Category Archives: Travelling 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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Celebrating six books I read in 2021

You don’t need reminding that 2021 was not a great year, but ever the Pollyanna I can pick out many great books that I read in the last 12 months. I offer you five posts about them, with a bonus sixth. When choosing these I noticed a bit of a historical theme. Enjoy!

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes

This wonderful novel captures one glorious summer’s day in 1946, in southern England. The ‘long nightmare’ of the Second World War is over but everything is changed. This had direct relevance when I read and blogged about it in July; we were seeing the relaxation of restrictions and worry about the Covid pandemic. 

Laura and her family have been through separation, and now must manage the social and economic changes brought by the war to their world. During a summer’s afternoon she climbs up Barrow Down and finds hope and peace in the landscape below.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, first published in 1947, reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1985. 179pp

Red Ellen – The Novels of Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson has long been a hero of mine. She was one of the first female Labour MPs, and had a reputation as a ‘firebrand’, probably because of her red hair. Most memorably, she was MP for Jarrow at the time of the famous hunger march (1936). You can find photographs of her leading it: a small figure in comparison to other marchers. 

I enjoyed reading her two novels. Clash (1932) is set during the General Strike of 1926; it captures the heady excitement and drama of political activism.

The Division Bell Mystery is a whodunnit set in the Palace of Westminster, written while she was temporarily out of parliament.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, published in 1932. It was reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1989. 309pp

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, first published in 1932 and reissued in 2018 in the British Library Crime Classics series. 254pp

You can find the post about Ellen Wilkinson’s novels here.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

I loved reading this book for all the reasons that fiction is so powerful: it takes you to new places and shows you the world in a new light. I have been to Ethiopia, where this novel is set. The history of the war against the invading Italians is not fiction. But Maaza Mengiste has fictionalised the events, revealing some of the brutality of the failed Italian colonial exercise.

It’s vivid in its retelling of the unequal struggle. The main character is Hirut, an ignorant young girl at the start of the novel, but a proud bodyguard of the Shadow King during the struggle. And this novel is very poignant given the troubles that erupted in Tigray province in November 2020 and have worsened this year.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste published in 2019 by Canongate. 429pp. Shortlisted for 2020 Booker Prize

Beloved by Toni Morrison

I had read this novel before, but in the light of Black Lives Matter and all that has been happening recently in the United States relevant to racism, and in the UK, it seemed to be the right time to reread it. I was struck by the strength of this book in demonstrating the reverberations of evil that spread out from the enslavement of Africans and the trading of enslaved people across the Atlantic. Toni Morrison describes the book as inviting the reader ‘to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts’. 

Beloved by Toni Morrison, first published in 1987. I used the Vintage edition published in 2010. 324pp

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus

As the title suggests, this is the 4th book in a series. I have read and reviewed them all. I have walked with Refugee Tales. I found myself reading this collection with a mounting sense of outrage. ‘How can we still be here, after 70 years?’ I asked on Bookword Blog. In particular how can we still be detaining people seeking refuge in our country, and detaining them indefinitely. I remain outraged. The stories told in Refugee Tales are not easy and remind us of the human tragedies that are produced by world events.

I was grateful to the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group Autumn newsletter for reprinting my post. Please do not be silent on this issue.

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus published in 2021, by Comma Press. 161pp

More Gallimaufry by the Totnes Library Writers Group

This is the bonus book I mentioned at the top of this piece. For me, much of 2021 has been spent in co-editing a collection of writing by my local writing group. We emerged from lockdowns with a determination to produce our second collection of writing. We have done it and the book is an object of pride, especially to the 21 contributors. I wrote about editing it in the post called More Gallimaufry: another achievement for the writing group

It would take a great deal to limit my reading, whatever the pandemic lands us with. I am looking forward to more in 2022: more Elizabeth Strout, more women in translation, more older women, and more set in the 1940s. I might even get to more writing next year.

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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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Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Manhattan – the last time I was there was in 1969. It was so unfamiliar to me when I picked up this novel that I had to relearn the names and order of the Avenues, and look up the position of some of the most famous landmarks. I also had to use a Google map to follow Lillian Boxfish’s path through the city. I am not surprised that Daunt Books published this, as a bookseller Daunt’s is associated with travel books and the novel is so strongly set in the city of New York. 

