The kind of felicity to which the Blue Train conveyed you, as it let you off at Marseilles or Toulon or Cannes or Nice or Monte Carlo, whence you coulThe kind of felicity to which the Blue Train conveyed you, as it let you off at Marseilles or Toulon or Cannes or Nice or Monte Carlo, whence you could go on to the Italian Riviera, to Rapallo and all the way down to the Amalfi Coast, seemed novel in the 20’s. It seems novel no longer because those places have provided the model for the décor and atmosphere of successful international tourism ever since. Wherever exported and transplanted out of Europe—to Turkey, Mexico, even the USSR—the style is the same, involving beach and sun, bright colored aperitifs at little tables outdoors, copious fish and shellfish to eat, folk or popular music played on string instruments, cheap drinkable local wine, much use of oil (olive for cooking, suntan for browning), all in a setting of colored architecture and “colorful” street markets. A maximum exposure of flesh guarantees a constant erotic undertone, and a certain amount of noise (Vespas, children shouting on the beach) provides a reassurance of life and gaiety. There must be colorful fishermen and boat-people, playing boules or something like it. There must be love on top of the sheets after the large wine lunch, with occasional hints of Roman Catholicism (processions, the locals attending early mass, the public blessing of fishing vessels) just sufficient to lend the whole frivolous operation a slight air of wickedness. - Paul Fussell
At the brighter end of my shabby, dark, westerly block of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, the great ship’s horns of enormous ocean liners could be heard on Sundays, disturbingly deep and resonant, signaling imminent departure in waves of subterranean bass fundamentals. This was in the early 1980’s. Without the slightest indication of direction or itinerary, this sound conveyed untold potential, an uncharted world of possibility, a signal that the high seas awaited and might carry you away if you would only step aboard in time. Where to, exactly? Well, somewhere distant, places perhaps confoundingly hard to understand, perhaps clinging to another era-- somewhere abroad.
I’m not sure it would work that way, or so well, for someone not immersed in the Travel literature with which we’re concerned in this book. Period Travel. Something like distilled spirits that have to remain in the cask until old and nearly forgotten.
”Probably, as Thomas Pynchon never went to Valletta or Kafka to America, it’s best to imagine your own foreign country. I wrote a very good account of Paris before I ever went there. Better than the real thing.” - Anthony Burgess
Abroad was always a little further away yesterday than it is today, and yet we yearn for it to be much further tomorrow. Our relation to somewhere-far-away is always receding, it seems. It’s worth considering that at one time, only about a century or so back, most of the people on the planet had never travelled anywhere at all. Before that, tales of adventure and mishap in distant places were nearly always magical tales of enchanted spells. The Odyssey seems nicely emblematic of that pattern; and a convenient place to begin. Paul Fussell’s book takes the long view into account before delving into the specifics of his topic, namely the genteel, writerly traveler’s books that came out of Britain between the wars in the last century.
“Arrived Venice. Streets full of water. Please advise.” - Robert Benchley
The travel book of the twenties and thirties fairly marked the trail for the genre, and arguably set up templates for the era that really couldn’t be surpassed in the decades to come; a jaunt to far-flung worlds back then was nearly a 5o-5o bet on returning at all, at least in any kind of health or wealth that resembled the traveler’s original condition. Subsequent decades would shrink the world, down to safe or no-go zones, down to spheres of influence, avenues of commerce or security. It would never again be safe for someone like Peter Fleming to set out on a trek to deep Sinkiang in the wastes of Chinese Turkestan-- as if it ever really was. At least in the twenties there was No Man’s Land, rather than everything everywhere being a Disputed Territory.
Fussell argues that intuitive travel writers were so very disenfranchised by the First World War that ‘abroad’ would at very least offer an alternative to the England that wasted a generation of its youth in the trenches. W.H. Auden seems a fair example.
””In your early works, there seems to be a fierceness towards England. There’s a sense of being at war with where you are.” To which Auden answered crisply, “Yes, quite.””
But the anxieties of world conflict were only formalized after the war, as international travel became possible once again; the significance of redrawn borders and uneasy new frontiers was now underlined, everywhere significant of the fracturing of the modern outlook. Fussell finds irony in that the search for certainties outside the boundaries of the home country only exaggerated the disjointed, dissociated world of the dawning Twenties. The Modern era was on, and jarring juxtaposition was no longer the notable exception, but was now nearly the rule.
