Saturday, 15 February 2014

Travels with Books

I seem to have read a lot of travel literature lately, possibly in an effort to escape the rain and back to work feeling that usually permeates January. It’s supposedly the month when summer holidays are largely booked, and definitely the month when they’re pushed. I’ve had twice weekly emails from Easyjet and there were colour supplements in all the papers. It only calmed down a bit as we approached Valentine’s Day and the equally aggressive promotion that entails.

Anyway my own version of the seasonal escape fantasy has been reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s travels – courtesy of the kindle – and also Mark Twain’s. Or rather selected highlights from both, as these are not full books. The Stevenson was free from Project Gutenberg so must have been published over a century ago; the other is a slim penguin that came in a set entitled ‘great travels’.

I have rather a lot of these – bought en masse from a bookclub that did good deals until they merged or turned into something called The Softback Preview, which specialised in printings of hardback books in soft covers about 8 months before the official paperback came out, for not that much of a discount on the hardback price. No doubt somebody somewhere thought it was going to be the next big thing. I have no idea if they’re still going.

Anyway before they became obsessed with this strange new mezzanine between two stages in the usual life cycle of the book they did quite good deals and one of those was complete sets of these very slim penguins – short books all on one theme: ‘great ideas’ or ‘great voyages’ or ‘great loves’.

About 40 of which have sat on my bookshelves for the last 10 years unread. Until these last few weeks when I began to read them.

So far I’ve gone through 4 and a bit and what I’ve discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a series of abridgements. For 3 of them that has worked quite well – it’s given me just enough for me to decide whether I want to read the longer book. For example I have already downloaded the full text of Twain’s ‘The Innocents' Abroad’ and have no desire to read the rest of Alfred Russel Wallace.

I have also enjoyed Kapuscinski almost being bitten by a cobra and learned that Orwell joined the militia in Spain because it ‘seemed the obvious thing to do’, regardless of the fact he had actually gone over to write newspaper articles. 

Having read a few of Orwell’s works and his account of his school days, I’ve long thought that there is a kind of tension between Orwell the writer – whose job it is to observe and note - and Orwell the doer, who prefers getting his hands dirty and seems to actively seek spiritual and physical discomfort. Not because he enjoyed it, but because he believed it had a kind of moral virtue.  I haven’t finished the Orwell yet.

I struggled also to finish ‘From the Meadows of Gold’. Unlike the others in the series (so far) it appears to be written almost as a textbook – lists of seas and kingdoms and races, extraordinarily dry.

Whether that is the case with the original – and it should perhaps be remembered that it is a scholarly work, the writer is not a novelist like Twain or Stevenson or Orwell and there may be a conscious decision on the part of the author not to let the self intrude – or whether perhaps something has been lost in translation I can’t make out.

It also suffers very much more from the abridgements, perhaps because the book was not complete in and of itself when written. There are references to Al Mas’udi’s earlier works, now sadly lost, and a feeling I’m getting only half a picture.

Ideally I would like to find another translation. Preferably one with a map so I can work out where all these kingdoms he talks about actually are.  Sadly Project Gutenberg doesn’t seem to have it.

I did find some other interesting things though. Another book on the Thames by G E Mitton, sibling of the one I own already. I’m not sure when each was published, but it’s interesting to me that these two different books with different illustrators, different prose, presumably written relatively closely together, have the same title and author. Was there no worry they might be confused?

I’ve also realised that I had foolishly pictured G E as an Oxford don, male and spectacled, bowed over his desk to write in a crabbed and faded ink as the rain dulled the little light through his leaded windows and distorted his view of mortarboards crossing the quad. In reality it seems Mrs Mitton lived in Burma, the wife of a journalist and colonial administrator with whom she collaborated on several novels.

Accordingly, there are seven books mentioned on her Wikipedia page; but she clearly contributed to more, adding the prose to my two books of the Thames, which are largely picture books, as well as those on various London Districts, a book of Cornwall and a Children’s Book of Stars. All now waiting to be read.

While I’m having my small clear out of physical books – reading my skinny little travel series and disposing of them to the Wimbledon Station bookswap – I could in theory also get rid of some of the books I have both on the kindle and on my shelves. My copy of Room With a View has an unnecessarily frothy cover (as does Maurice, but Maurice is not yet out of copyright so it won’t be leaving me until I find an edition I prefer) similarly Where Angels Fear to Tread was, I think, read on the kindle, so I have no sentimental attachment to the physical book and should probably dispose of it before I develop one.

Brideshead Revisited is a battered school hardback which I bought in Wales – one of the blessings of the kindle is now I don’t have to take books on holiday there’s more room in my case to bring back the books I’ve bought on holiday. The battered hardback replaces the nice new penguin edition I bought at the airport on the way out to see my Aunt in Italy and left there because they had no access to English TV as yet and had fallen back on reading.

The other book I left there was Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, which I also recommend but have not replaced. Lawrence Durrell is the older brother of Gerald Durrell, whose books were amongst those I rescued from the school library before they got rid of it. My shelves also hold one of Lawrence’s novels, in which I have a vaguely maternal interest largely because of Gerry’s observation of his brother’s trials and tribulations trying to get the things written and published. The novel is Justine, set a little later and written later still: the first in the Alexandrian Quartet. I barely glanced into it before but have now devoured it enthusiastically, not least because the descriptions of the city itself, while far from lyrical, are descriptions of heat and dust, sweat and sunshine. Something I have been badly in need of these last few weeks of rain and cold.

Durrell treats the city like another character, almost more alive than the people who live there. There’s a fatalism that seems to come from the place itself, and the protagonists too apathetic to escape it. It sounds affected but in fact this is quite comprehensible in the narrator. He is a thinker (some might say an overthinker) not a doer, and might well drift into affairs despite himself, analysing where he should act. And perhaps he sees that same quality in others because he’s projecting it there.

It’s a book that makes you ask yourself those sort of questions: Is it possible to love someone chiefly for their flaws, to fall out of love purely because those flaws have been cured? Is all love possessive by nature or is the narrator projecting that also?
Or, as someone put it in an amazon review, ‘with all that sex, shouldn’t somebody being enjoying it?’ Is the melancholy that gently infuses the pages the result of hindsight, or what the narrator genuinely felt at the time?

I have already bought the next in the quartet, which is Balthazar. Perhaps that will provide some answers. Or more questions. I'm looking forward to either.  

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