It’s fair to say that I take what previously I would have called a guilty pleasure in reading books about foreigners who go to France (or Spain) and rehabilitate dilapidated farms. It’s a guilty pleasure because of course there’s a level of exoticising what for the people these foreigners encounter is just their daily life, and a degree of Othering that I’m uncomfortable with. However, I’m not calling such things guilty pleasures anymore. Problematic, perhaps. It is a pleasure; I’ll not call it guilty anymore. If I keep the problematic nature in mind, and remind myself that these are deliberately romanticised narratives, then I think I’m doing ok.
The Olive Season is the second in a series. I’ve not read the first; I found this in a second hand shop, and while I considered buying the first I decided it didn’t matter. All I need to know is that Carol fell in love with Michel and they bought a near-derelict farm with a few olive trees. Right, got it.
Basically if you’ve read one of the Tuscany books you have a sense for what happens here. Water issues! Planting problems! Madcap guests! However things do get awfully real, too, as Carol experiences some very real and significant tragedy. Her honesty in the way she discusses these in the book is bracing, and a bit heart breaking, and could probably be a bit much for those who have experienced similar things. And it’s appropriate too, since this is a memoir, not a story of a farm. As someone on the outside of such things I respected the way Carol worked through some of the problems in her writing, and the way she also integrated her discussion of the farm, and what it means to her, and how physically working helped her headspace.
Look, the book is set in Provence, and written by someone who loves the place. Of course it makes it sound like it’s a marvelous place to be. There’s no denying the hard work that’s involved in the olive farm, and Carol doesn’t try to downplay it, but nonetheless… she can’t, and the reader can’t, get away from the fact that: this is Provence, and that will always have certain overtones for the non-Provençal.
I enjoyed this book a lot as a holiday read. I won’t go out of my way to find the other books, but if I find them by serendipity I’ll happily grab them.
By golly I love the way Jan Morris writes. She constructs beautiful, evocative sentences. Describing the approach to Wells: “As one descends from the spooky heights of Mendip, haunted by speleologists and Roman snails, it lies there in the lee of the hills infinitely snug and wholesome.” On travelling to China for the first time: “Of course, wherever you are in the world, China stands figuratively there, a dim tremendous presence somewhere across the horizon, sending out its coded messages, exerting its ancient magnetism over the continents.” I’m no writer; I don’t have the ability to assess what makes great prose great. (There’s a great piece of graffiti near my house that says “I know art, but I don’t know what I like.”) I do know that I enjoy Morris’ writing, that I find her descriptions absorbing and sometimes moving, and that some of the books I read would be improved by their authors having read and considered Morris’ style.
Separating the form from the content should not be read as a negative about the content, don’t worry.
The first essay is about Sydney, and as an Australian this was really, really interesting. I felt there were parts that Morris exaggerated, and I was a bit uncomfortable with “Kev,” the white-collar worker standing in for Everyday Aussie, and she pokes a bit of fun at Sydney attitudes and expectations. Now, all of these are standard in a travel essay, sure. But I’ve never read a travel essay by a professional like Morris about somewhere that I kind of know – I don’t actually know Sydney very well, but Morris writes about Sydney as representative of the entire country (to which true Melbournians recoil in horror…). So I enjoyed the essay – she says some very true things, very appropriate things, and of course it’s well written. But it also meant that when I read her other essays, of places I have never been (of every other place she mentions, I’ve only been to Wells), I was aware that a native of those places may well have the same reaction as I did to the Sydney essay. Which made for an intriguing experience: not completely immersed in the narrative or the description, but interrogating her assumptions and elisions and emphases. For this sort of writing, I think my experience was actually enhanced.
This is Morris’ fourth book of essays. None of them have dates attached; the publication details simply explain that most appeared in Rolling Stone, a few in other publications. It came out in 1984 and there’a reference somewhere to 1977, so I presume they all date to that general time; the historian in me really wants dates on each one! There are several essays on parts of the US: my zero interest in Las Vegas succeeded in plummeting even lower, although Santa Fe intrigues; a few on Europe – she’s not a huge fan of Stockholm yet somehow I am now more interested in going, and Cetinje in Yugoslavia (now Montenegro) absolutely fascinates. And the Indian and Chinese essays are probably the most intriguing, and most problematic, in terms of how people and places are viewed.
I love Morris’ work and may well make it an ambition to collect most of what she has written.
I have never, in my life, read a book two times in a row. Until I read Hav. This was possible because Hav is not a novel in the ordinary sense. It’s a travel memoir to a fictional place that could easily exist; it’s a meditation on East meeting West, on history and culture and modernity; it’s about being a stranger in somewhere simultaneously familiar and alien. And it has some of the most wonderful prose I’ve come across.
This section from Hav illuminates many of the aspects that make the book so wonderful.