“The taste for quotations, and for the juxtaposition of incongruous quotations—is a Surrealist taste.” - Susan Sontag
What were charming anomalies—the adults here stay up all night in bistros, then sleep away the afternoon!--the children here dive off the cliffs!-- that could be brought home as travel tales of the ‘foreign scene’--had become collages or quotations that clashed, even reflected inconsistencies in the traveler’s own ethos. Probably what we’d call mash-up, where high meets low and new conceptions undermine accepted ideology. In fiction, think perhaps of A Passage To India, or Brideshead Revisted; not travel tales, but of a similar design to what Forster or Waugh or Maugham were also doing with travel books. Culture clash and oblique or cubist perspective would concern literature more than travel books, but frequently the writers were the same, and the concerns were too. The writers who simultaneously produced both-- Greene, Isherwood, Auden, Maugham, Waugh—were held by the same forces, or force fields, inherent in both. The novels were informed by the travel, the trips taken under auspices of writing travel books along the way.
Other writers were also combining two professions in one itinerary. The author acknowledges the fact that the splintered world between the wars offered more than a few opportunities for Britain’s Secret Service to send their hunter-gatherers out on the world circuit, both to write witty travelogues on critical locations as well as to bring back maps and actionable intelligence, in case of conflict. Fussell writes, “One assumes [Peter] Fleming was, for he was a loyal, philistine, and uncomplicated young man with an impenetrable façade, perfect material for MI-5, as his subsequent success in intelligence work in China and India during World War Two would suggest...” Maugham had been an intelligence agent too, and of course Fleming’s younger brother Ian also had two careers. But this is another story.
”The reader of traveler’s tales is a curious fellow, not easily fooled. He is never misled by facts which do not assort with his knowledge. But he does love wonders. His faith in dragons, dog-headed men, bearded women, and mermaids is not what it used to be, but he will accept good substitutes.” - H.M. Tomlinson
What characterized the Brit travel narrative of the 2o’s and 3o’s was no mere collection of cultural anomaly, nor was it the paradox of culture-clash they found, from Rebecca West in Black Lamb Grey Falcon to Patrick Leigh Fermor in his A Time Of Gifts, but the parallel elucidation of what they compared it all to, what kind of understanding or empathetic reaction they could bring. And layered underneath was first and crucially an England on the verge of transformation. Losing its empire through benign neglect or anachronistic colonial mania, looking to understand itself and the new century through which all nations would be changed. For an empire that spanned the globe, on which the sun never set, the intuitive writers that travelled in the early century were writing a “coming of age” account, even though they might not know it. And the coming of age, of course, was turbulent and embittered the participants. The empire would vanish, but the signs and portents are already there years ahead, in the books.
Fussell’s book would seem a light read, comprised as it is of quotes, italics, and an overample supply of erudition. There is nowhere near the amount of behind-the-scenes detail that might have been. (But the reader wonders how there could be, the books are out there, locked in, forever. For this reader, that is their beauty, their period-precise nature.) He concentrates on Robert Byron, D.H. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh pretty heavily. “Abroad” is more a survey than a study, though; and while the author wants to be as panoramic and breezy as the original writers, a little more depth would have done no harm. For the sweep, the breeze and view of the horizon—we can go to the originals.
By the conclusion, Fussell manages to pull it out of the vague-overview category, though. It’s not really a stretch to say that by opening up the category’s concerns, he gets to the heart of it.
”To emphasize the presence of the essay element in the travel book is to risk not noticing sufficiently this genre’s complex relation to adjacent forms which also require two words to designate them: war memoir, comic novel, quest romance, picaresque romance, pastoral romance... [each having] something of the same “travel” element attached to it, the same obsession with topography and the mystery of place... ...Successful travel books effect a triumphant mediation between two different dimensions: the dimension of individual physical things on the one hand, and the dimension of universal significance on the other... The travel book authenticates itself by the sanction of actualities—ships, trains, hotels, bizarre customs, odd people, crazy weather, startling architecture, curious food. At the same time, it reaches in the opposite direction ...” ...more
Here in Part II we're carried along with the journey begun and paused at the edges of the Danube in Fermor's A Time Of Gifts. There are most of the asHere in Part II we're carried along with the journey begun and paused at the edges of the Danube in Fermor's A Time Of Gifts. There are most of the aspects of that volume here, too, and with a far more exotic landscape, that of Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria rather than the preceding western and central Europe.
