In a new book column, the Marshwood Vale-based author, Sophy Roberts, gives us her slim pickings for July.
I picked up a new reading habit during lockdown. Profoundly distracted, I was unable to click away from the ‘always on’ news cycle. I couldn’t seem to finish anything I started. Discipline, I thought; I would use the opportunity to fill some of those glaring holes in my literary knowledge. I’d take on something big and significant to pull me out of the here and now. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Or Moby Dick, suggested an American friend shocked I should have reached my late 40s without having read a word of Melville. Wanting adventure (and some Napoleonic grandeur), I settled upon The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. But when his 1844 epic arrived in the mail, my heart sank at the size of it. It wasn’t the proverbial brick of a book, but a breeze block. I flipped to the last line, on page 1243.
“‘My dearest,’ said Valentine, ‘has the count not just told us that all human wisdom are contained in these two words — “wait” and “hope”?’
Not b**dy likely, I thought. I can’t wait. I have low hope right now. So I put Dumas to one side in favour of a quicker fix. I would stick to books no thicker than a mobile phone. Novellas, short stories, essays. Each one would allow me to escape for an hour or two each day—something I could start and finish in the bath, or before I fell asleep at night—giving me a daily sense of achievement (and much-needed escape) in these otherwise bewildering times. Here’s my shortlist of three.
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
Robert Macfarlane describes this between-the-wars ode to Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains as a “slender masterpiece”. What’s remarkable is that it sat in Shepherd’s drawer unpublished for 40 years. I love its poetic economy, the ways Shepherd weaves deep story out of a landscape so familiar to her, and her admission that in spite of a lifetime of walking the Cairngorms’ hummocked snows and gaunt corries, it’s still so rich with discovery. “Knowing another is endless,” she writes: “The thing to be known grows with the knowing.” Above all, I like this book because it reminds me that sometimes what lies right under our feet is all we need to have for an adventure worth telling.
Turbulence by David Szalay
This is a piece of genius from a master of the novella form. He steps inside the skin of twelve passengers on the move around the globe, flying “ahead of the night” over the Atlantic, and elsewhere, to India, Dakar and beyond. With each journey, we meet a secondary character who shifts into the leading role in the next instalment. It’s a clever structure which allows the parts to hang together as Szalay delves into bigger issues, from the loss of a child, to dementia. A book rich in empathy, it has a kind of tragic undercurrent to it as he explores the inner, lonely life of ‘passengers’ on the Wheel of Fate. “It was hard to understand quite what an insignificant speck this aeroplane was, in terms of the size of the ocean it was flying over, in terms of quantity of emptiness which surrounded it on all sides.”
Journeys by Stefan Zweig
Perpetually curious, the Austrian author Stefan Zweig found it hard to be in any one place for too long. Writing between the wars—a period of rising nationalism and economic depression—he also realised that the freedom to travel might not last forever. “Is it the premonition that a time is approaching when countries will erect barriers between them, so you yearn to breathe quickly, while you still can, a little of the world’s air?” he wrote in 1935. This collection of anecdotes about his European escapades is a call for purpose. “Travel must be an extravagance, a sacrifice to the rules of chance, from daily life to the extraordinary, it must represent the most intimate and original form of our taste. That’s why we must defend it against this new fashion for the bureaucratic, automated, displacement en masse, the industry of travel.” Post Covid, I suspect package holidays will never be the same again. Post Zweig, I will certainly treasure serendipity like never before.
Buy any of the books above at Archway Bookshop in Axminster in July and receive a 10% discount when you mention Marshwood Vale Magazine. archwaybookshop.co.uk.