[The boats] often use their sails, and when one comes into the harbour on a southern wind, canvas bulging, flag streaming, keeling gloriously with a slap-slap of waves on its prow and its bare brown-torsoed Greeks exuberantly laughing and shouting to each other, it is as though young navigators have found their way to Hav out of the bright heroic past. (p66)
This. It’s beautiful, for a start. It suggests that conjunction of somewhere existing both in the present and, somehow, in the past that makes Hav so intriguing. And it’s quoted back at its author in the second part of the book, as an indication of her own understanding of Hav.
(We’re all about the meta.)
Two thirds of the book was written and published in the 1980s. According to Ursula le Guin, who wrote the introduction, it led to people going to their travel agents looking to book a ticket to Hav because it was so convincing. Now, it really is convincing, but at the same time there are aspects that make it quite clear that Hav is a fiction. Like the fact that you’ve never seen it on a map, maybe? I was confused by that until I look Jan Morris up, and discovered that she has written many actual travel books (under that name and as James Morris). So I concede that perhaps if you knew her earlier work, you could be forgiven for some confusion if not quite that much. Anyway, the last third was written in the early 21st century, and sees Morris going back to Hav after the Intervention – which was just starting as she left last time. And this allows Morris to explore a whole other aspect of culture and development.
“Last Letters from Hav” are entries written between March and August, with Morris arriving in Hav at the start and being bustled out as trouble brews at the end. In between, she does what any travel writer does: she stays in interesting places, she visits the important and not-so-important places in the city, she talks to people, she reminisces about what other people have said about the place. I’ve been having a great deal of difficulty writing this review because the books is absolutely busting at the scenes with themes, with commentary, with historical (a)musings. There’s multiculturalism and colonialism and identity – the losing and finding and historical nature of and doubt around. There’s appropriation on a massive scale – see previous note – and getting on with the business of life. There’s ordinary mystery and profound mystery, religion and politics and architecture and this book had me in RAPTURES. Can you tell?
Hav is a city-state in a world that really doesn’t have them any more. It’s got an uneasy relationship with Turkey, its only (?) land neighbour, but a seemingly thriving one with certain Arab nations and perhaps the Chinese. It’s basically meant to be somewhere like the Dardanelles – although the geography isn’t quite right – because it’s a big deal that this was where Achilles and his Myrmidons came ashore. And the Spartans too, apparently. And, later, Arab merchants, and Venetian merchants, and it’s one of very few venerable Chinese merchant settlements outside of Asia. See how Morris twists history and makes it just believable? There really were moments where I could believe this was real. Because her discussion of history is modern, too: the Brits wanted to colonise it; Hav was shared by France, Italy and Germany under a League of Nations mandate; Hitler might have visited, and Hemingway did. Morris talks to people who are flotsam from this era; and also to a man claiming to be the 125th Caliph. Also a casino manager, members of the ‘troglodyte’ race who live in the nearby mountains, the local philosophers, and some bureaucrats. She visits odd monuments, the Conveyor Bridge (I admit I had to ask someone whether that was actually possible, because I was teetering on the edge of What Do I Believe?), and the Electric Ferry. I don’t believe that this book could have been written by anyone other than an established travel writer, because her eye and ear for (even imaginary) detail is breathtaking.
The second section is much shorter and deals with only a week or so, some two decades later when Morris is invited back to Hav after the Intervention. “Hav of the Myrmidons” does all of the same things as “Last Letters,” with additional meditation on the nature of change and tourism and the impossibility of an outsider ever really understanding the internal workings of a foreign city. There’s also the inevitable nature of change, and the sinister side of globalisation with imported labour and native populations made to relocate – which, intriguingly, is given a possibly positive spin. Morris’ books is either revered or believed to be banned in Hav, depending on who she speaks to (it’s one of the bureaucrats who reveres it that quotes the passage above at her, as part of the reason for why she was asked back). But things have changed. Most of the glorious many-centuries-in-one-place nature of former Hav is gone, replaced with new and forbidding and disorienting architecture. Like the massive Myrmidon tower, surmounted by an M – but no one really knows who or what the Myrmidons are, or meant to be, in this context. Some things of old Hav have been retained, but sanitised, bent to a new understanding of the world. Tourists are allowed, but only in a defined space – which leads to another bit I wanted to quote, because I think it’s an indication of a travel writer’s despair:
“The thing is… one feels so safe here. The security’s really marvellous, it’s all so clean and friendly, and, well, everything we’re used to really. We’ve met several old friends here, and just feel comfortable in this environment. We shall certainly be coming again, won’t we darling?” “Oh, a hundred percent. I think it’s bloody marvellous what they’ve achieved, when you remember what happened here.” (p196)
Thus spake an older English couple with no intention of leaving the resort.
Hav puts me in mind of China Mieville’s The City and the City, and Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, both of which do a similar thing with inventing places that ring so amazingly true. The Priest is clearly fictional but written as a travel book; the Mieville is a fiction but set in a city that purports to be real. I guess Hav conflates the two.
This review gets nowhere near what I really want to say about Hav. I am so glad that it exists, and that I have read it. And now I will force it into the hands of anybody I possibly can… although I admit to some trepidation that maybe other people won’t like it as much as I do. (I haven’t been able to look at any Goodreads reviews for that reason.) I may have used the word intriguing too many times, and I may have given in to hyperbole, but I don’t care. I love this book and want to hold it to my heart FOREVER.