Make no mistake, though, any of this completely willful and enigmatic journey is a fascinating story, taking place as it does in the pivotal era that was 1934 and freely, unconcernedly being the early impressions of a very young man just seeing the world. What a world it was, and Fermor valiantly tries to bring it back alive.
What isn't immediately apparent here is how the distancing (lists, explanations, updates and overall a lot of what couldn't have been known by the young author) effects arise, and for that we are glad to have the introduction by veteran travel writer Jan Morris. Whereas A Time Of Gifts relies on journals and ready, firsthand memories, this volume wasn't published till the eighties, and is cobbled together from fragmented or secondary sources. So inescapably we have the informed, worldly reflections of the elder author in his seventies re-assembling this account, and while the fact-checkers may be much happier here for that reason, the voice, and the stay-up-all-night-in-the-magic-spell-of-europa spirit ... is nearly gone.
We have here a strange brew of the young man's pathways and adventure, as filtered through the older man's better knowledge and reflection. Even still, occasionally the sheer outrageous scale of the endeavor will break through, as when, coming down out of the wolf-ridden Carpathians, we encounter the 'Baths Of Hercules', a posh spa hideaway in the mountains where formal wear for dinner and waltzes on the terrace are the norm. Or as Fermor is getting thru yet another later-life listing of what he might have seen, the present of the narrative crashes through and a Perseid meteor shower rains down above the high Balkans. Immediately, the old-man author has shut up and we gaze enraptured with the young man's eyes again.
In his defense, Fermor makes oblique apologies that note lost journals and notebooks, and we do seem to have more wine and women in this act of the play, too. I'm giving this four stars even though it doesn't deserve it, as much to say that Time Of Gifts... or the grand, fearless, reckless nerve of the whole project... deserved much more. And as with that first volume, sometimes the planets just align for Fermor, and we are carried right along :
It was getting late. The sun left the minaret, and then the new moon, a little less wraith-like than the night before, appeared on cue in a turquoise sky with a star next to it, that might have been pinned there by an Ottoman herald. With equal promptitude, the hodja's [muezzin's] torso emerged on the balcony under the cone of the minaret. Craning into the dusk, he lifted his hands, and the high and long-drawn-out summons of the izan floated across the air, each clause wavering and spreading like the rings of sound from pebbles dropped at intervals into a pool of air. I found myself still listening and holding my breath when the message had ended and the hodja must have been half-way down his dark spiral ...
Let's not forget that the object of this long walk across Europe in 1934 is the former Byzantine capital, Constantinople, the gate to the mysteries of The Orient. Here by the end of book two of three, we've only gotten near the goal, and we leave off there, with Book Three still not published here in May of 2013. Fermor has passed away, and there are all kinds of rumors about whether he ever finished Book Three. But there are also some indications that something will be published by Fall 2013. It has a name, The Broken Road, and it has, needless to say, interested readers ...
A bit light on period detail (of which there can't be too much if you're really reading for that) but there is enough here to transport the reader toA bit light on period detail (of which there can't be too much if you're really reading for that) but there is enough here to transport the reader to a different world, that of 1914. A world where cannon and horse fought world wars, weather and season were uppermost on the minds of the warriors, and in which the idea of "spy" wasn't quite set as a genre.
This is apparently direct documentary reportage, and suffers (a little bit) by comparison to it's fictional competitors, Erskine Childers, say, or John Buchan. But the fact is that this is a template for those kinds of narratives, an outline of the strange events and the nagging goblins that inhabit men's minds when the world is at war. Geoffrey Pike's voice in the book is kind of endearingly chipper and defiantly blasé in the closest of calls; he's a kind of Great War teenage ancestor of future Clandestine Britannia, ala Mr.Bond.
