Posts Tagged ‘travel writing’

The Rings of Saturn

May 22, 2014

What a belated blog! I can only apologise and plead a great deal of travelling and sporadic internet access as my excuses.

Olivetti and peoniesLast week Emilybooks and husband spent a wonderful couple of days on a Roman holiday. We stayed in a particularly sweet bed and breakfast, discovered thanks to the clever mapping tool on the Alastair Sawday website. It was one of just three rooms in a little flat, in a lovely old building around a courtyard. Look at our beautiful desk, complete with peonies and an Olivetti typewriter! I longed to use it, but felt almost certain that I’d break it, and my Italian doesn’t quite stretch to the hideous prospect of having to explain my way out of that one.

We arrived and wandered down to the huge and humbling Terme di Caracalla. It was impossible not to feel overexcited as the Coliseum suddenly loomed into view on the way. Caracalla felt rather like we’d gone back to Narnia and discovered the ruins of Cair Paravel. One imagines these baths with the vast roof intact, vast and glorious, where thousands of people gathered every day. Now they’re ruined, empty, and little visited – the sunbaked white floor is undisturbed except for the crunch of an occasional weary tourist’s footsteps, and the sweeping shadows of gulls wheeling overhead.

Park notesThe following day, fortified with a breakfast of nutella cake and strawberries, we saw a million churches housing all sorts of artistic delights. Michelangelo’s Moses, various Caravaggios, rather a fun obelisk with an elephant by Bernini (just outside a church) and his Saint Teresa. This was of especial interest as I’ve contributed to what I hope will be a very intriguing book called Park Notes, about women writers and Regent’s Park, and Saint Theresa is key to my essay about George Eliot. (Just think back to the Prelude of Middlemarch…)

Antiquarian bookshop in RomeOn our wanderings, I was struck by the number of bookshops, such as this beautiful antiquarian one, with its very tempting window display of children’s books. I also spotted a smartly published series of essays, including Virginia Woolf On Cinema. I considered buying it, and then thought it was too ridiculous to struggle through it in Italian. Perhaps an enterprising English language publisher might publish an equivalent series … Please?

Intelligent Italian essaysThere is so much that one could say about Rome, of course, but I’ll confine myself to just two short points. One is that the scale of it is so impressive. While I could just about get used to there being quite so many beautiful churches, I could never quite get my head around the Roman ruins being so much a part of the texture of the cityscape. You come out of a wonderful church, dazed from gazing up at the ceiling, and then, round the corner there stands a trio of columns, so monumental, it is though they are left over from a time when giants roamed the seven hills. The other, more prosaic comment, is that ice cream really is a way of life! Strolling around after dinner on our final evening, we happened upon Fassi’s‘Ice Palace’, which has been going for over 150 years. It was nearly midnight and rammed with people of all ages, all tucking into the most delicious ice cream. Oh if only London had an equivalent, instead of our rancid kebab shops…

From Rome, we went all the way south to Puglia, the very heel of Italy’s boot. There we met Emilybooks’ mum for a few days in a very plush hotel, plus a little exploring to the intriguingly named Monopoli, Ostuni and Cisternino. Most beautiful, I thought, were the many groves of ancient olive trees, and the tiny lizards who darted around by the swimming pool (alas no photo of these special creatures – forgive me). They reminded me a little of Daphne in the way they could remain so still and contemplative, but then they zoomed off in a way that might have given Daphne a heart attack had she chanced to see.

The Rings of SaturnSuch have been the adventures of Emilybooks, and perhaps I better admit I’ve been stalling somewhat, because I have no idea what to say about Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which I’ve read twice over in the past week. It’s an astonishing book. So much so, that I really did finish it, feel unable to start anything new, so went back to the beginning.

The book is essentially an account of Sebald’s wanderings around East Anglia in 1992. Just as his feet wander, so does his narrative, and we find ourselves being taken on numerous informative diversions. For instance, a visit to the faded Somelyton Hall leads us on to a conversation about bombing raids on Germany in the Second World War, and a railway bridge over the river Blyth takes us to the Taiping Rebellion. One gets a good picture of the bewildering, tangential scope of the book from the contents page, which reads like so:

1. In hospital – Obituary – Odyssey of Thomas Browne’s skull – Anatomy lecture – Levitation – Quincunx – Fabled creatures – Urn burial

Reading The Rings of Saturn feels like being granted access to a highly intelligent, deeply knowledgeable, very curious person’s brain. Perhaps a collector’s or curator’s, for the connections are Sebald’s own, and his relish in this subjectivity makes it peculiarly charming – at times even quite funny – rather than intimidatingly po-faced.

