Beyond the Guidebook: Literary Companions for Summer Travel Abroad

By Carole Reedy

“Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory.” Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot

There are many preparations to be made for a trip abroad. For me, one of the best parts of travel is the reading list I compile and complete before, during, and after the trip. Taking Barnes’ quote as inspiration, these initial steps and, later, reflection may prove most enjoyable. With this in mind, here are some literary fantasies to accompany you on your journey to unknown (or known) lands. These books may neither help nor influence your decisions concerning the best restaurant for foie gras or the hotel with the most comfortable beds, but possibly they’ll tempt your palate and enhance the anticipated enjoyment of the lands you visit.

GREAT BRITAIN

London by Edward Rutherford. This tome is a novel of the history of this stalwart city.   Mesmerizing, entertaining, and historically complete, it follows one family for several hundred centuries.

England, England by Julian Barnes (short listed for the Booker Prize in 1998). If you want to roar with laughter, read this engaging novel about an entrepreneur who starts an amusement park, its theme based on British history. Why travel all over the British Isles when you can see it all on the tiny The Isle of Wight?

To get a feel for London in the 19th century, read anything by Charles Dickens. For the countryside to the north, read Emily or Charlotte Bronte.

IRELAND

William Trevor, “Ireland’s answer to Chekhov” (The Boston Globe) and “one of the best writers of our era” (The Washington Post), writes fine literature about his native land. Fools of Fortune, which won the Whitbread Prize in 1995, does not simplify the “troubles” of the Emerald Isle as do some lighter novels, such Leon Uris’ Trinity.   Graham Greene calls Fools of Fortune Trevor’s best novel.

SPAIN

Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The title is derived from the words poor and orphaned Manuel Benitez whispered to his sister Angelica before he entered the Las Ventas plaza in Madrid to face the brave bulls: I’ll either buy you a new house or I will dress you in mourning. The book recounts the Spanish Revolution, Franco, the aftermath, and the culture of Spain through the life story of one of the world’s most famous matadors, El Cordobés (Manuel Benitez). Born in 1936 and orphaned during the civil

war, Manuel’s determination to provide for his sister results in a rags-to-riches saga. Collins and Lapierre have written perhaps the most readable and intense book about those troubled years in Spain and about the remarkable life journey of the brave, reckless, and persistent El Cordobés.

Two other books that hold a special place on the shelves of Spanish literature are Don Quixote by Cervantes (of course!) and Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway.

FRANCE

When asked, in the movie Manhattan, “Why is life worth living?” Woody Allen cites, in addition to Groucho Marx and the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Sentimental Education. The author of this 19th century French novel, Gustave Flaubert, indeed is a master of the flow and sound of language. Perhaps based on Flaubert’s own passion for an older woman, he himself describes his book as “the moral history of the men of my generation.” Set between 1847 and 1869, the novel follows the main character Frederick as he plays through his desires. It was favorite book of Kafka, and Henry James places it second to the well-known and comprehensively studied Madame Bovary.

A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel. These days we know Mantel for her popular historical novels about Thomas Cromwell and the court of King Henry VIII: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. They are excellent choices to put on your English fiction reading list. Many years before these two, Mantel wrote this tome about the French Revolution, an event that changed forever how people lived. A review in the New York Times describes her fictionalized account of one of the world’s most influential events: “A Place of Greater Safety is unquestionably a success. Ms. Mantel understands how people feel, how they react, how they think. She has the kind of long view that enables her convincingly to take up a character in childhood and bring him or her to dramatic adulthood. Just as important, she knows how to make us sympathize.”

Cross Channel by Julian Barnes. “Brits in France” is the theme of this short book of stories. From the British spinsters in the 19th century who leave their home to buy a vineyard in France to the British cricket team that travels to France during the French Revolution, each tale is fresh and remarkable. Barnes is a keen Francophile. Look for his other collection of essays about France, Something to Declare, published in 2002. (Included in this latter collection is an interesting essay about doping and athletes in the Tour de France.)   Barnes’ brilliant and clever writing brings together historical events and the people who create them in an intelligent, witty, and readable style.

ITALY

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. This is a hard book to put down, more about the people in the shadows of Venice than the locale or history. In an interview with NPR Berendt tells us why he decided to set a book in Venice: “Unusual, eccentric people. I love them. And part of that gets into something that’s very interesting about Venice. It’s something that Edith Wharton wrote, and she said once there was that clear American air where there are no obscurities, no mysteries. That’s what they do have in Venice: obscurities and mysteries.”

The mystery of the burning in 1996 of La Fenice opera house sets the stage for the unraveling of that tragedy (at one time Venice boasted 12 opera houses, La Fenice being the last survivor), but even more intriguing are the Venetian citizens and characters that season the book–from a glass blower and a chef of rat poison, to the ever-generous Peggy Guggenheim.

INDIA

There is no finer novel about this mysterious, diverse country than A Fine Balance by Rohington Mistry. It takes place during Indira Gandhi’s regime, immersing the reader in both the ‘state of emergency’ and corruption that bled the country and the resulting effect on the common people. It’s a pity that Mistry isn’t more prolific, as his writing is compelling and passionate, with strong, deep character development.

Two other books worth reading are Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy, which takes place after the partition of India and Pakistan, and Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts’ account of his exciting and literally unbelievable life in Bombay (Mumbai). Fact or fiction? Roberts says: “With respect, Shantaram is not an autobiography, it’s a novel. If the book reads like an autobiography, I take that as a very high compliment, because I structured the created narrative to read like fiction but feel like fact. I wanted the novel to have the page-turning drive of a work of fiction but to be informed by such a powerful stream of real experience that it had the authentic feel of fact.”

The most historically accurate and readable nonfiction book about the partition is Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. This duo has published several fascinating historical accounts (see Spain section, above).

RUSSIA

Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski. This Polish journalist spent his life dedicated to travel and reporting his observations about The Other. Criticized recently for “inaccuracy and fabrication,” many of his fans (including yours truly) see his role as a journalist as a subjective, not objective, venture. By writing about specific adventures and his personal deductions, Kapuscinski gives us a feel for a place that few writers provide. Imperium is an account of his 40,000-mile journey throughout the collapsing Soviet Union.

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie, Pulitzer Prize winner. Published in 1967, this is not just the story of the famous couple and the Romanov empire, but of the Russian Revolution, the destruction of a dynasty, the rise of Bolshevism, a small boy’s struggle with hemophilia, and Rasputin’s role. As Sir Bernard Pares stated, “After all, the nursery was the center of all Russia’s Trouble.”

Massie just published another huge biography, this time about Catherine the Great. The Kirkus review reflects on Massie’s ability to look into his characters: “Portraits of Catherine and other leading figures reveal a seemingly clairvoyant knowledge of their thoughts, emotions and conversation.” For this reason, among others, including immaculate research, his biographies and histories tantalize and satisfy.

UNITED STATES

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle. Class struggle, racism, and inequality in the U.S. are portrayed with intelligence laced with the right dose of emotion in this novel by one of America’s top writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. The juxtaposition of a Mexican family that ventures into the crazed world of southern California with the residents of Topanga Canyon makes for a riveting storyline of moral turpitude.

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. Now we go to the other coast of the US, where Wolfe tackles the same themes as Boyle, but this time in the den of iniquity, New York City. His journalistic style, combined with his ability to allow the reader to feel, smell, focus in on, and laugh and cry at the situations his characters create for themselves, gives readers a sense of total immersion into a place and time. This is one of Wolfe’s best efforts. Nevertheless, do not see the movie, which miscast Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith as its principal characters.

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