Reading notes: a biography of Freya Stark

I’ve just finished reading a biography of Freya Stark, an adventurer & travel writer in the 1900s. I’m struck by the beauty of Stark’s writing, where it’s excerpted – and by how a biography can itself seem outdated, more than even the content it’s writing about. Perspectives on British imperialism, World War II, marriage, homosexuality, Israel and Palestine, concepts of ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ – the biography came out only a couple of decades ago, but it seems nearly as ‘past’ as the early-20th-century world Stark herself writes about.

But that’s a digression. It jarred a little, but mostly just in an, ‘oh, quaint!’ kind of way.

  • A few other ideas:
    • what it must have been like when vast swathes of the world were unknown to vast swathes of people. In some ways, today it’s almost impossible to imagine that; in some ways, I wonder how much our own assumptions of knowing are simply flawed.
    • the tragedy of gender expectations meaning that so many women were stunted, for so long; it never should have been the case that on average Stark found men more interesting because they had, on average, had a wider range of travel & geographic & cultural experiences. (On the other hand, Stark also managed to go a lot of places & do a lot of things that would have been more difficult if women hadn’t been so consistently underestimated.)
    • the tragedy also of homosexuality ever having been criminalized, with the result that so many people tried to live in ways that simply weren’t accurate to their own beings, with knock-on effects to so many other people around them
    • how hard it can be to see one’s own life accurately. At least per this biography, Stark desperately missed love and marriage – but a life of wide travel, many languages, many friends, influencing global policy and writing books that reached so many people is a life with a lot of good in it.
    • how luring places that seem ‘exotic’ can be, so consistently, over the whole course of human history. of course what ‘exotic’ includes varies widely, but the appeal in general – vast.
    • how luring the ideal of being able to ‘fit in’ anywhere, whether into a different social group or a different country, can be too. I wonder how real it really is, or if it’s an ever-retreating ideal. And what does ‘fitting in’ mean anyway? Do any of us ever really know when we fit in?

There’s an odd kind of time-shift, too, that I feel when reading about times & people who so clearly seem historical – World War II, for example, or the early days of Middle Eastern archaeology – but who then abruptly show up in places that seem, if not current, at least of this era. And so a photograph of Freya Stark in the 1980s, in Pasadena, gave me a momentary sense of what?! because 1980s Pasadena seems very very different – as if not in the same universe – from pre-World-War II Italy or Greece.

I’ve sort of informally started a project of reading books that have been on my bookcase in some cases for years, and this book was one of them. It was worthwhile.

And, since as I read things I’m aiming to explicitly decide whether to keep them or not, and I’m not keeping this one, now I have very slightly more space on that shelf!

Books on writing: Amina Cain & Elena Ferrante

I just finished reading A Horse At Night, by Amina Cain. It’s a lovely book, a love letter to LA, and a reflection on writing & life. Just gorgeous (and as an added bonus, I kept having these shocks of recognition – yes! it’s like that! as I read it, because the author got it, whatever it is, so right).

As I was finishing it, I saw a connection to Eve Babitz’ writing too – I finished reading Black Swans yesterday – in its love for LA, and its descriptions of the lushness of southern California plants. I remembered my own trips up and down the canyons when I lived there, and my greed for bougainvillea and birds-of-paradise. Babitz is up front about her love for the city – it’s one of the key points of all her books. I wonder if Cain noticed her own, but either way it’s there.

A few months back, I read Elena Ferrante’s In the Margins. It’s a physically gorgeous book, and it fascinated me, in part because its ideas seemed so alien – imagining that only men were great writers?! an emotional reaction to the edge of a page, the sense that there was a boundary, something forbidden or transgressive in how you might approach it?! really?! – but that alienness, too, offered me a sense of my own good fortune, and something to set myself in contrast to.

Yesterday I organized my bookcases. I am more or less out of space; there’s a little give at the end of some shelves, one shelf with maybe two inches free, and another other where I keep oversized coffee table & gardening books has some room – but really, it’s packed.

Cain’s book seems to me like what I want in a book on writing. As I read it, I kept getting these little bursts of inspiration, like mini firecrackers, whereas with Ferrante’s it was more like a sense of watching something intellectually interesting but fundamentally alien, inhospitable to me. And so I’m letting Ferrante’s book go, and keeping Cain’s.

A Book of Days

I just finished reading A Book of Days, by Patti Smith, after going to see her speak at City Arts in San Francisco. Smith is just enough older than my generation’s obsessions that I didn’t start out familiar with her work, but I had the general idea that she’s a legend – and as she told stories & showed photos from the book, that idea (“legend – wait for it – ary!” plays in my head so often, it’s as if How I Met Your Mother is permanently implanted in my brain – oh well, there are worse things) only grew stronger.

Plus, I have always loved the concept of books of days. As a college student in New York, I peered in at medieval manuscrips in the Cloisters museum. On a long walk in the UK, I paced through ruined monks’ cells and contemplated lauds and vespers. More recently, I read Gemma Gorga’s Book of Minutes, translated from Catalan (Llibre dels minuts), poems based on the idea of time running quickly, scenes captured fleeting. My husband bought me a 19th century pocket planner (but it is so much more than that! it’s like the internet in your pocket, from the Victorian era) and I took my glasses off to read the miniscule, pencilled-in events written by some other woman a hundred years ago.

Time moves.

Smith’s Book moves too: memories, reflection, birthdays (so many birthdays!), death days, travel. Themes show up: her travelling boots, her cat, music, the artists she admires. Admiration itself is a theme, flowing through both the photos and text: these things are worth paying attention to. It’s a form both of respect outward toward the artists, and to Smith herself: her view, her taste, her declaration that this matters.

And time moves. Birthdays, guitars played once but no longer, gravestones, leaves covering the ground, a child as a child and later full-grown. Smith herself, as a child, a young woman, older now, looking forward in some photos and back in others.

It’s a specific world that Smith captures, the hippie-artsy optimistic-scrappy culture I imagine of the 1960s, when nobody had any money and everybody made something anyway. It’s not a world I lived through, and who knows how accurate the stories run – everything is sepia toned. Either way, the ethos lingers, artists making art, musicians making music, times changing but all of it continuing on.

I read the book more slowly than I expected. How long could it take, after all? Three hundred and sixty five pages, each page with an image and maybe three lines of text. But I turned the pages slowly, looking at the photos closely, reading the text twice.

Watching time move.