Various themes become apparent as the book progresses. Images of burning and destruction proliferate – and a preoccupation with the terrible mass destruction that has been wreaked by human hands. It is written in the shadow of the Holocaust, and this echoes through the many other mass deaths in the book – be that of the Belgian Congo, the Taiping rebellion, Waterloo, or even the Dutch herring industry – in 1770, he says, ‘the number of herring caught annually is estimated to have been sixty billion’:

Given these quantities, the natural historians sought consolation in the idea that humanity was responsible for only a fraction of the endless destruction wrought in the cycle of life, and moreover in the assumption that the peculiar physiology of the fish left them free of the fear and pains that rack the bodies and souls of higher animals in their death throes. But the truth is that we do not know what the herring feels. All we know is that its internal structure is extremely intricate and consists of more than two hundred different bones and cartilages.

Sebald intersperses his narrative with grainy, black-and white photographs. There is one of the herring haul in Lowestoft, showing mountains of dead fish at the feet of the fisherman:

Sebald's herring haul

Just six pages later comes a double-page spread showing piles of dead bodies at Belsen Concentration Camp. The pyramids of the blanketed figures echo the heaps of fish, just as the straight lines of the trees ghost in the figures of the agents of their destruction.

Belsen in The Rings of Saturn

Another preoccupation of the book is silk. We meet silkworms via the Chinese Empress Tz’u-hsi, who was devoted to her silkworms throughout the terrible drought of 1876-9, when, ‘whole provinces gave the impression of expiring under prisons of glass. Between seven and twenty million people – no precise estimates have ever been calculated – are said to have died of starvation and exhaustion…’

When the ill tidings arrived from the south, the Dowager Empress had a daily blood sacrifice offered in her temple to the gods of silk, at the hour when the evening star rose, lest the silkworms want for fresh green leaves. Of all living creatures, these curious insects alone aroused a strong affection in her … when night fell she particularly liked to sit all alone amidst the frames, listening to the low, even, deeply soothing sound of the countless silkworms consuming the new mulberry foliage. These pale, almost transparent creatures, which would presently give their lives for the fine thread they were spinning, she saw as her true loyal followers.

Silk appears time and again – silken ropes for hangings, the purple silk in the urn of Patroclus, and the bamboo cane which was used to smuggle silkworm eggs from China to the Western world. At the close of the book, Sebald delves at length into the fascinating history of sericulture in the West. Here he compares the fate of the silk weavers to writers:

That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread. On the other hand, when we consider the weavers’ mental illnesses we should also bear in mind that many of the materials produced … were of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by Nature itself, like the plumage of birds.

Perhaps, then, this is a fitting description for The Rings of Saturn – ‘of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by Nature itself, like the plumage of birds’. Threads are woven through in complex patterns; the book is born of ‘Nature itself’ – inspired by his walking through East Anglia; and there is something of a bird’s flight in its darting, diving tangents. Like these beautiful, ‘truly fabulous’ silken materials, The Rings of Saturn has survived its author to provide ‘iridescent, quite indescribable’ inspiration for future readers … it certainly has for this one.

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A Time of Gifts

May 1, 2012

People tend to expect me to have read everything, so it always comes as something of an embarrassment when I have to admit to a glaring gap in my literary landscape, to not having read Middlesex, The Corrections or Proust, for instance. I can see their faces fall and a gleam of suspicion enter their eyes as they wonder if I’m no more than a fraud, someone posturing as an avid reader, for really, how can I pretend to talk about books when I’ve not even read any Faulkner.

In such an instance there is always a shameful impulse to lie. Or, as one inevitably knows something about the book or author in question, it’s easy to employ what my old boss used to term ‘an Oxford answer’ – that is responding to a question by answering a different one. For instance:

‘Have you read much Proust?’

‘You know, I found the Proustian connection in The Hare with Amber Eyes completely fascinating. I loved that chunk on Charles Ephrussi, especially that bit about the asparagus!’

Then it’s easy peasy to divert the course of conversation on to firmer ground and the question of Proust is all but forgotten. Never underestimate the power of a good Oxford answer.

Failing that, there are all those silly books with titles like ‘How to talk about books you haven’t read’ or ‘An idiots guide to the Classics’ which are of tremendous help to a bluffer. But I think such books are a real shame. Surely the whole point of being able to talk about a book is the pleasure one gets from having read it in the first place?

But, in any case, when one does finally get around to reading one of those books that one is supposed to have read, it is deeply satisfying. So I am very pleased to announce that I have at last read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts.

I have a theory that the reason why Patrick Leigh Fermor comes up so often in conversation is because, until he passed away last year, he hung around rather a lot in Gentlemen’s Clubs and at Oxford dinners, so a surprisingly large number of people – usually oldish men – have met him. And everyone loves to indulge in a little name-dropping. ‘Oh you simply must read A Time of Gifts. Such a wonderful book. Oh those descriptions. Marvellous. You know, I met him a couple of times. Terribly nice chap. Fascinating stories.’

