I read three books while holidaying in Antarctica. Four if you count this one, Antarctica on a plate by Alexa Thomson which I bought it at our local second hand store as my only holiday research! The sub title illustrates the tone: She came, she saw, she burnt the toast. It was fun to read on the plane. The story of a Sydney woman fleeing her high powered job as a web designer to work as a cook in Antarctica. Working for a small private company that flies people in and out of the continent to pursue their own exploits be it research projects or adventures like being the first woman to cross the Antarctic. She undersells her own skills at every turn (why do women do this?!?!) But her descriptions of life during summer on the Antarctic shelf (further south from the peninsula where we were) give a very good feel for the place. The mechanics of managing daily life while leaving no footprint at all was interesting – everything is flown in and out, including all waste. They bury everything for winter and then have to unbury it the following season – stoves, tents and every other bit of equipment. As were the people she dealt with. She describes a snow storm that would be horrific to experience. And the daily challenge of feeding a lot of people under fairly trying conditions although she says she was well resourced compared to the research stations that she visits – one Russian and one Indian. There was (of course) a romance, but it was lightly and seemingly very honestly drawn. I enjoyed it. She talks of having blogged while there and I tried to find her posts but was unsuccessful.
We had plenty of time on the ship to read, especially on our way to and from the peninsula when we were not out and about on our zodiac adventures. It was nice reading in the comfy chairs outside the library. While Joseph studied up on Antarctic expeditions, science and wildlife, I threw myself into two beautiful fictional worlds. Both based on real life. The first was George Saunders’ Lincoln In The Bardo about which I had read much praise on twitter, though I avoided the reviews until after reading. It was as wonderful as anticipated. It took me some time to get into the rhythm of the language, and the concept. You need to have plenty of time to throw yourself into it right from the start. I don’t think I should say too much about that, but let you discover it yourself. Which I strongly urge you to do. It’s a completely novel approach to story telling, and very compelling. Hard to say what it is about: America? Leadership? History? Myth? It focusses on the period immediately preceding and following the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son. In the most imaginative way, firstly through contemporaneous, eye-witness accounts. Which are often conflicting on both small and large matters. Was it a full moon or a waning moon on the night of the ball? What was the behaviour of those at the ball? How was the mother dressed? How did the President appear to people? I was a bit familiar with the basic facts about this period from reading A Team of Rivals which is quoted in these sections. But the use of different narratives makes you wonder how we can ever know the truth. There is a second means of telling what happens after the death. About the father’s grief and actions. Again, based on the historical record. But this time through characters in the novel. Although not characters you normally encounter in novels. These are spirits and we learn about their own lives – ordinary people living ordinary lives at this seminal time in American history – in the process. The language is poetic. I loved this book. Worth re-reading multiple times.
The second book I read was War and Turpentine by Stefan Hermans. This was also a mix of fact and fiction. The beautiful cover captures the mood. It reads like a memoir but is in fact a novel based on the author’s grandfather’s real life. That’s a bit disorienting. But it is a lovely story. Of love and war and art. The First World War from a Belgian point of view which was new to me, although the picture it paints is familiar. Interesting on Flemish (Walloons) and French speaking Belgium divisions with discrimination against the former featuring strongly in the grandfather’s experience. The love story is beautiful, and tragic. As is its postscript. The grandfather marries the sister of the woman he truly loves. Sad. The stories of the different generations are intermingled. And both have their tragedies. Over it all, sits the turpentine. There are two painters in the family. The great grandfather who painted church murals for a living and the grandfather who paints his whole life as a hobby or is it an obsession? The story is told through the eyes of the grandson as he burrows into his family history and discovers underneath the bland surface a story about heroism in war, about love thwarted to be replaced by honour and duty and about the importance of paintings to ordinary lives. Nothing written is extraneous. A good story well told.
My next book was most appropriate for ship board reading as it is a travelogue of sorts. Danube by Claudio Magris, written in 1986 and translated in 1989 it records the author’s journey down the Danube. This is much the same journey as that taken by Patrick Fermor in his magnificent trilogy: A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and Water and The Broken Road. So when I read a glowing review of this book in the Guardian late last year, I put it on my reading list. And it is certainly worthy of the plaudits. Like the Fermor books there are lots of erudite digressions on all sorts of topics to be enjoyed. Starting from the outset where a number of pages are devoted to where the river Danube actually starts. The author provides himself with three fellow travellers to accompany him on his way, for some light relief and to provide different viewpoints occasionally. Along with geographic and scientific detail there is commentary about the rich histories of the cities and towns along the river; spanning centuries. Fierce battles, great victories, defeats that changed the course of history are recalled. There are pen portraits and potted histories of famous people who lived in these places. There are musings on poets and authors: Celine, Kafka, Goethe, Canetti, Strindberg and many others; Emperors, Kings, and Generals: the Hapsburgs, Bourbons, Ludwig I, Napoleon and more; Musicians: including Wagner, Schubert, Beethoven, Bruckner. There are references to ancient myths and legends as well as to more modern stories and novels; coming from Europe many not known to me. The author ponders the national characteristics of the different tribes that form Mitteleuropa sometimes encompassed in single countries, but often having no heed to artificial national boundaries which have been redrawn over the centuries. As in the Fermor books, it is sometimes hard to follow where and when the different cities and towns have landed in which country. Ulm was the heart of the German Holy Roman Empire we are told. It was also the home of Hans and Sophie Scholl the brother and sister executed for resisting Hitler’s regime. And where Rommell was buried with full military honours despite having been involved in the conspiracy to kill Hitler. This leads to musings about whether he was right to commit suicide and maintain the fiction he died a hero of the Reich, rather than undergo a public execution and be seen as disillusioned with the regime. Our voyage down the Danube contains many such philosophical digressions. What is courage? What is evil? Josef Mengele, the jailer-doctor of Auschwitz was born in Gunzburg, Hitler lived for a time in Linz and Eichmann visited a monastery near the river. The author visits the Lager (concentration camp) Mauthausen and contemplates the horror that occurred there. He visits the homes of people like Kafka, Canetti, Wittgenstein, Freud and contemplates their legacies. He visits palaces and places where deeds – great and terrible – have occurred. He describes markets and cafes, the daily lives of ordinary people. His erudition is worn lightly. Although dense with information, it’s an easy read. The chapters, each with a quirky title, are often very short, often illustrating a single point. Also noteworthy is the number of stories about women included, sometimes as victims but just as often as heroines of their own stories. No small achievement. At a time when Britain is exiting the European Union, this review of the history of middle Europe is a timely reminder of what this part of the world has contributed to our civilisation.
I also read a fifth book on my way home, in the aeroplane, never as comfortable as one would like. This was Shirley Hazzard’s Greene on Capri in this hardback first edition. This has long been on my reading list but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere. It is, as recommended by friends, a delight. An absolute masterclass in describing a person’s character without any hint of condescension or character assassination. And also, without making the story all about the author rather than the person being described. It’s made up of vignettes of times that the author shared with Greene on the island of Capri where they both had holiday homes. He comes across as not very nice. But in a very human way. If that makes sense. Anyway I enjoyed the book. It is short and beautifully written. I was lucky to get it at this place in Buenos Aires. Pop in to get an English language book if you are ever there.