Category Archives: Travel with Books

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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Bookword goes to the Cote d’Azur – 1

Lured by the possibility of spring, the South of France and exposure to the artists who settled there I set off for Nice in early March. Not for nothing is the coastal area around Nice called the Cote d’Azur, the sea being a deep, deep blue, skies scarcely less rich. 

The area is very built up, and traffic already frequently stationary. In summer Nice must become insufferable, the air oppressive and the hills, in the current season jagged, inhospitable, some snow-capped, desirable for their coolness and comfort. 

Bookish things in the Nice area

Public art is big here, and inescapable. One of the more noticeable is La Tete Caree, site of Nice’s library, or at least the administration of the library. It is recent, monumental and sits in the park next to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MOMAC). We have forgotten, in our Age of Austerity, what it is to have imaginative public art projects in Britain. Nice has a left-wing civic history.

La tete caree by Sacha Sosno

Art and literature are closely associated in this place, as everywhere. The same qualities that brought Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, bring writers. They follow, they are in the same social groups, they even, like Cocteau, mix in each other’s art forms. 

Here are some of the writers (in English) I have noted who have been lured here:

Tobias Smollett

Louisa May Alcott

Agatha Christie

Zelda and Scott FitzGerald

James Joyce (apparently the opening lines of Finnegan’s Wake might describe the Mediterranean)

Sylvia Plath

Evelyn Waugh

HG Wells

Robert Louis Stevenson (Remember travels with my Donkey?)

Aubrey Beardsley

Thomas Carlyle

Katherine Mansfield,

WB Yeats – who died here.

And here are three novels with locations in the Cote d’Azur 

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

This short novel is set in the hills above Nice, in a sweltering summer in the 1990s. A family takes their holiday in a villa. The scene is set for tensions to boil over. The poet Jo, his wife Isabel (a war correspondent) and their daughter Nina have rented the villa in the hills above Nice. They bring along another couple, Mitchell who collects guns and Laura, a long-time friend of Isobel’s.

Into this not very happy group intrudes Kitty, a mature teenager with severe mental problems, very attractive. She is the catalyst to a whole range of troubles and fallings out. Kitty wants acknowledgement from Jo for her poem Swimming Home. He wants her. Isobel is dismayed that her husband will be unfaithful yet again. Nina is coming into puberty and afraid for both her parents. And so on. In the end one of the party is shot and found in the villa’s pool. Any one of them could have done it, including the victim.

Beautifully written to evoke the summer in the South of France, in Nice as well as on the hills. Reading it one has to remind oneself that there are good and nice people in the world. Deborah Levy wrote Hot Milk, also set in a liminal location, southern Spain, and concerning a young woman struggling with her identity.

Looking for novels located in Nice I found this book on Trip Fiction.

Swimming Homeby Deborah Levy, published in 2011 by And Other Stories. 160pp

Un Sac de Billes by Joseph Joffo

Two Jewish brothers (12 and 9) escape from occupied Paris to Free France, and spend time in Menton and Nice, having to flee again when the German army extended its occupation. For a while the boys are imprisoned in the Hotel de Ville, Nice, on suspicion of being Jewish. The book is written by the younger boy and has twice been made into a film.

Le pouce by Cesar, outside the Hotel de Ville, Nice

Un Sac de Billes by Joseph Joffo, published in 1973 by Le Livre de Poche. 285pp

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. (9)

These are the opening words (in translation) of the novel that is probably responsible for my love of France, and many illusions about growing up cool in the 60s. You can read my review here, including references to the issue of translations.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) Penguin. 108pp. Original translation from the French by Irene Ash.

In a future post I will consider the reading experiences of the people in the group with whom I went to the south of France. And look out too for Marie Bashkirtseff  (diaries and letters)

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Bookword in Poland

Last week I was in Poland, spending four days in and around Krakow. I came, with a friend, to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was the biggest of the concentration and extermination camps built in occupied Poland by the Third Reich.

Everything about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is difficult. Friends questioned my motives. I dreaded the visit. What did I hope to achieve by looking at the place where so many people were murdered?

Birkenau Gate

Can fiction help us understand the Holocaust?

I prefer my reading about the Holocaust to be non-fiction. I prepared for my visit by reading A Train in Winter (see below), and I had some knowledge from my history studies. Our guide around Auschwitz kept saying. ‘imagine if you …, imagine how it would be …’ as we passed photographs of the Selection, of new arrivals and we gazed on mountains of suitcases (all labelled with names), shoes, eyeglasses, hair, and household objects. I did not want to imagine any more. I wanted to ask historians’ questions: How did it happen? Who could have stopped it? What prevented people stopping the creation of the camps? What does it mean to be part of an enterprise that murders so many people? And so on.

I wasn’t expecting any answers but a different way to experience the questions.

Auschwitz

I know we need heroes, like Schindler, because heroes give us hope. But we need more than heroes.

I know we need more than imagining walking a mile in those shoes.

