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Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.

Jan Morris on truth, imagination and Trieste

Jan Morris, in a piece drawn from the archives to mark 40 years of Granta magazine, reflects on virtual reality:

It has been a dogma of my life that truth and imagination are not simply interchangeable but are often one and the same. Something imagined is as real, to my mind, as something one can touch or eat. A fanciful fear is as alarming as a genuine one, a love conceived as glorious as a love achieved. A virtual reality may only be in one’s own mind, imperceptible to anyone else, but why is it any the less true for that? Music exists before its composer writes it down.

It is easy for writers, even writers of non-fiction, to think like this. Every sentence we create we have created from nothing, and made real, and every situation has been touched up in our memory. For years I remembered clearly how the roofs of Sydney Opera House hung like sails over the harbour when I first visited the city, until it was drawn to my attention that the Opera House hadn’t been built then. Every place I ever wrote about became more and more my own interpretation of it, more and more an aspect of myself, until in the end I determined that I was the city of Trieste, and Trieste was me, and decided it was time for me to give up.

On autumn in Japan and ‘Afropeans’

I mentioned recently that Pico Iyer, whose latest book is Autumn Light, and Johnny Pitts, author of Afropean, would be speaking in London under the 5×15 banner; you can now listen to their contributions on Soundcloud — see below. There’s a 5×15 session coming up on August 4, at the Wilderness Festival in Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire,  on “our place in the natural world”; speakers will include the writer and broadcaster Nicholas Crane and Isabella Tree, whose latest book, Wilding: the Return of Nature to a British Farm, has been short-listed for the Wainwright Prize (for nature/travel writing focused on Britain).

Wendell Berry on what it is to be parochial

The New Yorker has an interview with Wendell Berry, the writer, farmer and environmentalist, in which he talks about local knowledge, embracing limits, and the exploitation of rural America. This is what he has to say on the distinction between provincialism and parochialism:

You mention in ‘The Art of Loading Brush’ that the word ‘provincialism’ has become problematic.

I was talking about this with Seamus Heaney, who I met a time or two. We had this issue in common. And he directed me to Patrick Kavanagh, who made a distinction between the parochial and the provincial. The provincial person is always looking over his shoulder to see if anybody thinks he’s provincial. This worry is really the identifying mark of provincialism. Whereas, the parochial person is always assured of the imaginative sufficiency of the parish. The local place. It’s a very beautiful way of putting it and Seamus characteristically gave an example of the man from Cork who was sending his sons forth into the world. “My boys remember: never ask a man where he’s from. If he’s from Cork, you’ll know him. If he’s not, you’ll embarrass him.” So there’s the question: Am I going to be parochial or provincial?

A ‘gateway drug’ to the work of Ellen Meloy

Until yesterday I’d never heard of Ellen Meloy, a writer from southern Utah who died in 2004. Having seen Michael Engelhard’s review on the High Country News site of her posthumously issued essay collection Seasons (Torrey House Press), and then found Annie Proulx’s preface to the collection on Literary Hub, I’ll be following Engelhard’s advice and taking the book as “a gateway drug”. Engelhard writes:

Seasons’ opening salvo, the thoughtful but hilarious “I Stapled My Hair to the Roof,” encapsulates her approach. Outspoken and passionate, Meloy skewers grandstanding, mindless consumption, militarism, patriarchy: “In pioneer times, while the men mumbled about posses and punched each other’s lights out, the grandmothers of my Anglo neighbors simply got off their horses and took care of business.” She makes an absolute gas out of much that is ghastly. Meloy’s eloquent levity, however, was no mere parlor trick; the humor sugarcoats the pills we’ll have to swallow if our planet is to heal. It threads through all of her books, even The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, her 1999 account of a nuclear road trip. Such light-handedness has been lacking in too-often dour and preachy “nature writing” ever since Edward Abbey rowed into the back-of-beyond, followed all too soon by this Bluff, Utah, philosopher-clown.

  And Proulx says:

Several of Meloy’s essays were instant classics. “Lawn” condenses everything into two fierce sentences: “Throw massive amounts of water and petrochemicals on your grassy plot, let it push up from the soil, then cut it down to nubs before it can grow up and have sex and go to seed. A lawn is an endless cycle of doomed ecology.”

An outsider on Egypt, and insiders on Appalachia

Can an outsider, even one who has spent five years in the country, tell the story of post-revolutionary Egypt? That’s a question the Egyptian writer Yasmine El Rashidi considers in The New York Times while reviewing a new book from The New Yorker contributor Peter Hessler (author, incidentally, of an excellent trilogy of books from his last post, China: River Town, Oracle Bones and Country Driving). Her conclusion: that Hessler offers “something that no Egyptian could ever really write, and in that way, he adds alternate dimensions to a story, or the stories, of this place we call home, with all the good intentions of simply his own singular viewpoint and experience”.

  Can one writer who grew up in Appalachia define the whole region? Should the place be seen only through the eyes of JD Vance and his bestseller Hilbilly Elegy (subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis”)? The answer, in a new book, Appalachian Reckoning (West Virginia University Press), is a resounding “no”. Meredith McCarroll, co-editor of the book with Anthony Harkins, says their collection of dozens of voices from the mountains is designed “to create a snapshot of a place and a time that makes it impossible to believe the idea [that] Appalachia is dead and in need of an elegy”. The website The Bitter Southerner has a piece from McCarroll and an extract from the book.

Haunted by ‘The Overstory’

Norman Maclean’s A River Runs through It, a collection of stories he didn’t start writing until he was 70, is now generally acknowledged as a mini-masterpiece, with one of the most memorable opening lines in American literature: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” It took a while, though, before he found an appreciative publisher. As one said in returning the manuscript, “These stories have trees in them.”

