The weekend’s Guardian review featured an illuminating article on various author’s favourite holiday reads. I was struck by how few of these memorable experiences offered any relationship between book and place. Yes, Jonathan Raban relished reading Death in Venice several times over when in Venice and John Banville loved reading The Portrait of a Lady in Florence (even though the coincidence of the book’s setting and his holiday location was purely accidental), but they are pretty much the only ones of the bunch.
Andrew Motion, who read The Odyssey on Ithaca, describes how pleasing a book-place connection can be:
Whenever I looked up from the page, I saw the ruins of Odysseus’s palace (so called), the beach where he eventually made landfall, the empty cave where his cult once thrived, the bare rocky hills described in the poem – and also saw myth and reality tumbling through one another.
Reading a book in its natural setting can be a truly magical experience.
I first came upon this realisation by going about it the wrong way round. In my GAP year, I spent a few months in Nepal, nominally teaching in a village primary school, but, as the school kept declaring impromptu holidays and the working day in any case was over by 5ish, when I returned to my room in a Nepali family home, I had rather a lot of time on my hands.
Luckily I’d had the foresight to ask for the Oxford English reading list before heading off, so the long evenings were easily filled by working my way through the Victorian canon. There were a few weeks of Eliot – Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda; then of Dickens – Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers; the Brontes were over in a flash, but Vanity Fair took a little while. All this was punctuated by the odd bit of Browning and Tennyson. I remember feeling absurdly reckless when I put down the Victorians for a week to read Satre on a friend’s recommendation.
Reading all these English classics so relentlessly in a dim, grubby room in Nepal, enclosed in a sleeping bag and having to swap book-holding hands periodically due to the cold biting at my fingers, was deeply strange. There I was, supposedly finding myself, somewhere unlike anywhere I’d ever been before, and I was accompanied by the faintly nauseating voice of Bleak House’s Esther or earnest Jane Eyre – the latter, comfortingly familiar from when I’d read it a few years previously. I spent the weekends wandering around breathtaking stupas and temples, like Boudhanath and Swayambhunath (Kathmandu’s ‘Monkey Temple’), yet my reading material was based in nineteenth-century London or the English countryside. I remember being on a bus heading down to Pokhara for a trek to Annapurna base camp, trying to concentrate on Bleak House in spite of the bumpy roads, when an American lady asked me why on earth I was reading it.
‘Oh I know it looks off-putting,’ I said, ‘but actually it’s pretty good.’
‘I know it’s good. It happens to be one of my favourite novels,’ she said, ‘but why are you taking it with you on a trek?’
‘Got to get through my university reading list,’ I explained, a bit puzzled as to why she found it so odd.
‘But it’s so thick and heavy!’
‘Well I need something to keep me going for a couple of weeks.’
‘And it’s so English. Don’t you think you should be reading something about Nepal instead?’
Until that point, it really hadn’t occurred to me that it made sense to read a book – other than the omnipresent, omniscient Lonely Planet – about Nepal. Luckily it wasn’t long before I spent a couple of weeks in a Buddhist monastery, from which I emerged wanting only to read books written by the Dalai Lama and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Oh, and (shamefully) The Alchemist came a few week’s later. I don’t mean Ben Johnson’s.
There was undoubtedly something truly special about the way in which those Victorian classics transported me back to England, about how they absorbed my imagination so fully that I really could have been reading them anywhere – that I was in a smelly sleeping bag in a Nepali village couldn’t have mattered less. But I can’t help but feel that reading some books from the subcontinent would have been even more special.
Ironically, when I finally went up to Oxford, a few months later, struck low by a bug in third week and panicking at all the reading still to do, I decided to read Kipling, thinking that The Just So Stories might be comforting for the sickbed. I zipped through them and The Jungle Books, and was on to Kim by the second day. There I was, lying in my duveted single bed in one of the most English places in England, eating toast and drinking tea, reading all about a young boy scampering through Lahore. Although I’ve never been to Pakistan (although back then, of course, it was India), it took me straight back to my time in Nepal. There followed my best essay of the term.
A couple of years later I returned, not to Nepal this time, but to India. As soon as I landed in Delhi, I bought a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, much to the Indian bookseller’s delight. Ok, I wasn’t in Bombay, but I was at least in India, and this was the perfect chutnied, chaotic, polyphonic accompaniment.
Since then, I’ve tried to match, more-or-less, book to place. Last year’s holiday to Italy, for instance, was perfectly matched with Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Forster’s Where Angel’s Fear to Tread. I’ve written elsewhere about Forster’s powerful use of landscape and setting, and it was remarkable to be reading about Gino’s sultry and indolent loggia and then to look up and see one.
The previous year’s trip around Japan was accompanied by Mishima, Soseki, Kawabata and, of course, Murukami. How incredible to be in Kyoto while reading The Temple of the Golden Pavilion! How glorious to be in Tokyo and to read Kokoro, set in the same city, a hundred years ago!
Perhaps it’s for the same reason that, when I’m not on holiday, but getting on with life in London, I particularly enjoy books in which London has a strong presence – from Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine, which I polished off in about three days straight last week, to Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, and from Iain Sinclair’s Hackney to Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside.
Reading these books when in the right place, makes me feel even more there, even more part of London, or Tokyo or Tuscany. It acts as another layer of absorption – not only is everything one actually sees belonging to that place, but everything one sees in one’s mind eye belongs there too.
Next week, when I’ll be on holiday in the Outer Hebrides – so you might have to wait a couple of weeks for the next post, I’m afraid – I’ll take Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, which takes place on the remote West Coast of Scotland and is heralded as one of the greatest pieces of nature writing of all time. I might also take some Robert Burns, possibly a copy of Macbeth, perhaps something by Sir Walter Scott. And I shall definitely take the rather majestic Lore of Scotland, a comprehensive guide to Scottish myths and legends, which pinpoints each one to a place. I will keep an eye out for selkies. I suspect they might be easier to spot after a few whiskies.
I’m ever so excited.