So not a Thirty Nine Steps or a Riddle Of The Sands but a forerunner of same. The harrowing chase across the moor, the forced-march across frozen night-landscapes, the endurance tests where the protagonist must swear to a fraudulent claim and appear nonchalant... We'd never get to Eric Ambler or Ian Fleming without the originals like Mr Pike. ...more
"Östlich von Wien, fängt der Orient an." -Metternich .. East of Vienna, the Orient begins ..
Off the start-mark at a run, A Time Of Gifts begins as a yo"Östlich von Wien, fängt der Orient an." -Metternich .. East of Vienna, the Orient begins ..
Off the start-mark at a run, A Time Of Gifts begins as a youthful dash toward freedom and maybe even civilization itself, exiting deliriously from the stuffy attic-rooms of academia. From a gritty mooring by London Bridge, Fermor hitches a ride on a tramp steamer and arrives in the Hook Of Holland, eager to explore one continent right after the next in a headlong rush. Although this is an overland journey, it is the rivers and waterways that draw the narrative, from the Lowland canals toward the Rhine and then to the Danube :
Even before I looked at a map, two great rivers had already plotted the itinerary in my mind's eye: the Rhine uncoiled across it, the Alps rose up and then the wolf-harbouring Carpathian watersheds and the cordilleras of the Balkans; and there, at the end of the windings of the Danube, the Black Sea was beginning to spread its mysterious and lopsided shape; and my chief destination was never in a moment's doubt. The levitating skyline of Constantinople ...
Itinerary in hand, Fermor proceeds to track a serpentine and unpredictable path through the northern Europe of 1933. It is an adventure, and both hazard and history are close behind. What's very interesting here is that Fermor is not only learning his fundamentals, in the travel sense and the culture sense, but he's learning to write as he goes. There is a lot of time on the hike, we gather, to develop both themes and organizing principles, creating and editing as he walks. Often the bleak lost-in-blizzard moment is deftly transitioned to the lap-of-luxury moment, by mere chance and good luck, as is customary in this kind of 30's memoir.
Some of the episodic accounts aren't really successful, but come off as charmingly youthful and romantic. The reader is altogether captivated by a cosmopolitan Baron in Slovakia; likewise the brief but ecstatic interlude where our author is adopted by Anna and Lise, age-similar housesitters in Stuttgart, where their absent father's grammophone and vintage wines were included. Sometimes, the unsuccessful moments go without an excuse, though, and the text reads like a long list in a tourism book.
Occasionally, though, the stars align, subject meets interpreter on a level landing, and Fermor goes on perfect, soaring autopilot... as with this passage on Danube School artist Albrecht Altdorfer :
"Here, at the northern most point of the river, a hundred and thirty miles upstream from the Abbey of St. Florian, the ancient stronghold of Ratisbon spans the Danube with a bridge that rivals all the great bridges of the Middle Ages. Those battlements and steeples, wrapped in myth, dominate one of the most complete and convincing mediaeval cities of the world. Anyone who has wandered in these streets can understand why the holy pastorals which his colleagues turned into dialect folk-tales, shift, under his hand, into the mood and the scenery of legends. The episodes of scripture—which are nowhere more splendidly manifest than in his great altarpiece at St. Florian’s—are suddenly clothed in the magic and the glamour of fairy stories; fairy stories, moreover, where the Mantua-Antwerp axis, uncoiling brilliant strands into the fabric, has been most potently spinning. Under the gothic interlock of cold whites and greys that canopy hallowed scenes in Flanders, the Biblical characters, clad in robes of lilac and mulberry and lemon and the shrill sulphur hue Mantegna loved, evolve and posture with convincing Renaissance splendor. Pontius Pilate—velvet-clad, mantled in dark sapphire, tasseled and collared like an Elector and turbanned like a Caliph—twists his sprinkled hands between ewer and salver under a magnificent baldaquin of scumbled gold. Through the lancets and the cinquefoils and beyond the diamond panes, the fluted rocks ascend and the woods and cliffs and cloud-banks of Gethsemane frame a luminous and incandescent sunset that presages Patinir. Though the centurions are knights in dark armour, no mortal smith ever wrought those helmet-wings and metal flourishes and knee-flutes and elbow-fans, even on the anvils of Augsburg and Milan in Maximilian’s reign. It is the fabulous harness that flashed later on every pre-raphaelite Grail-seeker and greaved and gauntleted the paladins in the Coloured Fairy books. Shifting from Divinity to sacred fable, the same ambience of magic isolates lonely knights among millions of leaves and confronts St. Eustace and the stag with its antlered crucifix, in a forest full of hazards and spells."