I suspect it must be thanks to this that I have been told I must read A Time of Gifts a gazillion times. I even own a rather handsome edition of it, published by the Folio society, that my father gave me a few years ago. (Yes, he met him a couple of times and thought he was fascinating.)

I certainly loved reading such a smart edition. Everyone makes such a fuss about hardbacks being so heavy, but really I am terrifically weak with especially spindly wrists and didn’t find it a problem in the slightest. Although I did feel like I had to be a bit more careful when reading it in the bath, drying my hands a little more assiduously before turning the pages, as it really is too smart to trash and wrinkle. It’s such a lovely book that someone even sparked up a conversation with me in a café, wanting to know where I’d found such a beautiful edition. Alas, as the Folio Society operates by subscription only, for once I couldn’t direct her to my bookshop.

A Time of Gifts is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s record of his journey across Europe in the 1930s. He sets off on a terribly rainy day, when ‘a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly’, to catch a ferry to Holland from where he will walk all the way to ‘Constantinople’, or Istanbul, as we might call it.

Admittedly, it’s a small thing, but therein lay my first disappointment. I was expecting him to reach Constantinople, the destination of which he boasts to anyone he meets en route. I found it increasingly troubling, as the number of remaining pages dwindled and he was still only in Austria, or Czechoslovakia, to imagine how he was going to make it all the way to Istanbul before the end. I wondered if my mental map of Europe was way off, or if he’d cave in and take a train. But no, the book ends when he reaches Hungary. You’ve got to read the next one to get further, and even then you don’t make it to Istanbul. The third and final volume is to be published posthumously, albeit only ‘near-finished’, next year.

His route more-or-less follows the Rhine and then the Danube. It was certainly a fascinating time to tread this ground,  just before so much of it would be destroyed by war. Some of the most interesting bits are Patrick Leigh Fermor’s encounters with Nazism. He meets one young man who has covered his room with Nazi memorabilia, who is quick to admit that a year ago it was all Communist. In Munich, he sees ‘a groaning Brownshirt, propped against the wall on a swastika’d arm … unloosing, in a staunchless gush down the steps, the intake of hours’. So many school history lessons were spent studying Nazi Germany and yet these anecdotes seem to capture something unexpected.

Although the journey was made in the thirties, Patrick Leigh Fermor didn’t come to write the book until forty years later. And while the knowledge of what was to come casts a harrowing light on what he sees, all the time elapsed means that the text has lost rather a lot of immediacy. As I read it, I felt like I was moving from one set piece – one polished dinner party story – to another. For instance, here is a snippet of the very long description of Melk:

Overtures and preludes followed each other as courtyard opened on courtyard. Ascending staircases unfolded as vaingloriously as pavanes. Cloisters developed with the complexity of double, triple and quadruple fugues. The suites of state apartments concatenated with the variety, the mood and the décor of symphonic movements. Among the receding infinity of gold bindings in the library, the polished reflections, the galleries and the terrestrial and celestial globes gleaming in the radiance of their flared embrasures, music, again, seemed to intervene.

I hate this kind of writing. It is so overblown, over-the-top, pompous. And, if he’s going to indulge in this silly over-extended metaphor, then at least accompany it with a straightforward paragraph saying what Melk actually looks like! Perhaps it’s lucky that, unlike most people, I never met Patrick Leigh Fermor. If he’d gone off on one like this over dinner, I might have nodded off into my soup.

So instead of being able to see Melk in my mind’s eye, I’m left with a complicated musical metaphor. Instead of being able to see the landscape, I can only see Brueghel’s The Hunters in the Snow, which he uses as a frequent comparison.

Perhaps I found this particularly troubling having so recently read Olivia Laing’s To the River. Alongside her digressions into literature, myth and history, the descriptions are so real that I could smell the meadowsweet, hear the wood pigeons and feel the biting cold of the river water. I missed all that in A Time of Gifts.

And I missed listening to the walker’s rambling thoughts. We don’t get the wonderings meandering through his head as he wanders along the rivers, instead we are given a list of the works of literature that he recites to himself (sometimes backwards) as he walks. It made me curse my terrible memory and made me think that I’d quite like to reread the Aeneid and that I wished I knew anything like the amount of Latin he did. But mostly it made me think that Patrick Leigh Fermor was a bit of a show off. It certainly doesn’t spark much empathy.

At least I’ve read it now. And next time someone asks me if I’ve read A Time of Gifts, I can forestall their bragging about having met Patrick Leigh Fermor, once or twice, by saying, ‘Yes, I’ve read it and I thought it was a bit of a let-down actually. So many people seem to have met him, and they all say he was such a charismatic, fascinating man, so it was a bit of a shame that he comes across as so arrogant and pompous in the book.’ I can already imagine the horrified reaction. I can certainly see it far more clearly than many of the things written about in A Time of Gifts.