We need to understand how we can continue to work against this capacity of humans to murder on such a scale. The Holocaust happened in the decade before my birth. There have been/are other such horrors: Cambodia, Rwanda, Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, continuing struggles against white supremacists in the US, the re-emergence of the far right in the German election. It is likely there will be more. It is likely that the struggle will never be over.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

This is the stunning story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) but it is also an endlessly depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. What is omitted in this account of the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943 is any detail of the fate of their menfolk, friends, and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

It must have been a hard task to research and then write about so much death and cruelty. I felt defeated by it, wretched that humans can behave so badly.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Vintage 374 pp

See also Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead in my post on Bookword in the Cevennes.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada

Auschwitz

I think it is almost impossible to write an authentic novel about the Holocaust. This partly because a concentration camp, the tattoo on the wrist, is a trope that prevents critique, let alone criticism and limits the reader’s responses. I felt this way about this novel.

The Auschwitz Violin is a short novel which aims to show the power of music to save the spirit in the darkest of times. Daniel is a violin maker (a luthier) in one of Auschwitz’s satellite camps. Although registered as a carpenter he finds himself used by the Commandant in a bet to make a violin. This endeavour saves him and his friend the violinist Bronislaw from death.

It was contrived and unevenly framed. I found myself asking can the sweetness of a violin cut through the dreadfulness of the camp? The tension arises from whether the violin can be made in time and be of a adequate quality under such conditions. But tension is undermined by the reader’s knowledge that it already had been made. And by the knowledge that so many in Auschwitz did not have the luthier’s skills to save them. It felt very much in the tradition of the Holocaust novels of the ‘80s.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada, first published in 1994, and in English in 2010. Corsair. 128pp. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennant

Other books about Auschwitz It quickly became clear that there should be a monument to Steven Spielberg in Krakow, as the film Schindler’s List is so appreciated here and much referred to by our city guide. My mutterings that it was based on a novel, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982), impressed no one. Perhaps people deal better with the savagery of the Holocaust when it is mediated through films and/or novels. Did they feel better for a hero?

And to a lesser extent the same happened with Sophie’s Choice, also a film, this time based on the novel by William Styron (1979).

Here are some books relating to Auschwitz by those who there, without novelists or film directors.

I still think about If this is a man by Primo Levi.

An important book that I read some years ago is Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl (1946).

And a book that explores subsequent generations’ experiences of the Holocaust is After such Knowledge by Eva Hoffman (2005).

Lovely bookish things in Krakow

To finish on an easier note the city of Krakow provided several bookish delights.

We had a delicious lunch in the bookshop Bona. Delicious lunch and books …

And, according to our guide and the plaque, the first European bookshop was opened in the square.

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Puffins or Bookword on Lundy Island

There’s a loose association here and I’m going to work it. Bookword and grandson went to Lundy Island towards the end of August. Where is Lundy? Everyone who listens to late night radio in Britain (and beyond) has heard of Lundy: Fitzroy, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea … These names are from the famous incantation of the Shipping Forecast. Lundy is a small island, 3 miles long and less than 1 mile wide, about 11 miles off the coast of Devon. Most of its landmass occupies a plateau at about 90 – 130 metres. It’s like a little bit of Dartmoor dropped in the sea.

Puffins

The name of the island, in one explanation, comes from the Old Norse. Lundi is Old Norse for puffin and ey means island. Putting them together we get Lundy, or Puffin Island. Puffins are what Lundy is famous for. Here’s the invisible join: Puffins.

Penguin books were introduced by Allen Lane. I wrote about the important revolution by Allen Lane, establishing quality paperbacks in 1936 after waiting on Exeter Station. Just four years later he added Puffin Books with Noel Carrington, the first editor.

Since the 1960s Puffin has been one of the most industrious and successful publishers of children’s books. The first in 1941 was Worzel Gummidge by Barbara Euphan Todd, (who also also wrote Miss Ranskill Comes Home which I reviewed here.)

My own childhood tastes in reading were encouraged by the annual pre-holiday family trip to WH Smiths to buy two Puffins each. In this way I read Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett all the Narnia series by CS Lewis along with many others. I think I owe my love of reading to those endless days in campsites and on beaches in France, lying on a campbed, the grass or sand with a Puffin Book. Once my two choices had been devoured I would begin on the books chosen by my brother and sister. Here’s my 8 year old grandson, on Lundy Island, following the tradition:

A colourful history

Lundy lies where the Bristol Channel meets the Atlantic Ocean. Administratively it is part of Devon. There is evidence of occupation or visitation from the Neolithic period onwards. There are Bronze Age burial mounds.

It has a lively history, owned by the Knights Templar, disputed by the Marisco family. The duke was implicated in the murder of one of Henry II’s household, and the king sent troops to the island. Henry III built the castle in an attempt to restore order. It was occupied by Barbary Pirates, supported the Royalist side in the Civil War, went through a period of lawlessness before being sold more than once. It was given to the National Trust in 1969 and is now leased to and managed by the Landmark Trust.

Over to you

I have great affection for these Puffin titles. As you can see from the photo of those I still own, many of them are historical novels. I loved those by Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff in particular. I don’t know what happened to the other Puffin books I once devoured. They were probably handed down to the younger brothers and sisters – we were a large family. Do you have favourite books from childhood? Do they stand the test of time?

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