  How much more is that true of Richard Powers’s The Overstory (Vintage)! In this branching, twining, 600-page redwood of a novel (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and short-listed for the Man Booker)*, nine disparate people — among them a Vietnam veteran, a scientist and a video-game designer — are brought together by trees and, in a world where the felling of forests is speeding global warming, do all they can to save them. 

  “To be human,” we’re told in one passage, “is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilised on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.” No novel? This one does.

  I’ve not read any of Powers’s other work, but I gather he’s been ticked off sometimes on the ground that his novels are brainy but impersonal; all head and no heart. That criticism can’t be levelled at The Overstory, which has thoroughly believable characters — even though the author has said that the central question he is addressing is this one: “What would it take to make you give the unquestioning sacredness that you give to humanity to other things?”

  It’s a book full of memorable phrase-making: the sound of wind-shaken aspens is “polite applause”; the wood-wide web, by which individual plants are linked to one another beneath the soil, is “their underground welfare state”; campaigners are moved to action by the realisation that “We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.”

  The Overstory as a whole is a reminder — and I’ve pinched this from the author — that there’s a dead metaphor at the heart of the word bewilderment. Since reading it, I’ve been seeing trees in an entirely different way. Hearing them differently, too. When I walk through the nearest park, there’s a new message in the wind-swished branches of an avenue of horse chestnuts. Back to Norman Maclean, who finished the title story in A River Runs through It with this line: “I am haunted by waters.” Me too. And now I’m also haunted by Powers.

*I’d read reviews, but didn’t get round to buying The Overstory until May, after Robert Macfarlane had urged me, during an interview, to read it 

Travel at the Edinburgh Book Festival

The poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie — joint winner in 2013 of the Dolman prize for travel writing with Sightlines — will offer a preview at next month’s Edinburgh International Book Festival of her new essay collection, Surfacing, due to be published by Sort Of Books in September. It’s a book in which Jamie “visits archaeological sites – a Yup’ik village at the edge of the Bering Sea, the shifting sand dunes of Westray – and mines her own memories and family history to explore what surfaces and what connects us to our past and future”.

  Also on the bill at Edinburgh will be:
Robert Macfarlane (joint winner of the Dolman prize in 2013 with The Old Ways), talking about his new book, Underland;
the Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, the first person to walk to both poles and climb Everest, discussing his latest book, Walking;
the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, editor of the travel anthology Wild Women;
Julia Blackburn and Simon Winder, authors respectively of Time Song, which is about Doggerland, a region that once joined the east coast of England to Holland, and Lotharingia, which tells of a long-lost area between modern-day France and Germany;
Caroline Eden, author of the prize-winning culinary tour Black Sea;
and the poet André Naffis-Sahely, editor of The Heart of a Stranger, an anthology of poetry, fiction and non-fiction about exile (Pushkin Press, August 29), featuring more than a hundred contributors from six continents.

‘Neon — the light of pure promise’

In The Spectator this week, Geoff Dyer writes about a new book of photographs by Fred Sigman, Motel Vegas (Smallworks Press):

In the 1960s especially the motel became an architectural extension of something that appears almost inconceivable except in retrospect: Las Vegas glamour. Vegas was a wonderland, and the faithful who flocked to it needed accommodation. Motel signs were a way of meeting the humdrum necessity of providing shelter without breaking the spell of the magically boozy kingdom of the Rat Pack. The essential element in this was neon: the light of pure promise (‘VACANCY’) that, if all else failed, could be filled or underwritten by naked guarantee (‘STRIPPERS’).

Rory Stewart on avoiding repetition

Is Rory Stewart a leader? He’s certainly a writer, as of course is Boris Johnson, who is reckoned at this moment to be some way ahead of him in the contest to be the next prime minister of a disunited kingdom. Either might be worth reading (once he’s been turfed out) on the experience of being inside Number 10. And Stewart — judging by a piece he wrote after winning the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize for 2005 for his book on Afghanistan — would strive to see the place with fresh eyes:

Landscapes, like sunsets, evoke our most uniform responses: writers on places repeat each other endlessly. This is, of course, particularly true of the areas in which I have worked in Central Asia – where we are always tempted to find in a diesel-choked multi-lane highway the last traces of the Silk Road or the footsteps of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. We often do this as though we were exploring relevant recent history: a writer and friend of mine described a Pakistani in Taxila as ‘exactly the kind of man who met Alexander the Great’. (I wonder if he would feel as comfortable saying a living British butcher was ‘exactly the kind of man who met Julius Caesar’.) But we face the same problem even when we try to engage not with the historical but with [the] incongruous and the contemporary.

When I was first in Herat, for example, I remember being struck by the traffic policemen at the cross-roads – their comic-opera uniforms, the absence of traffic, their truncheons and whistles. I thought I would write about this trace of the Western city as a way of getting away from ancient oriental history. But something troubled me about the image. A little later I read Peter Levi’s The Light Garden of the Angel King (1970) and found him writing: ‘Herat…a small lonely policeman in the centre of a vast deserted square, directing two donkeys and a bicycle with a majesty more appropriate for the Champs Elysées.’

Then I went back to Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1952) and found: ‘Herat…the police directing a thin trickle of automobiles with whistles and ill-tempered gestures like referees.’

Then I read Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, written in 1933: ‘Herat…the policeman at the crossroads with a whistling fit to scare the Chicago underworld.’

These identical responses were, I found, quite different from those of the Afghans with whom I was living or travelling.