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 I’m struck by the beauty of Stark’s writing, where it’s excerpted – and by how a biography can itself seem outdated, more than even the content it’s writing about.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!