Category Archives: Books

Essential Supplies

Packing continues apace (well, not really, but in my mind it does), and the time has come to select the most essential supplies. Not clothes or toiletries or travel gadgets, but books. Given that I’m traveling to Greece to work in a bookshop, this is not as critical decision as it could be, but still – careful selection of travel books is critical. Here are the four, all of which have find their way in by dint of their size (small), relevance to my travels (high), and their pretentious literary kudos (extreme).

For Paris: Les Fleurs Du Mal

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Baudelaire’s funny, filthy and beautiful poetry is the perfect companion to Paris.

Venice: Invisible Cities

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Italo Calvino’s perfect, poetic fable is the ideal guide to Venice – the city is described, in suitably fantastic fashion and concealed as other cities, fifty five times over. It’s also a useful crib sheet for writing – prose has rarely been more imaginative or more beautiful than this.

For Greece: The Odyssey

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Cliche cliche, irresistable cliche. The first novel, the emblem of Greece, the ultimate travel book for the lonesome wanderer, the namesake for my goddamn blog. If there is one book that was always going to find its way into my back pack, it was going to be this one (even though if there is one book that will inevitably be found in the bookshop, it is this one).

For London: Teeline Fast

teeline-fast

Eh? Teeline what?

I’ll be learning shorthand when I get back, and it seems sensible to try and get started whilst I am out there. Progress will only be made by intensive application of the will…we’ll see how that turns out.

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Books I’ve Read: The House of Meetings (Martin Amis)

Two Russian brothers (pacifistic poet Lev and the more pragmatic and violent unnamed narrator), sent to the same Siberian gulag in the aftermath of World War II, battle for survival in the brutal conditions and for the love of Zoya, the beguiling Jewess with whom they are both in love (and to whom Lev is married). After a night with Zoya in the House of Meetings, the gulag’s special building for conjugal visits, Lev emerges a broken man. After the two brothers emerge from the gulag into an equally oppressive communist Russia, they struggle with the suffering of their past and the increasingly heated rivalry for Zoya.

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This (as the back cover of the book will tell you) is the basic plot of The House of Meetings, an apparently straightforward story of a love triangle in difficult times. But despite the novel’s slender size, Martin Amis is hunting bigger game. The Great Russian Soul and how it has been lost, the competitive, combative and indestructible bond of brotherly love, and the thin line between erotic desire and violent rape in the male psyche are just a few of the weighty themes that Amis is chasing after in less than two hundred pages.

At first, it seems that he has overstretched himself badly. In an attempt to make an assay into the state of Russian society, the narrator is apt to make sweeping generalisations about Russia in only the way that a foreign writer would have his character speak. Didactic statements about the character and sins of a nation tends to make for empty and self indulgent prose in fiction, doubly so when it is about a country that is not the author’s own.

The writing itself is an occasional problem. There are some marvels of description, from the apocalyptic horrors of the camp to the more subtle horrors of domestic life in communist Russia in a society that is gradually disintegrating. But often Amis’s prose reminds one of a fussy, fidgety, brilliant child – one longs to give it a clip around the ear (normally I am against the striking of children, but prose is no place for liberal parenting), tell it to sit still and to stop showing off for the sake of it. The story is an equally fidgety thing. Trickily framed as a long letter to the narrator’s daughter and compressing an impressive span of time into relatively few pages, until the very end it seems that the fragile book is trying too hard, trying too much, and will come to pieces.

But Amis is a master, capable of turning the most debased novelistic lead into high carat gold. An unopened letter from Lev to his brother, detailing just what happened on the fateful night in the House of Meetings, seems for much of the novel to be a lazy way of building tension and propelling narrative – a lesser novelist’s trick. But in the final pages, this letter converts from narrative prop into a furious, desperately sad meditation on what brutalisation can do to a man, what vital parts of the soul shrivel and die in the Siberian cold and never grow back again, the fragile solace offered by both brotherly and erotic love and how easily they can be taken away. This letter is followed by a second (just how can Amis get away with two revelatory letters as a conclusion? Only the gods that govern novels can know for sure), the final address of the narrator to his daughter that builds and builds into an apocalyptic vision of a doomed Russian society. Despite its occasional arrogance and self indulgence, at the death this little novel has developed an irresistible momentum, becoming a powerful and moving study of the terrible wounds that a man, a society, a country, and a world can inflict upon itself and survive, only to die slowly in the decades that follow.

Book-in-laws: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn), The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevski)

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Books I’ve Read: The Silence Room (Sean O’Brien)

Libraries have always held a particular fascination for writers. Whenever they appear in fiction they take on the qualities of  literary temples – silent, sacred spaces, repositories of knowledge, mystery, learning and perhaps, hidden amidst the yellowed pages and dusty shelves, some kind of capital T Truth.

There have been many fine fictional libraries, but perhaps the library in the Discworld series offers the neatest summary of the charged energy that these places hold for bookish types. In Terry Pratchett’s fantasy physics, knowledge = power, and books = knowledge, therefore books = power. A large library, acting as such a concentrated centre of power, takes on the ability to bend space and time, to warp the fabric of reality itself. Get lost in those shelves, and you might never come out again. Or if you do make it out, you could come out in a different time and place, perhaps even as a different person.

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The Silence Room, a new collection of short stories by Sean O’Brien, is the latest addition to the long and honourable line of literary libraries. This particular library is based in a murky, grim, superbly realised Newcastle, a bastion of peace and learning in a city of dimly lit pubs, drunken men and exhausted women. At the heart of this is the Silence Room, favoured workplace for poets and academics. It is room imbued with a peculiar juju, where strange events are commonplace – disappearing poetics lecturers, carpets that come alive and cryptic drug dispensing strangers are just a few of the things to be found in there.