I remember New York as a lively city, full of excitement and strangeness. It was noisy and dirty and I imagined I would be back soon. This was my return. And it was such fun. Lillian Boxfish was an ideal walking companion, a flâneuse with class.

This is the 49th novel in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. You can find the complete list of reviews and suggested books in the series here.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

The book is set in 1984/5 beginning on New Year’s Eve. Finding herself alone on an evening which is typically celebrated in company, Lillian decides to take a walk. She has lived in Manhattan since 1921 and so now she walks first to her usual Italian restaurant, then to another in south Manhattan, then to a party in Chelsea and finally home. On the way she passes some landmarks of her life and we learn about her history.

The plot is tightly focused on Manhattan. Lillian does not stray further north than 42nd Street. The city has changed since she moved there in the 1920s: muggers, skyscrapers, the new World Trade Towers, loft conversions, Korean-run bodegas and so forth. We also get to reflect on how the city has continued to change since then.

Lillian Boxfish

Lillian is 84/5 and inspired by the real life Margaret Fishback. Like her inspiration,  Lillian has worked as a copywriter for Macy’s store, becoming rich and successful as a result of her poetic sales pitches. She also wrote books of guidance for young women and verse, often humorous, including for greetings cards when she lost her job at Macy’s. She was successful, she was well paid and had a lively social life. Unlike her contemporaries did not want to get married. But Lillian fell in love and married Max, and later became pregnant. 

Of course she lost her job when she became pregnant. This was the late 1930s. Her husband, being Italian-speaking, spent the war years away, and their lives were not the same on his return. They became less happy together and he was unfaithful. She descended into alcoholism, and an attempted suicide before being sent to a sanatorium and receiving electric shock treatment. 

By the time of this walk Max, her husband, had been dead for many years. His second wife is dying and her son Johnny lives with his own family away from the city in Maine. Her best friend also died a few years earlier. Her new friend is welcoming, but their shared interests are limited. She has no-one to share her New Year’s meal with.

Despite her isolation Lillian is a very sociable person, speaking to many strangers on her perambulation. She is also not your stereotypical elder, not scared of the city, even at night. When she meets a group of three muggers as she returns home, she stands up to them and a curious and successful bargain is struck. The incident reminds us of a conversation with her son early in the novel. He requested that she should not walk on the streets and reminded her about the Subway Vigilante who shot four young muggers when they asked him for five dollars. What if she had taken her grandsons on the subway? The people of New York are idolising him, she says.

‘I walk everywhere dearest,’ I say. And it’s true: I like the exercise, and the subway cars are graffitied with so much text it’s like being screamed at, like the voices inside my head and everyone else’s have manifested their yelling outside, ill-spelled with spray paint. ‘And we weren’t on that train. And he isn’t shooting elderly ladies and adorable tots.’
‘But guys like the guys he shot are everywhere. Hoods. Gangs. Toughs. Whatever you want to call them.’
‘I would not resist if young thugs approached me for money,’ I say. ‘I would acquiesce. I agree with Governor Cuomo that a vigilante spirit is dangerous. Rude, too.’
‘Rude?’ he says.
‘Yes Gian. Incivility is not incivility’s antidote. […] New Year is bigger than any mugger, the way it makes people feel. Being old is depressing. The Subway Vigilante is depressing. But I love it here, this big rotten apple. I’m near my old haunts, my sycamore trees, my trusty R.H. Macy’s.’ (11-12)

We can see she is a woman of considerable spirit, although her breakdown which we learn about half way through was so serious she needed shock treatment to recover. And we learn at the end of the book, she did not acquiesce to the muggers, but together they struck their own bargain. She’s a lively creature, who maintains her standards, especially of honesty and of engaging respectfully with others. 

The extract above also illustrates a feature of this book. The reader is given insight into her thoughts, which are often witty ripostes or reflections on the world as she sees it. We notice by this means the rich inner life she has cultivated for herself, that she has not been diminished by her experiences or by her age. She has loved many aspects of her life, and been as much in charge of it as she could be.  