This is a young writer still learning his craft, but Place and Time have conspired to give us a near-perfect piece of Period Travel in this book; this one leaves off at Hungary, so much more from this ambitious road trip still to come. ...more
Slightly meandering, mild-mannered memoir of Blofeld's years in pre-Mao china of the thirties & forties. In his younger, more curious years, he haSlightly meandering, mild-mannered memoir of Blofeld's years in pre-Mao china of the thirties & forties. In his younger, more curious years, he has interesting encounters with the Singsong Girls of the Flower-ships, as well as the opium pipe. As things move on, they get more academic, though occasionally a rivetting meta-moment occurs in the higher reaches of Toaist practice.
This narrative seems to lose color a bit as it attempts to 1. steer away from the political thunderclouds in China in that day, 2. find paths that navigate all bottlenecks presented by the tricky intersections of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and 3. generally avoid criticism, never ever disparaging any aspect of Chinese culture, social practice, class structure or milieu... All presumably well-intentioned observances, but together they manage to drain the atmosphere a bit, and it's color and atmosphere that I tend to value most in a Period Travel memoir.
All that being said, this is a gentle and eventually winning account of China in the early twentieth century, standing on the doorstep of spectacular upheaval. Blofeld is on a spiritual quest here, too... He's not exactly here for anthropology, and by the end of the tale we get his vision a little better :
Modern science can now provide evidence for this idea of the primordial unity of all manifest form, throughout the universe. It has been demonstrated by science that matter (form) and energy (formless) are interchangeable, and that they both share the same essential vibrational nature. Einstein's famous equation E=MC²defined the dynamic commutability between these two dimensions of existence. Furthermore the advanced science of quantum physics now agrees with the fundamental hypothesis of ancient Eastern Cosmology that the entire manifest universe is formed and shaped by consciousness, and that nothing whatsoever exists beyond the infinite luminous field of primordial awareness.
It's possible that some of the distant quality here comes from the fact that the English Blofeld wrote this account in Chinese, his second language, for a Chinese readership-- and for this book his protégé has translated it back to English. ...more
As an official part of his education, a traditional European young man of means and expectations would take himself off on a 'grand tour' of the ContiAs an official part of his education, a traditional European young man of means and expectations would take himself off on a 'grand tour' of the Continent, in the years of the 18th and 19th centuries. It would be understood that he would return with some acquaintance of the fine arts, the salons of society and their denizens -- the disparate and unsettling ways of the world, more or less. And then, having had a mad dash at life, the courtly, bohemian, and maybe even not-so-reputable ways of the continent-- return to promptly immerse himself in the lifelong drudgery of administering his father's concerns.
Here's the journal of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret at twenty-four, long before his self-induced transformation into the architect and design-polemicist Le Corbusier, eventually one of the founders of International Style in the 1920s.
But this is 1911, and the world is a Nineteenth Century one. And Journey To The East is most notable, I think, as a period piece, an illustration of a time we can't imagine any longer, as encapsulized by a young man who was enraptured by it (and a little by his own impressions). At the turn of the century, The East meant only Central Europe and beyond, so an itinerary starting in Berlin and headed down the Danube toward the Balkans fit the bill.
Jeanneret's voice isn't so much unique as it is of-it's-day, and highly impressionable; orientalisms abound --add to the mix the idea of who he would become, and there's an intriguing, slightly arriviste charge to the account. A world where electricity, the idea of 'traffic', and even the telephone are conspicuously absent-- becomes a kind of Conradian up-river affair for Little Corbu; the imagery becomes a bit hallucinatory at times, matched by long stream-of-consciousness passages.
But he also offers beautiful little line-drawings of what he sees all along the way, showing how he sees it, with a young man's enchantment in the framing. The sketches are well-proportioned, and draw the eye; exactly the effect a later traveller would attempt with photographs, but made by a draftsman who trusts his hand to take visual notes accurately.