It is a near irresistible concept – the mind bending, world warping library is a superb setting to hang a series of short stories around, and the grubby Tyneside that exists outside of the Silence Room is an equally beguiling setting. O’Brien has an eye for a canny detail, and can turn a tasty phrase, but he doesn’t have an instinct for storytelling – at least, if he does, it isn’t on display in this collection.

Strangely, in a literary landscape where the fantastic is set deliberately close at hand (almost every story moves towards some kind of surreal, world bending climax) it is the fantasy sections where the stories are most incoherent and least satisfying. The stories thrive in the everyday depiction of his imagined Newcastle and its literary refugees. His jealous academics, Shakespeare quoting barmaids, Sunday cricketers and alcoholic Wallace Stevens fanatics are delightful characters, but their stories go nowhere – and when the world turns on its head at the end of each short story, there is something inevitable and utterly uninvolving about each of them.

The shadow of Borges and his Library of Babel (a stunning short story that has perhaps rendered all other literary libraries unnecessary) hangs long over this collection. Each of O’Brien’s stories seems to be aiming towards a twisted Borgesian climax, but it is an impossible task to attempt. Somewhere in Borges’s Library of Babel, where every possible book has been written and sits patiently on the infinite octagonal bookshelves, there is a copy of The Silence Room where O’Brien escaped the influence of the Argentine trickster and found a compelling voice of his own. But that book, undoubtedly superior to the one I now hold in my hands, will forever remain upon that shelf in the Library of Babel, unwritten and unread.

Book-in-Laws: The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco), The Library of Babel (Jorge Borges), If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (Italo Calvino)

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Books I’ve Read: The Travels (Marco Polo)

Let us begin in a prison in Genoa, in the year of Our Lord 1298.

A cell door clangs open, and Rustichello da Pisa is thrust inside. Were he born six hundred years later, we would describe him as a failed novelist – at this point in time, he is simply a failed writer of romances, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and confined as a prisoner of war. As his eyes become accustomed to the dim light, Rustichello realises he is not alone – there is another man in this cell, a wild eyed man of forty four but who possess the manic energy of a younger man. Or a madman.

He won’t stop talking as he paces the cell, speaking of Mongol warriors who drink the blood of their horses even as they ride them, Eastern witchdoctors who can kill a man with an ill thought and levitate a room full of wine cups from the ground for the amusement of great kings, unicorns that crush men with their knees and lacerate them with barbed tongues. At first Rustichello thinks he too will go mad from this endless chatter, and imagines beating or choking the life out of the ridiculous fabulist who won’t give him a moment’s peace. But as he listens closer, he gradually realises that, poor writer that he is, he is being given the opportunity for greatness…or at least the bestseller he needs to pay off his more troublesome creditors. He grabs the other man and sets him down, looking at him with utter seriousness.

“What’s your name?”

The wild eyed man stops jabbering for a moment and looks at him with eyes of a most brilliant, intense blue.

“Marco Polo.”

“Marco Polo. Good name.” Rustichello leans in even closer. “You and me, we’re going to make a bloody fortune, Marco.”

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My story is a lie. Who knows what truly went on in the first meeting between Marco Polo and Rustichello de Pisa, or what their respective characters were like. Perhaps Rustichello was the wild fantasist, and Marco a laconic, cynical traveller who simply fuelled the other man’s creativity. Perhaps they didn’t even meet in prison as tradition has it, and that story was a final embellishment to a book of embellishments.

But however they met, between Marco’s mixture of personal travel experience (allegedly as an envoy to Kublai Khan, probably as an occasional merchant visitor to the East, perhaps entirely fictional) and hearsay from other travellers on the road, and Rustichello’s exaggerations and outright fabrications, they produced the work we know as the Travels of Marco Polo. It was an instant success, a 13th century bestseller, and it has become one of the classics of travel writing.

It is a delicious, exhilarating read…in places. It has shades of Herodotus (another traveller of antiquity who couldn’t resist a good story), as Marco and Rustichello take you on an thrilling journey into their semi-fictional vision of the Orient, stopping off at remote villages and great cities, visiting the courts of great kings and the homes of humble tradesmen along the way.

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Parts of it sound almost like a 13th century Lonely Planet – we are told that a particular part of Mongolia, where women are given honour depending on the number of women they have slept with and thus compete for the sexual affections of passing travellers, is “understandably, a very good place for young men aged between 16 and 24.” It tells you how to cross particular deserts where you “must not drink the brackish water” that drives men mad. It is when the book places you on the ground, travelling over deserts and high mountain passes, eyes boggling at the sumptuous luxury of the Great Khan’s court that it is at its strongest.

When Marco runs out of stories (or rather, when Rustichello couldn’t be bothered to make anything interesting up,) the details go thin. There are rather too many Chinese provinces that are summarised as being “filled with idolators, subject to the Great Khan and who use paper money,’ and the book as a whole lacks any kind of overall structure or deliberate point – it trails to an unsatisfactory end, with only a hurried epilogue that vainly tries to tie the whole thing together. It is a patchwork of anecdotes, nothing more, nothing less.

The Travels is a work of fictional anthropology, a record not of the actual 13th century Orient but of Western perceptions of the Orient – this sprawling, mythical continent of uncountable riches, beautiful women, ancient civilisations and barbaric, endlessly warring Tartar clans. In present day works of history and travel writing we feign objectivity and accuracy, but almost invaribaly craft facts into stories, a succession of scarely connected events into a kind of overarching narrative. It is how we  make sense of strange places and distant events – Marco and Rustichello were simply more honest than most in how large a part storytelling has to play in the process. All history is storytelling, just as the telling of ancient history turns it, inevitably, into myth.

Book-In-Laws: The Histories (Herodotus), A Thousand and One Nights (Various), Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

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