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney published in 2017. UK publisher is Daunt Books. 277pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

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The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

You cannot have escaped the good reception this book has had, perhaps you’ve been told about it by someone who has read it, or noted it in a shortlist for a prize. It has some alluring ingredients: resilience in the face of bad fortune; it is set in that liminal seashore zone; betrayal, illness, walking, wild camping, beautiful landscapes and wildlife. 

With such ingredients it was sure to be successful and bring pleasure to many. My book group read it in September and discussed it a couple of weeks ago. It provoked lively discussion, which is our criterion for a good book. If you haven’t read it I can assure you that you will find something to please you in it.

The Salt Path

Raynor Winn and her husband Moth are in their 50s and have been living in Wales for many years on a freehold small farm. Their children have grown up, the farm and its land are taken from them in a court case which is presented as both unfair (the judgement) and a betrayal (by a former friend). They have no means, no financial security at all. And then Moth is diagnosed with a degenerative and terminal illness: CBD. What are they to do?

They decide to walk the South West coast path, from Minehead to Portland, and to camp along the way. The choice is pretty near random, based on a book: The South West Coast Path: From Minehead to South Haven Pointby Paddy Dillon, complete with OS maps and a waterproof cover. The choice of guidebook also determined the direct of their walk, even though it meant doing the toughest part first.

So they set out in late summer of 2013 and with a break in the winter living in a shed they were renovating they walked 600 miles in the next 10 months. They slept wild and ate as cheaply as possible, and therefore badly. And they hoped that by walking they would find a solution to their homelessness, their lack of income and the pressing problem of living with an approaching death. Walking is known to help clear the mind, but these two had such difficult daily experiences from the challenges of their walk that they were not able to spend much time thinking about or discussing their imponderable future. 

But they met these challenges with stamina, endurance, resilience and mutual support despite being preoccupied with the daily pursuit of food, a safe place to sleep and an occasional wash. They were resourceful in the face of having so little cash. A scene that gives real pleasure was set in St  Ives, and out of cash as usual Moth begins a loud recitation of Beowulf in Seamus Heaney’s translation and Raynor takes round the hat. They earn £28.03.

Other people cross their path or walk with them for a while. Few are aiming to go so far or are rough sleeping. Some are welcome company, a few are not. Some are generous too with warmth or food or a welcome. The landscape, especially the northern coast of Cornwall is impressive while also providing severe challenges. Early mornings, before many people are around, and while the shore birds are still feeding, and the air is fresh and clear, these are the good times.

They encounter strong prejudice against homeless people, and experience urban homelessness briefly in Plymouth and note the contrast with their coastal path existence.  

And they find that their love for each other is a strong as ever having been severely tested by the circumstances of their walk. They meet good luck and generosity having arrived at some decisions about their futures, and find permanent accommodation as easily a pretty feather or a pebble. 

What did the book group think?

All members of the group had enjoyed going on the emotional journey of The Salt Path with the writer. Some felt angry about what had happened to them and respected the couple’s positive response to such a dreadful position.

Much of the time while I was reading this book I wondered why we were being asked to applaud bonkers behaviour. Why on earth were they walking the coastal path? But in my book group it was suggested that a better question would be – why not? They had nothing better to do. 

And because we live close to the South West coastal path, and have all walked parts of it, we set to again to discuss what we had enjoyed about this compelling and moving book. One reader suggested that the best writing described the walking and the landscape and she was not so keen on the insertion of bits of local history. Another remarked that it was the author’s story, not so much the couple’s.

We all agreed on the pleasures of walking in the south west, and that walking is good for you and makes you feel good.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn published in 2018 by Penguin. 275pp

The Sunday Times bestseller, Winner of the Royal Society of Literature Christopher Bland Prize & shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Biography Award & Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize 2018

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Pursuing Jane Austen

I’ve been doing a fair amount of culture-tourism recently. I went to the South of France to look French painters since Cezanne. And a trip to Amsterdam to see “All the Rembrandts” at the Rijksmuseum. [Just a note: if you imagined that this meant all the Rembrandts in the world, no it was All the Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum. And very fine they were too.] There is more to come. As I write this I am preparing to visit Copenhagen, to see the opera Nixon in China. And I have just returned from a tour of Jane Austen’s Kent.

