Summer Reading 2016 Continues
Zach Rabiroff, Editor
Vacations can be a time for shared experiences, rambling conversations, and deeper friendship and understanding. On the other hand, they can just make you hate your travel partner forever. Such was the case for Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, Victorian explorers par excellence, who set out in 1856 to discover the long-sought source of the Nile River. Speke and Burton seemed unlikely companions from the outset: the former was a tweedy, well-bred country squire, fond of foxhunts and Anglican sermons; the latter a puckish and intellectual freethinker, known for his intensely alienating impact on every man, woman, and child he ever met. The steady, downward trajectory of their time together is wonderfully retold in Tim Jeal’s jaunty and well-researched Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure (Yale University Press), which follows the pair on their 600-mile journey into the heart of Africa.
Whatever fondness the two men had for each other immediately began to evaporate in the sweltering African sun, as Speke’s stern morality (he disapproved of the tendency of native women to dress skimpily in 110-degree heat) clashed with Burton’s more libertine tendencies. It reached a nadir when Speke, over Burton’s objections, made a solo expedition northward to Lake Victoria — which, to his partner’s chagrin, turned out to be very likely the river source they had been looking for.
As if struck by lightning Burton was unable to marshal arguments with which to crush Speke’s effrontery. His disbelief was emotional as well as logical. How could his ill-educated subordinate, who had failed to reach the Wadi Nogal and had not even had the wit to hire a dhow on Lake Tanganyika, have suddenly seized the greatest geographical prize of all time? It seemed perverse, impossible and downright wrong. How could Burton even be sure that Speke had properly understood his Arab and African informants through the medium of [their guide] Bombay’s Hindustani? Yet even as he fought against the possibility of Speke being right, he began to fear in his guts that he might be.
By the time the two men headed home (both already wondering how best to outflank and discredit the other back in London), their mutual contempt had been supplemented by a bevy of tropical diseases, which reduced both Burton and Speke to childlike helplessness. It all coalesced into a psychedelic stew of mumblings, back-stabbings, and permanent loathing:
Early in October, Speke was struck down by a serious illness. It began with a burning sensation that felt as if he were being branded with a hot iron above the right breast. The pain moved from there to his right lung, thence to his spleen and finally settled in the region of his liver. Bombay called this affliction the ‘little irons’…He had horrible nightmares, in one of which ‘a pack of tigers, leopards and other beasts, harnessed with a network of iron hooks, were dragging him like the rush of a whirlwind over the ground,’ seeming to be avenging the hundreds of wild creatures he had shot. At times he suffered violent contractions in his limbs; and once he felt ill enough to call for pen and paper so he could write a farewell note to his family. In his delirium, Speke spilled out his resentment of Burton for his supposed accusation of cowardice at Berbera and for his treatment of his diaries.
So the next time you drive back from Disneyworld hoping never to speak with your family again, just look on the bright side: at least the Royal Geographical Society isn’t going to air your dirty laundry when you get home.
Justin Hickey, Editor
Earlier in May I spent a few days in Brea, California, visiting my father and brother. On the drive away from LAX, they pointed out the Hollywood Sign along the Santa Monica Mountains. I mentioned having heard about the sign’s decay and eventual rebuilding in the 1970s. My dad growled about the crooks in charge at the time—among them Governor Jerry Brown, I assume—and how a threat to let the sign crumble and vanish forced the state’s citizens to pay for its replacement.
For now I’ve put researching the Hollywood landmark on my Further Reading list, and have instead been enjoying a comic book series called The Fade Out, by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips. Set in 1948 Los Angeles, this noir thriller features screenwriter Charlie Parish as he navigates the pervasive villainy of the Studio System. World War II lends deep shadows too, as Charlie suffers flashbacks, and Brubaker opens the story by telling us,
Charlie still thought about the phantom planes sometimes. In the nights after Pearl Harbor, Los Angeles was under a blackout order. But after midnight, squadrons of Japanese fighters were heard buzzing back and forth over the city… looking for another target to bomb.
Thousands called the police, swearing they were right overhead… Charlie’s soon-to-be ex-wife hid in the closet too terrified to sleep. He didn’t hear anything, though. There were no planes up in those skies, just stars you normally couldn’t see. This was just how it was here… something in the air made it easier to believe the lies.
The narration accompanies images of Charlie waking up groggy in the bathtub of a Studio City bungalow. It’s the morning after a bash hosted by film star Earl Rath, and the screenwriter’s memory is a shuffled, still-soaked deck of cards. He washes his face in the bathroom, wondering at the lipstick print on the mirror. When he enters the living room, he finds starlet Valeria Sommers strangled to death on the floor.
Phillips’ scraggy, realistic Los Angeles is nevertheless populated by a regal Earl Rath, a dead ringer for Basil Rathbone (who played Robin Hood and Sherlock Homes), as well as a Valeria ready to stand in for blonde femme fatale Veronica Lake. The haunted Charlie, and his blacklisted writing partner, alcoholic Gil Mason, are stubbly and ink-smeared in their dynamic as frontman and failure. The pastel coloring by Elizabeth Breitweiser tucks the reader into ratty motels painted by car headlights drifting outside.
As a student of crime literature and cinema, Brubaker makes the careful choice to set this mystery during the year that the Supreme Court ruled against the Studios in an anti-trust case. In the wake of murder, and under threat of government regulation, his characters scramble like mice inside a suddenly opened barn. The Fade Out, comprised of twelve comic book issues or three graphic novels, is the fifth series by Brubaker and Phillips. It feels like the zenith of the pair’s richly absorbing collaborations, but then again so did their last three.