It must be said, though, that all the while he really wants to go native and can't quite manage the full leap of faith. Until he sees the Parthenon that is, whereupon truth, golden dimensions, and angels singing seal the deal. Odd, though, that the resulting epiphanies are had at the shrine of the Western Ideal, in what is titled a journey to the East...
There is some discussion as to whether Jeanneret had met Gropius & Mies van der Rohe in Berlin before he left, where he had worked for an architect called Peter Behrens; whether he had yet seen the world in the stark terms of Toward A New Architecture, his vertical assualt on style. But it doesn't matter; there is also the engaging thing of seeing him come alive to the cultures he encounters in direct response to what they build. His discussion of the Hagia Sophia is still very illuminating to the western reader, and the Parthenon experience surely has resonant chords for many.
Another aspect here is that this is before the war and the Paris peace accords of 1919, which would redraw the world; rather than boundaries as we know them, Jeanneret travels through what was the Austro-Hungary of the Hapsburgs, and into the Ottoman empire of the last caliphate. Bounded on the far shore by British East Africa, and on the eastern edge by the crumbling old Persian empire, this Grand Tour takes him through long-forgotten conceptions of the world, dim memories now of a euro-centric globe.
Here's a snip of the bazaar at Stamboul in Constantinople [Istanbul:] :
Here, in effect, is Sesame, because one discovers and dislodges from beneath the piles of coarse earth the most sumptuous nuggets of the East, from the Islam of Europe to as far as the jungles, brought here piece by piece across the sands, mountains, and brush by solemn caravans. It is a labyrinth (Baedecker recommends that one carry a compass), a maze of arcades, without a glimpse of sky for several kilometers. It is closed in, suffocationg, and secluded. Here and there tiny windows pierce the low barrel vault, and yet it is well lit. It is deserted at night and frenzied during the day. At sunset, the heavy doors are drawn, enclosing the fabulous wealth, and the great clamor subsides. Upon arriving, forewarned by the cries of these strange people, I could always imagine a metal god seated on the lintel of the door, rubbing his fat gold belly with both hands. His lips would be greedy , and his forehead would recede like that of an orangutan. His nostrils would be flared, and his gaze restless. He would have long donkey's ears. The hierophant sits there and in his slimy manner overhears the glib and deafening voices; he has the same features as his master, and as for his claws he has stolen them from the oldest of the bridges tolltakers, who died of grief. He speaks all languages, badly, is dressed like us, and his hair is fuzzy... Meanwhile, carpets are not retrieved from their fall, nor embroideries from their swoon, nor pottery, now rendering every movement perilous. You are utterly seduced by a young persian girl dressed in scarlet, beneath a golden canopy in an Ishfahan garden with tulips and hyacinths everywhere.... Truly, you cannot be cold-blooded any longer; there are too many crazy things before your eyes, too many delightful evocations that throw you into a foolish stupor. You are intoxicated; you cannot react at all. This torrent, this flood, this avalanche of charlatanism brutalizes and annihilates you.
Anyway, a little bit trying at times, irrationally exuberant at others, the reader who wants to enjoy this has to go with the flow, both of the journey, and Jeanneret's purplish rendering thereof... Well worth the trip, worth relaxing overly-strict tolerances for tight prose, allowing, even appreciating, the self-conscious persona of Youth. "Have a look at this, I'm in on the joke, I get the picture", the narrator tells us again and again. Well, yes, nearly that. Lovely period-travel memoir, in the knowing voice of youth.
As the most visibly catastrophic wreckage of the Cold War, the gray horror of life in the German Democratic Republic-- East Germany--- was carefully cAs the most visibly catastrophic wreckage of the Cold War, the gray horror of life in the German Democratic Republic-- East Germany--- was carefully choreographed by the security apparatus, the Stasi. The basics of state control were expanded to previously unimaginable heights with the Stasi's network of informants and secret police.
Anna Funder's participatory journalism brings the ghosts of this bizarre surveillance state out to tell their own story in the vivid Stasiland, which manages to be intriguing while astringent, morbidly fascinating. There are the grisly details like the Smell Jars and Radiation Tagging (too reminiscent of recent story of Mr Litvinenko), the nightmare of the Wall and the upside-down logic of the Security State. But the unforgettable moments are down to Human Nature in its very worst guises, always able to invent something a little worse or more manipulative for the right perk, price, or contraband slab of meat.
