known novel. It was her last. She was well respected in her lifetime, but her popularity has not been sustained which is a shame as she has things to say to us today. 

In this novel she writes about the need to emancipate women, which was her lifelong concern. She was also interested in Anglicanism and the role of the church, as well as in adultery. She was no advocate of any particular system, and her comments on Soviet Russia would have horrified staunch supporters of the Cold War at the time. She was also critical of the creation of Israel for the suffering caused to the Palestinians. 

The narrator adopts a rather flat, even naïve style to report on the fantastic adventures. A wide-eyed traveller is a good basis for travel writing. She offers little judgement on the characters, or on the events, although there is discussion of the moral basis for their behaviours. This serves to underline the difficulties of truth and goodness in Europe in 1956. There is much discussion of spies, for example.

And then there’s the camel which provides possibly the second or third most famous opening line in fiction:

“Take my camel, dear,” said Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. (7)

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1956. I used an edition from the Reprint Society, published in 1959. 256pp Both NYRB and Flamingo have published paperback versions.

Related posts

Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract by Rose Macaulay, published in 1920 (on Bookword).

Non-Combatants and Other: writings against war, 1916-1945 by Rose Macaulay, published in 1916 (also on Bookword).

HeavenAli’s review in December 2018, who enjoyed The Towers of Trebizond while finding it ‘all wonderfully bonkers’. 

And StuckinaBook relishes its style, the humour and the ramble. Simon is one the hosts of the #1956Club.

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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I was right. This was the ideal book to take on a train journey. Sadly my return journey was delayed by four hours, and I had finished the book before my train finally arrived. For anyone who is interested in train services, I had been walking with a very good friend in the woods and along the escarpment north of Pewsey. Trains from Pewsey back to the South West were all either severely delayed or, more alarmingly, cancelled. A lovely walk, a great book, but waiting for hours on Pewsey station was not good.

Ghost Wallby Sarah Moss

It is the 80s. A family is spending their summer holiday re-enacting an Iron Age camp in Northumberland, along with a professor and three students. The story is narrated by 17-year-old Silvie (also called Sil). The holiday is the idea of Sil’s father, an autodidact and Iron Age enthusiast. It emerges that he has a rather simplistic idea of ancient history, seeing any invaders from the Romans onwards as pollutants of the pure British race. In other words he is more than a little xenophobic. Her father is a bus driver, and a very controlling man with a filthy temper if he thinks he is being mocked or patronised for his lack of formal education. He beats both wife and daughter. 

The re-enactors must consider what is authentic and how to manage an authentic Iron Age life in the 1980s.For example, they must forage for their food but can take a book with them to check for possible nourishment. They also catch skin and eat rabbits and fish. The local Spar store secretly provides more alluring foods.

Sylvia, the narrator, has a healthy response to the idea of authenticity and how history is created in the interests of those who retell it, such as her father. She is aware that history will always reflect the power structures and the concerns of the present. How, she wonders, did Iron Age women and girls manage their periods. 

The professor and Silvie’s father seek what they believe to be ever more authentic experiences and come up with the idea of the ghost wall. This is thought to have been a defensive wall with skulls of enemies on top to put fear into the hearts of any attackers. They make their own wall and use skulls they have found, such as from a cow or sheep, and the rabbit skulls.

And then they decide to re-enact the human sacrifice that is known about from the well-preserved remains of people in peat bogs. We have learned about a girl’s sacrifice in the novel’s prologue. According to the professor, the idea is to sacrifice something that is very precious.  Sil is aware of what her father will choose and as things begin to unravel the story moves towards its terrible climax.

Family Relationships

Sil’s family is toxic. Her father is abusive and violent, and both mother and child suffer from his whims and from his reaction to being humiliated or defied. The outcomes of his patriarchal attitudes are dark and dangerous.

Sil’s mother should make an effort to protect her, but she has given up any resistance. It is one of the students, Molly, who befriends and stands up for Sil. Molly represents the freedom that Sil anticipates when she leaves home. 

Silvie herself has all the self-consciousness of a young girl who has been kept apart from the world. In this passage she is explaining her name to the students on the first day.

So, said Dan, Silvie, what, short for Sylvia? Sulevia, I said. I was about to say, as I had been doing since I first started school, she was an Ancient British goddess, my dad chose it, but they were already exchanging glances. Sulevia’s a local deity, said Dan. Jim was talking about her the other day. Northumbrian goddess of springs and pools, co-opted by the Romans, said Molly.  […] Yeah, she said, OK but your dad’s not a historian, right, how did he know about her if you’re not local? I could feel myself turning red. He’s a bus driver, I said, history’s just a hobby, he wanted me to have a proper native British name. I saw glances again.  (18-9)

Reading this book

As I say, it is a short book, but written powerfully. The quotation above illustrates the momentum of the prose, uninterrupted by speech marks or line gaps. Maggie O’Farrell refers to this forward drive and is quoted on the front cover saying,

Ghost Wall  requires you to put your life on hold while you finish it. 

