29th August 2013 - Jonathan Ruppin
Books we take on holiday with us can become part of the landscape of the places we visit. Our Web Editor, Jonathan Ruppin, takes the idea far too literally.
Earlier this year, I took myself off to Snowdonia for a week of isolation and tranquillity. At the heart of my plans was the desire to read Eleanor Catton's 832-page second novel, The Luminaries, utterly uninterrupted. There was a little more to it than that, but let's not get bogged down with irrelevancies like childhood memories of narrow-gauge railways, returning to 'the land of my forefathers' and a fondness for slate.
I had already read the first fifty pages: her publisher, Granta, had produced a bound sampler just before Christmas, which stopped at the most tantalising juncture: one of a group of a dozen men gathered for a clandestine meeting addresses an interloper...
He put down his brandy glass, laced his knuckles together and cracked them smartly. 'Well, then, I shall endeavour to acquaint you, Mr Moody, with the cause of our assembly.'
So by the time full-length advance proofs materialised, I was already a bookseller on a mission. Here was a writer that I felt a duty to share, and not only because of what was to come, but because of quite how taken I'd been with her debut. Rooftops needed to be scaled and perhaps not just figuratively.
The Rehearsal, had been widely acclaimed and rightly so. A novel about an affair between a teacher and a pupil is not a new idea, but Eleanor's approach was: she tells in twice, once in quite prosaic, matter-of-fact language, as events supposedly occurred and again in the form of a play a local drama group develops a year later based on the scandal, this time in far more florid, 'theatrical' language.
Since this alternative account has been rendered for the stage, with any awkward bumps in the narrative excised, the second version is the more aesthetically pleasing, this addressing the question of whether what we choose to believe is governed more by facts or by presentation. (Anyone who's ever been involved in a court case will know how vital a lawyer's storytelling skills can prove in persuading a jury of a particular version of events.)
I had been getting teasing emails from her editor, Max, late last year, hinting at how her second novel was shaping up. 'I have gone from being excited about working on such a good book with such a good writer, to feeling like Ellie truly is a genius and The Luminaries is a truly important moment in the history of the novel,' said one.
I hadn't been holed up in Lllanuwchllyn (the pronunciation of which I had checked with a Welsh colleague in case I needed to ask directions) long before I found myself feeling that Max was probably right. The book is set during New Zealand's gold rush of the 19th century and its absorbing plot unfolds like a blooming waterlily.
And the details of life in a remote outpost and the nuances of language which both make it so convincing are just part of the book's charm. It has a score of significant characters and they are brought to life, both as discrete individuals and as a compelling ensemble, through ingenious aleatoricism: Eleanor calculated the positions of the stars and planets in 1866 and derived the astrological interactions between her characters to determine their fates. What's more, the number of words in each chapter runs in harmony with the elegant mathematics of the Golden Ratio: Euclid, the Fibonacci sequence, phi, all that.
The Man Booker judges have since indicated their approval, with The Luminaries on their longlist, and most reviewers have been impressed too. All of which means it's rather a thrill to be interviewing Eleanor at the Southbank Centre on 10th September: tickets here. There's a taste of what to expect in the Q & A we've done on the Foyles website.
Flashback to Snowdonia: I decide that I shall take the rack-and-pinion train up Mount Snowdon and I am struck by an idea. I shall take The Luminaries with me, photograph the view from the summit with the book in foreground and tweet said picture with some witty observation about being unable to decide whether the view or the book are more magnificent. Unfortunately, the Welsh weather, which, up to now, has been beneficently sultry, wilfully reverts to its more familiar guise of rain coming in sideways. By halfway up, the photograph to the right is all I can see.
Cut to Iceland; screen caption: Two months later. I'm in Reykjavik with my best friend to see David Byrne and St Vincent on the first night of their European tour. (It seemed a more adventurous alternative to the Camden Roundhouse.) I had a memorable holiday in Iceland 15 years ago and BBC4's showing of Iceland's hit comedy, Næturvaktin , or The Night Shift - three oddballs work the small hours in a petrol station - and its sequels, and the subsequent activities of its lead actor, Jón Gnarr, once an anarchist punk, now the gloriously subversive Mayor of Reykjavik - reminded me that I had long meant to go back.
Stashed in my luggage, carefully sealed in bubblewrap, is a finished copy of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, a book I'd read in proof form a couple of months previously, and another of my my favourite reads of 2013. (And you can read my interview with Hannah here.)
It's set in Iceland, again in the 19th century, and is based on a true story about a woman sentenced to death for murder. The decision to execute her must be ratified by the King of Denmark (ruler of Iceland at this time) and, in the intervening months, she is sent to work on a farm, as the largely rural community has no gaol. Her unwilling hosts are initially highly suspicious, but most of the family begins to warm to her and priest sent to offer her guidance in the face of her impending execution teases out a very different story from that told to the court.
One of the reasons the book came alive for me was the author's vivid evocation of Iceland's desolate landscapes: the lunar appearance of the bare rocks (both the surface of Iceland and the Moon are largely basalt) broken up by the shifting of the Earth's crust, the treeless horizons, the storm-borne snow flurries that can snuff out lives without mercy. So, a week before publication, I resurrected my Snowdon plan and took Burial Rites on trip to Iceland.
Nature has gingerly recolonised Iceland's ravaged plains and valleys, with little more than moss creeping over a surface repeatedly torn apart and crushed hamfistedly back together. Everywhere water streams, swirls, pools and curdles into ice. A writer who leaves uninspired is no writer at all.
Following the meteorological thwarting of my plans for The Luminaries, it should have been a little surprise to me that the day I took Burial Rites on the road, buffeting gusts whipped rain across my face at almost every stop; there was even a hailstorm, which swept down the volcanic slope at whose base we stood, stinging the tops of our ears as we watched the plume of the geysir Strokkur. But each glimpse of the sun conjured a rainbow, with one spanning the famous falls at Gullfoss incandescent almost to the point of kitsch.
There was certainly an unanticipated advantage to the decision by Hannah's publisher, Picador, to create a dust jacket with a SuperMatt finish (that's the slightly rubbery texture you'll find on some new books now): I didn't have to worry too much about ending up with a lump of papier-mâché. But a few quick snaps were certainly all I was going risk.
So, the picture on the right sees Burial Rites in the foreground of the steaming Geysir (the geyser after which all geysers are named), unfortunately currently in a dormant period, and, on the right, flirting with plummeting into into the churning river Hvítá, whose two-stage 32m descent forms Gullfoss. Burial Rites duly returns to the landscape of its birth. I almost felt I should leave it there, to be absorbed by the soil or, better, engulfed by the next substantial lava flow. But it's now on another exciting journey, this time without me, in the hands of a new reader. I wish it öruggur ferð (that's Icelandic for bon voyage).
A couple of weeks ago my colleague, Sarah Gammon, blogged for us about the way the books one reads while travelling become part of the journey, something with which I suspect most readers will identify. (This does mean that there are many books on my shelves that I associate strongly with a stretch of 13 stops back and forth on the Piccadilly Line, as well my sofa or beanbag at home, but that's a matter for another blog.) My feeling, however, is that books work very hard to keep us engaged and entertained and edified and, dammit, they deserve to go on holiday too.
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