Levi Stahl, Contributor
“That day was but a thin solution of night.” Haven’t we all been there in a wan November, eyeing the coming winter with a feeling that would be apprehension if we could be bothered work up sufficient energy?
We sigh, and we board the subway.
H. R. Tomlinson, however, took a different path on such a day in 1909. A newspaperman living aquiet life in London, he found himself chatting with a sailor, who began to tell him of a steamer journey he was about to undertake, across the Atlantic and into the poorly charted forests of the Amazon. The sailor, writes Tomlinson in The Sea and the Jungle (1912), “put to me the most searching question I have had to answer since the city first caught and caged me.”
That question? “Why don’t you chuck it?”
Havering ensued. Responsibilities, habit, timidity offered up their typical testimony.
“Give it up,” replied the sailor, “and come with me.”
More havering. The sailor proposed a wager: if the approaching Putney bus took on two passengers before it passed their seat in a cafe, Tomlinson would join the ship’s company. A man ran up and barely caught it. One. The bus began to creak forward, reprieve for foolishness in sight . . . and then the sailor leaped to his feet, clambered aboard the bus, and, with a wave, sealed Tomlinson’s fate.
Can the appeal of the travel book as a genre be more efficiently distilled than that? All our dreams of escape, embodied. That Tomlinson’s book is wry and thoughtful and funny, with a voice and a sensibility that (aside from a relatively minor dose of typical late Empire racism) have held up for a century, is almost beside the point. This is a book to read not before you set out on a trip—almost any book will do for that. This is the one you read the day you get home, to remind you that at least once, a person, looking around him at the daily matter of life and work and asking, “What shall I do about all this?” received the reply, “That? Oh, damn that.”
And promptly did so.
Dorian Stuber, Contributor
In December 1933, 18-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set off to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, some 2000 miles all across Europe. Fermor lived frugally, staying with peasants or sleeping rough. But through a chance encounter with an aristocratic family, he also found himself passed from one great house to another across the breadth of the former Hapsburg Empire.
Fittingly, the story of the books he wrote about that time is as epic as the journey they describe. A Time of Gifts (1977) got him as far as the border of Slovakia and Hungary. Between the Woods and the Water (1986) saw him to the Iron Gates, the dramatic gorge on the Danube between Serbia and Romania. For the rest of his life—Fermor died in 2011 at age 96—he worked on the final volume. It was published, unfinished but still compulsively readable, as The Broken Road in 2013. Together they form an extraordinary trilogy, the greatest travel writing I know.
These books would surely have been interesting had Fermor written them right after completing his travels. But they gain immeasurably from their decades-long hindsight. For they record a world that would vanish just a few years after the trip. Fermor sometimes alludes to the fate of the people he met along the way—invariably terrible—but mostly he doesn’t know what happened to them in the war that swept away the world he so lovingly describes.
Yet the books’ retrospection never dilutes their immediacy. Fermor loved art and architecture, was a genius with languages, and became fascinated by the long history of Europe as reflected in habits of daily life. Some of his historical disquisitions can be heavy going—there are a lot of finials and machiolations here—but his zest for life, his joy at being young and free and as ready to be charmed by the world as to charm it are utterly infectious. Like all the best travel guides, he makes you excited about whatever excites him.
What I love most of all about these books is how thrillingly Fermor captures the feeling of reinvention and joy peculiar to long journeys taken by young people. Settling down for the night near the Danube in Slovakia, Fermor lies “deep in one of those protracted moments of rapture which scatter this journey like asterisks.” Later, crossing the Alföld, the Great Hungarian plain, Fermor concludes, simply: “There was not a single way in which life could be improved.”
Like all travellers, Fermor is sometimes lonely and dispirited, but his fundamental sense of wellbeing and openness to possibility carry the day, making him an ideal companion on one’s own summer travels.
Rebecca Hussey, Contributor
Perhaps the most thrilling voyage one can possibly take is a voyage through time. Or not? It depends on who one is and where one travels, obviously. In Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred – part science fiction, part historical fiction, part slave narrative – the time travel is horrific. Butler’s main character Dana is a writerand an African-American woman living in California in the 1970s. She and her husband Kevin are in the middle of moving into a new apartment when Dana is overcome with dizziness, blacks out, and wakes up in a strange place. It turns out she is now in Maryland, and it’s the early nineteenth century. Immediately, she is in physical danger, accused of murder and held at gun-point. During subsequent trips through time, she and Kevin become embroiled in America’s slave society, their lives continually at risk. Dana’s only warning that she is about to travel through time is dizziness, and, as it turns out, time passes much more slowly in the past than it does in the present day, so an absence of a week in California can mean years spent in antebellum Maryland.
It’s a nightmare version of travel, one in which the travelers have lost almost all agency. It calls into question the very definition of travel: has Dana really traveled when she never wanted to leave in the first place, has no control over when she departs and returns, and can’t determine where she will end up? It’s a brilliant way for Butler to explore true powerlessness. Dana in 1970s California has lived with racism, but circumstances force her to experience a level of dehumanization she had known about on an intellectual level, but not on a personal, gut-wrenching, live-or- die level. By imaginatively engaging with the novel, readers experience a taste of this powerlessness as well, even as they are sitting comfortably on their couches, book in hand.
Kindred reminds us of how varied historical and literary journeys can be. Dana’s unexpected, unwanted voyage is reminiscent of that taken by another person who never planned to leave home: Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, tells of being kidnapped as a child and forced into slavery, made to work on a series of ships for masters who tricked him back into slavery again and again. These books remind us that the idea of traveling for pleasure is a privilege, as is the ability to sit comfortably at home, peaceful in the knowledge that we can stay safe and secure in one place.