Sarah Moss has already shown her ability to tell the story of a young woman frightened from her own imagination and trapped where she can see no escape. I’m referring to Night Waking, published in 2011. A young woman spends the summer on an island with her two small children and finds herself deprived of sleep and immersed in the story of a dead baby and its mother. You can find my review of that novel here. Also recommended. 

Sarah Moss writes so well. Ghost Wall  made the long-list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but many readers were disappointed that it did not appear on the short-list. You can find both lists (and all previous winners) here.

I recommend it highly. 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published in 2018 by Granta. 152pp

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Bookword goes to the Cote d’Azur – 2

One of the pleasures of going on an art tour abroad is the conversations about books and reading that can be initiated with fellow travellers. This year, on a tour to explore the artists of the Cote d’Azur, I asked members of the group two questions:

  • What are you reading at the moment?
  • What would you recommend if it is not that book?

I guess I became the book lady because after a while people sought me out to say, I’ve remembered the author of that book I was talking about; or I’ve finished that book and it was rubbish; or I’ve been thinking about what you asked and I want to recommend something else. 

I was impressed by the amount of reading that was going on, and how asking my two questions included everyone. Talking about books is a pro-social activity. Blogging about books is a well, and I hope you find something interesting to read in this post.

A number of themes emerged, so I have arranged the recommendations into rather wide categories. Some books I have already written posts about on this blog and you can find links in the lists.  (I have not included books people did not enjoy – see ‘tosh’ below).

I wrote about other bookish things in a previous post: Bookword goes to the Cote d’Azur – 1.

Holiday reading, often containing a detective

Lots of detectives here: Maigret (Simenon), Rebus (Ian Rankin), Brunetti (Donna Leon), Miss Silver (Patricia Wentworth) all came into this category. So did a crime novel from 1917 by Tellefsen, a Norwegian writer, and an Icelandic novel called Hypothermia by Amaldur Indridason. And there was also a mention of Danielle Steele.

Work-related reading

Roof of Matisse Chapel

The tour leader mentioned a book about Matisse. We saw lots of Matisse. An ENT specialist mentioned his medical reading. An archaeologist was reading Paul Shepard’s Coming Home to the Pleistocene

Memoir and biography

Many of my companions were reading biographies or memoirs and recommended these very different subjects: A Life of my Own by Claire Tomalin; Thomas Cromwell by Diarmaid MacCulloch; Patrick Leigh Fermor A Time of Gifts; Douglas Smith’s biography of Rasputin; The Salt Path  by Raynor Winn; Maggie O’Farrell I am, I am, I am;Alan Garner’s memoir Where shall we run to?

Foreign Fiction

Some people in the group mentioned books in other languages. Several people asked me how I got on with the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. They also referred to No et Moi by Delphine de Vigan; and All for Nothingby Walter Kempowski.

Recent Fiction

The author referred to most frequently was Julian Barnes: Keeping an Eye OpenThe Noise of TimeThe Sense of an Ending.

Also mentioned more than once with enthusiasm was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fineby Gail Honeyman.

Other books included Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls; Anna Burn’s MilkmanWarlight by Michael Ondaatje; Patrick Gale A Perfectly Good Man; Margaret AtwoodHag-SeedA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles; John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible FuriesConclave by Robert Harris; The Dark Circle  by Linda Grant. 

Others

And these were also enthusiastically recommended to me, and don’t fit any of the previous categories:

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

A book about prime numbers

A Room of One’s Ownby Virginia Woolf

The Secret History of PWE(Political War Executive) by David Garnett

‘Tosh’

I had many interesting conversations about books, including with one reader who delivered the verdict of TOSH on several overhyped recent novels. She had plenty of recommendations as well. I found that a useful category, and it removed many potential books from my imaginary tbr pile. My actual tbr pile remains stacked high. As a matter of policy I do not disparage books and writers on this blog.

Book groups

And it was heartening to find that many of my fellow travellers were members of reading groups, and enjoyed swapping ideas about books that promoted good discussion. I think about the report that suggested that in a society of readerssuch conversations would be encouraged as a matter of policy. 

And it has given me a prompt for a future post: some recommendations for book groups.

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