Joseph Brodsky: Watermark

“In those days we associated style with substance, beauty with intelligence…
we didn’t know yet that style could be purchased wholesale, that beauty could just be a commodity.”

Venice, through the pen of a mediocre writer, can easily become cliché.

But this is Joseph Brodsky. 

If you, like me, have read Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell and thought it was alone in its indefinable sub-genre or sur-genre (if there’s such a thing), we can rejoice! Venezia’s Watermark is the worthy soulmate of Corfu’s Prospero’s Cell.

Meditative with a sensual rhythm but not without intelligent humor, here is travel literature that casts an enchanting haze on the borders between poetry and prose, a place and the self.

I would slip this in my handbag in a heartbeat on a return trip to the best city to get lost in.

Gertrude Bell

“The world was awake — it wakes early in the East.”

Gertrude Bell’s simple description of a Persian sunrise encapsulates, with figurative overtones, the theme of the books I have been reading lately. In The Silk Roads, she is described as dynamic and fiercely intelligent, brilliant, a mercurial scholar and traveler who knew the region and its people as well as anyone. Portrayed by Nicole Kidman in Queen of the Desert, she is called a Kingmaker for being influential in drawing up the borders of the new nation of Iraq and in bringing King Faisal to power as its first ruler in 1921. But it was only through Safar Nameh that I was introduced to her writing.

She writes so elegantly with a deep perception of places, people, and the relationship between East and West. She speaks of “the careless optimism of those who seek to pile one edifice upon another, a Western upon an Eastern world, and never pause to consider whether, if it stands at all, the newer will only stand by crushing the older out of all existence.”

This is a tiny book of a hundred pages that I thought I would be able to finish in one coffee break, but the writing is too beautiful that I had to savor the lines over and over again.

And for those times when my mind and soul are exceedingly wide awake in wonder, she has the right words… “The world was too lovely for sleep.”

Henry Hemming: Misadventure in the Middle East

In contrast to de Botton’s encouraged manner of traveling by allowing art to guide us in our travels and what we pay attention to, Henry Hemming, a British painter and author, ventures to the Middle East and lets his travels guide his art.

He and his companion discovered that each country and their people were immensely different from the other that, as artists, it was now more difficult for them to paint a portrait of what we call the “Middle East.” But this is where the book comes in.

It may not be a complete picture, but it provides a keener understanding, especially at a time when we need it most. 

Jan Morris: Venice

Ordered by my best friend as a gift in preparation for a trip to La Serenissima in 2020, it finally arrived in 2021, two weeks shy of Venice’s 1600th founding anniversary! It is disappointing that the trip got postponed and that the book took over a year to get delivered because of the pandemic, but part of me is glad that I did not return to Venice without having read this! The details in this book are so rich and they would enrich any traveler.

Jan Morris writes beautifully, intimately, but most of all, truthfully; sometimes even bluntly. She takes us not merely along the lesser known nooks of Venice but also through the unvisited alleys of her tumultuous and mysterious history. “Nothing in the story of Venice is ordinary!”

I especially find it fascinating that even though my readings of late have been focused on the East, Venice is usually part of the narrative.  After all, “In Venice, as any gilded cockatrice will tell you, the East begins.” A major part of the Silk Route, Morris also notes that it is, in fact, the only Christian city marked in Ibn Khaldun’s map.  It will not come as a surprise that my favorite chapter is the seventeenth — Arabesque, because “the allusions of Venice are arabesque.”

Reading this already felt like a return and the book made it possible for me to be there — “through literary proxy,” as Gaston Bachelard would say.  It should also teach the reader about how and how not to travel: “Alas, the truth is that most visitors to Venice, in any case, move among her wonders mindlessly, pumped briskly through the machine and spewed out along the causeway as soon as they are properly processed.” Morris writes, too, of how the city’s “ingrained sadness is swamped with an effulgence of money-making.”

But despite its faults and tourism’s faults… it is still Venezia, which, according to Morris, is “an amphibious society peculiar to herself”; “half land, half sea… somewhere between a freak and a fairytale”; “a sexy city”; “a melancholy city at heart”; “a hall of curiosities.”

“A synonym for music,” echoes Nietzche.

Colin Thubron: The Shadow of the Silk Road

Frankopan’s The Silk Roads was the first book I finished reading this year. By the time a dozen friends sent me messages that Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure on Netflix reminded them of me, the Silk Route had already taken over my neural pathways. Haha! When I was finally able to watch it, I noticed that at the end of the show, Joanna Lumley thanks Peter Frankopan and Colin Thubron. I did not know who the latter was. She led me to this book.