Like some "Crucible" of backbiting and vicious rumor gone viral, the intricate methodology of the Stasi to 'turn' the citizenry to inform against itself was unrivalled, it seems. In a poisoned atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, even innocent defensive postures were reconfigured to appear sinister, worthy of a "report" to the guardians, rewarded and duly noted in the files.
Ms Funder's somber account keeps true to the timbral properties-- the murk, must, and banality of the regime. The GDR period's emotional tenor of stifled hysteria, the tactile sense of the presence of cornered animals in every corner, is rendered by the prose style very directly. But as with any once-elaborate system in steep and irreversible decline, there's an odd beauty alongside the rot... There is a kind of enigmatic Home-For-The-Holidays feel here, but only if the holiday in question is another workday, and the home is Orwell's 1984.
More of a magazine essay than anything else, a super-short contemplation of New York City by EB White, living in the now-long-gone Lafayette Hotel durMore of a magazine essay than anything else, a super-short contemplation of New York City by EB White, living in the now-long-gone Lafayette Hotel during a summer heatwave, in 1948. A small masterpiece of concision and sense of place.
A rare case, too, of the quality and the texture of the prose somehow precisely matching the subject and the period. Portrays the old, massive, nothing-like-it-in-the-world New Deal NYC. Where the old Queen Mary liner announced her arrival to the whole west side with foghorn blasts. Where the Empire State building was the tallest of the tall. Where Rockefeller Center and Radio City were wonders of the world. Where FdR era suits met secretarial skirts, and shared the isle, on a lark. In the Park. In the dark. Or on the Great White Way, in a City that never slept.
Well worth the read, something everybody who has been to NY even once will appreciate. ...more
With Ella Maillart's Forbidden Journey, the story of an unlikely mission from Peking across the Gobi & Taklamakan deserts, across the Himalayas anWith Ella Maillart's Forbidden Journey, the story of an unlikely mission from Peking across the Gobi & Taklamakan deserts, across the Himalayas and into the India of the British Raj in the thirties. Accompanied by Maillart, Fleming gives his own affable, humourous account of this unforgettable, spectacular journey. ...more
With Fleming's The News From Tartary a unique journey by train, truck and on horse/pony/camel-back across the Chinese Turkestan of the 1930s. This isWith Fleming's The News From Tartary a unique journey by train, truck and on horse/pony/camel-back across the Chinese Turkestan of the 1930s. This is the partner volume to Fleming's book. Two viewpoints, one unbeleivable nature hike. ...more
Slightly rickety account of the remarkable 20th century life of Joseph Needham, Cambridge Master and author of the mega-sized multi-volume Science &Slightly rickety account of the remarkable 20th century life of Joseph Needham, Cambridge Master and author of the mega-sized multi-volume Science & Civilisation In China. In a wildly stormy life that veered from being a founding father of UNESCO to meetings with Mao & Zhou EnLai before there was a Peoples Republic, Mr Needham saw quite a lot. Needham was in a pivotal position during the many phases of the origin of Modern China as a British Foreign Office scientific representative, arriving in the convulsions of 1943.
What becomes Needham's life work is his finding that many of the discoveries and inventions routinely accredited to the West were in fact in everyday use in China years, decades, and sometimes centuries before their appearance in the West. Moveable type for the printed page, for example, was not truly a Guttenburg innovation, and this is just one on a long list of Chinese firsts.
While this narrative has an unquestionably brilliant subject to chronicle, there is something missing in the resulting account, which too often devolves into paragraphs of lists and similarly bland reportage.
This was too recent and too spectacular a life-lived to have so few firsthand sources, so removed an effort, as with this biography. A College Master at Cambridge who strode across academia's greens in his Chinese Scholar's gown, who had both a proper British wife and (just down the street) a Chinese mistress... would seem to merit a slightly less 'matter-of-fact' treatment than given here. In fairness, though, it must have been a balancing act to keep it non-sensational.
So, an astonishing life, in an overall workmanlike but uninspired narrative. Still very much worth a read. ...more