So I am asking myself, why am I visiting all these places associated with art? If it enhances my enjoyment, how does it do that? What am I doing? What do I get out of it?

Am I a Jane-ite?

You could probably describe me as a Jane-ite. No, Sarah, that does not mean we dress up in Regency dresses over push-up bras. Nor does it mean I know all her novels intimately. 

It does mean I am an enthusiast, that I enjoy reading and rereading her novels and think she’s pretty damn good.

And it means I belong to the Jane Austen Society South West Branch and that I have just been on a tour with the branch to Kent.

Jane Austen’s family

This was a four-day trip, including travel from Exeter. We visited Tunbridge, Goodnestone Park, Godmersham Park, Maidstone Records Office, Box Hill and Great Bookham. We had talks, guided tours, readings and lots of beautiful gardens.

Goodnestone Park House

I have mostly learned about Jane’s extended family, and their management of the connections between them. This was largely to ensure that any property remained within the family. You may know that one of her brothers, Edward, was adopted by the childless Knights and inherited their large fortunes. Jane benefited from visits to their houses in Kent (Goodnestone Park, Godmersham Park) and was accommodated with her mother and sister after their father’s death at Chawton, Hampshire by the same brother. It seems that this Edward was an all-round nice guy, much loved by everyone. His daughter Fanny Knight was a favourite of Jane’s, and of whom more in a moment.

Box Hill

Box Hill was the scene of the picnic in Emma, the place where our heroine was very rude to poor Miss Bates, who talked too much and not very intelligently. The view from Box Hill (now a National Trust property) is spectacular. It’s a memorable pace to be humiliated.

Great Bookham was the home of a cousin of Jane’s mother, also called Cassandra Leigh. She was a writer, especially of lamentations. She was also a friend of Fanny Burney who lived for a short while in the village. Jane is known to have visited the Cookes, as her cousin became on her marriage, and to have seen them in Bath and perhaps at Steventon as well. These families kept close contact.

So what have I gained?

In the first place, I experienced the very good company of people who like to talk about Jane Austen and things associated with her, people with enthusiasm to match mine, and knowledge to exceed mine. 

It also broadened my understanding of Jane and her life, and that of other women at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. My sense is that this kind of knowledge is a little like that recommendation to writers, to know everything about their characters, even if they do not use it in their fiction.

And I have gained more knowledge about that period, from visiting the grand houses, and the web of relationships that the gentry maintained. Among the most enchanting things we saw were examples of Fanny Knight’s diaries, which she kept up for decades, always in the same format. There are 69 of them. And Godmersham Park is familiar to anyone who has looked at the £10 note. 

And I read Sanditon

Sanditon is the unfinished final novel by Jane Austen. She had completed only 12 chapters when she left off writing and succumbed to her final illness. The heroine Charlotte had yet to show herself worthy of Jane Austen’s attention.

The novel focuses on hypochondria and speculation in the infant health industry. It begins in this way:

A gentleman and lady travelling from Tonbridge towards that part of Sussex coast that lies between Hastings and East Bourne, being induced by business to quit the high road, and to attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent half rock, half sand. (155)

The gentleman is Mr Parker and he has invested all his time and money in promoting Sanditon as a place of excellent health. Sanditon is a resort for the health of moneyed peoples. He has much to say on the subject.

Such a place as Sanditon sir, I may say was wanted, was called for. – Nature had marked it out – had spoken in most intelligible characters – the finest, purest sea breeze on the coast – acknowledged to be so – excellent bathing – fine hard sand – deep water ten yards from the shore – no wind – no weeds – no slimey rocks – Never was there a place more palpably designed by nature for the resort of the invalid – the very spot which thousands seemed in need of. – The most desirable distance from London! One complete measured mile nearer than Eastbourne. [and so on] (159-161)

The man is an enthusiast, and attracts with his approach all kinds of people to the new resort. We do not know how things turn out. But Jane Austen’s writing is as attractive as ever, and her characters boldly drawn, especially the self-indulgent who are either lazy or hypochondriacs.

Sanditon  by Jane Austen, Penguin Classic edition, with Lady Susan and The Watsons (1974). 60pp

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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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