While Frankopan gives the reader a sweeping aerial view, Thubron walks down the roads and creates a more intimate experience. The two would be beautiful to read in succession — Frankopan for the historical details, Thubron for making history felt through intimacy. Aside from his own poetic voice, his writing becomes the voice of places and people who would have otherwise been destined to remain absent or silent in our consciousness.

“Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your finger travels along the map: Yes, here and here… and here. These are the nerve-ends of the world… A hundred reasons clamor for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart.

Yet to follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished, leaving behind the pattern of restlessness: counterfeit borders, unmapped peoples. The road forks and wanders wherever you are. It is not a single way, but many: a web of choices.”

I did not want this book to end, and yet, even the best books do, but only to give us a deeper yearning to continue the journey beyond the pages.

Austen Henry Layard: Nineveh and its Remains

The Library of Alexandria was not the first systematically organized library in the world. There was another one that was much older: The great library of Nineveh built circa 668 BCE by Assyrian King Ashurbanipal. Although it shared Alexandria’s fate through destruction by fire, it had another advantage — its clay tablets. Alexandria’s papyrus were reduced to ashes, but Nineveh’s cuneiform clay tablets that exceeded twenty thousand in number were merely baked afresh. Not only did this library preserve the Epic of Gilgamesh for future generations, the Nineveh excavation has become a prime source of information about the Assyrians and the Babylonians whose knowledge and culture they inherited.

We all know Nineveh — this wonder of the ancient world, for a time the largest city in the world — from the Old Testament account of Jonah, but for thousands of years, it could have remained a fictional city for unbelievers until its unearthing. “Without the evidence that these monuments afford, we might almost have doubted that the great city ever existed,” writes Austen Henry Layard.

“Existing ruins show that Nineveh had acquired its greatest extent in the time of the Assyrian kings mentioned in the Old Testament.  It was then that Jonah visited it, and that reports of its size and magnificence were carried to the West, and gave rise to those traditions from which the Greeks mainly derived the information they have handed down to us concerning the city.” On a footnote, Layard adds, “With regard to the connection between the ornaments mentioned in the text and those of Greek architecture, it is now impossible to doubt that all that is Ionic in the arts of Greece is derived from the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates.”

Austen Henry Layard, a name no longer too familiar to our generation, was once a household name in Europe when he discovered Nineveh in the 1840s. Quoting from the introduction, his journals “took Europe by storm and became one of those books that everyone had to read.” It has never gone out of print and is still considered to be among the greatest archaeological books of all time.

Layard being an art historian, a draughtsman, a cuneiformist, and a diplomat, among other things, this book is also so many things at once! The journals have occasional sketches of details from the excavations, he ponders on art, history, religion, civilizations, and takes the reader on his expeditions while painting a vibrant portrait of the time, places, the tribes and people that he encounters on his journeys, and writes vividly of life-threatening experiences.  But the best parts are those moments of discovery that lead to spine-tingling wonder! He can be quite poetic, too: “On all sides, as far as the eye could reach, rose the grass-covered heaps marking the site of ancient habitations. The great tide of civilisation had long since ebbed, leaving these scattered wrecks on the solitary shore. Are those waters to flow again, bearing back the seeds of knowledge and of wealth that they have wafted to the West? We wanderers were seeking what they had left behind, as children gather up the coloured shells on the deserted sands.”

Reading this book recalls and intensifies the question that Jason Elliot posed in his book on Iran: “What will future archaeologists think of us when they find what we’ve left for them?”

Lawrence Durrell: Prospero’s Cell

“Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins. All the way across Italy you find yourself moving through a landscape severely domesticated — each valley laid out after the architect’s pattern, brilliantly lighted, human. But once you strike out from the flat and desolate Calabrian mainland towards the sea, you are aware of a change in the heart of things: aware of the horizon beginning to stain at the rim of the world: aware of islands coming out of the darkness to meet you.

In the morning you wake to the taste of snow on the air, and climbing the companion-ladder, suddenly enter the penumbra of shadow cast by the Albanian mountains — each wearing its cracked crown of snow — desolate and repudiating stone.

A peninsula nipped off while red hot and allowed to cool into an antarctica of lava. You are aware not so much of a landscape coming to meet you invisibly over those blue miles of water as of a climate. You enter Greece as one might enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Mirages suddenly swallow islands, and wherever you look the trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceives.

Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder — the discovery of yourself.”

And this is only the first page. This year has brought me to the most adventurous prose and most daring forms of the novel, but writing like Durrell’s feels like home.

This is that famous book about Corfu — “not a history but a poem” — where I, already envious of his way with words when he sings about its olives in the middle section, had to close the book and say, “That’s it. I am going to Corfu.”

But this is not merely about a place, but of an irredeemable time and innocent way of life at the brink of the Second World War that we can only relive through the music he makes with his words.

“History with her painful and unexpected changes cannot be made to pity or remember; that is our function.”