(Another of the books that has been languishing on my shelves for far too long, unread. WHAT OTHER GEMS ARE WAITING FOR ME??)
You can get Hav from Fishpond.
Not that you’ll notice much of a difference, oh my enormous audience, but there will be a hiatus here for a while.
If you don’t know why and would like to, drop me a comment with an email address and I’ll tell you (and delete the comment so you don’t get trolled by the Nasty Spam Trolls who infest my comments usually). Don’t worry, it’s nothing bad!
The Little Lady Agency, by Hester Browne
This is not the sort of book I would usually read – really, really not. However… I was looking for a third to round out my group, and this caught my eye. I read the first couple of pages (not, like a friend of mine, a few pages in the middle of the book, randomly chosen), and I thought it looked quite funny. So I bought it. And I read it, and I really quite enjoyed it. It’s that classic tale of someone pretending to be someone they are not – but in this case, being paid for it. The characters were amusing; I liked that it was from the first person, and I really liked that Melissa is very definitely not Bridget Jones (which I refuse to see or read), because she is generally fine with her appearance, only grousing about it as much as a ‘normal’ chick. It was terribly funny to see the portrayals of the upper-class girls and boys: I wonder if the author herself is from the upper echelons… I would be surprised if she didn’t at least have some real contact with it. It got a little bit wearisome in parts, with Melissa worrying about whether she loves someone and if he likes her or not, but the wearisomeness didn’t realistically last that long. I liked it, overall; I can see that this could potentially have a sequel, but I’m not convinced that I would read it.
And I haven’t read the other two yet, so I will post about them when I have.
Have added a new link to the ever-expanding side bar: but how on earth could I have forgotten to add World Hum? One of my favourite ever websites, their tag is “travel dispatches from a shrinking planet.” I’ve read some of the coolest stories thanks to this site, and found some of the weirdest websites (travel by plane a lot? There’s a site to take pictures of your in-flight meal, post and rate them, or a site that tells you the best airports for sleeping in). Love it.
Went to Adelaide on Friday night, for my sister’s 18th the next day. It’s always nice to go home, although in no real sense is it my home; I haven’t lived there for almost exactly 20 years (scary; I just realised that), and I certainly haven’t lived in there current house. However, the fam is there, and more importantly the bed I’ve had since I came out of a cot is there, and very nice to sleep in it was too.
The party was fun: good way to see all the rellies (except the aunt who is in WA) at one time. It was, however, a bit freaky then to go out that night to a bar… with my sister (and her friends). I’m not sure whether I feel old or just bemused at the thought that my little squister is old enough to go out to pubs legally. I think it’s jsut weird. It got even weirder when the bro joined us… all three kids out drinking alcohol together?? Bizarre.
Went to Borders before church; browsed their 75% off table. I don’t know whether I was actually meant to get 75% off the sale price marked on the front of the books… but I did.
Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?
Love it. Tom Holt is often funnier than Terry Pratchett. So literary… so wonderful… look out for the Milk Board… at the price, could simply not be passed up.
A Parrot in the Pepper Tree
I’ve been looking around a bit for this, because I have read Driving over Lemons, Chris Stewart’s first, and I really liked it. It’s about an English couple who decide to go and live on a farm in Andalucia (hmmm… trend… travel-ish books… not that I’m unhappy here, of course).
The Botany of Desire
“A plant’s-eye view of the world,” apparently – apples, potatoes, marijuana (is that really “integral to our everyday lives”?) and tulips, and how they have “survived by satisfying one of humankind’s most basic desires.” I’m a little sceptical of this, but interested to read the histories of the four.
Drinking Midnight Wine
Simon Green… again, love it… have read part of one of his series, Deathstalker, but reluctant to continue because someone (Kate) told me it has a tragic end. Eventually I will have to, because it keeps plaguing me. This promises to be dark and magicky too.
Dan Simmons. I’ve read a book set after this one, not realising it was an ‘after the first set’ book, and I loved it – I almost cried when I finished it, knowing I had both books before and after to find and read. Sad but true. He’s excellent. Actually not a sale book, but I suddenly thought of it and had to get it.
I’m reading his Genghis Khan at the moment, and it’s as fantastic as the others. Different, though: he’s not in charge of this one (it got hijacked by other people). Still fascinating… so much to know about Mongolia, and so little people seem to care.
The first I read was Marco Polo, which was good since that’s the first he did. I’ve also read his Jason and the Argonauts – it would be awesome to find the doco of that to show Yr7 students as we did mythology; Sinbad, which might be my favourite so far; and Moby Dick – both following Herman around, and finding out about Great White Other Animals and their myths. What a legend he is.
I’ve got Mum reading him too. She’s got about 10 at her uni library, of which I am fairly envious. She’s reading the one where he follows the Crusades right now, which is immediately before his Genghis trip.