Travels with My Sofa. Or, Some Musings of a Bedside Navigator
By Neil Grosvenor our Languages buyer here at Blackwell's Charing Cross Road
Who doesn’t like books? Well, plenty of people. I’ve yet to enter a house without recorded music of some sort but I’ve been in more than enough (in pre-digital days) with nary a hint of a squashed paperback or inherited set of Dickens book club hardbacks bought from a weekend supplement. In such cases the benefit of the doubt has been given: you’re just hiding them aren’t you..?
Indeed, growing up my own parents only possessed three books that I can recall: a David Niven autobiography, ‘The Moon’s a Balloon; a lurid plantation-set pot boiler; and ‘Linda Goodman’s Star Signs’. And the two former were neighbourly lendings if I’m not mistaken. Luckily I had my own books and a kindly set of relations to indulge my status as the ‘bookish’ one in the family.
The first book I owned to hint at other worlds and places came, I think from the junior school book club: every month a newsletter came round and for 25p a trade paperback could be yours. It was a German children’s story about a lonely spook haunting a castle attacked by a Swedish general during the Great Northern War, ‘The Little Ghost’ by Ottfried Preussler. (Preussler does have an English-language entry on Wikipedia but I’ve yet to venture on line to search out an old copy for nostalgia’s sake). Certainly this was the first book that saw the old familiar wallpaper of my bedroom fade and somewhere older and magical appear in its stead as I read. I guess I can also blame it for the fact I ended up doing Scandinavian Studies and German at university.
Later on for all the wrong adolescent reasons I read Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. What stunned me was not the ‘notorious’ sections but the harrowing portrayal of loneliness, a psychological eye-opener that blew away my perception of the people of that period, indeed of any past period, as stiff, emotionally stunted figures in black and white. A similar emotion caught me at university while reading Ernst Toller’s play ‘Hinkemann’: the desperation of an unemployed man in Weimar Germany during the Depression screamed out from the pages of the tiny Reklam edition paperback.
There is no reason why the best travel reportage and historical writing can’t produce the same breathtaking escapism, the same ‘put down the book and think ‘my god..’ moment’ as fiction, drama and poetry, the same sense of the walls melting away around you. And certainly I think writers and publishers today are alive to the call as George Orwell or Patrick Leigh Fermor, for example, were in the 1930s. (I’m thinking of the latter’s beautiful, bittersweet lament for a land and time vanished: ‘Between the Woods & the Water’). As indeed many were before.
One of the most telling pieces in Nicholas Ostler’s ‘Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World’ is a description of the problems facing the translators as Pizarro’s conquistadors encounter the doomed Inca Atahuallpa. How does one translate concepts (a book, divine right, god-emperor) that are simply alien to the other, and for which there are no words? How much can language divide us, and how much are our words moulded by our culture?
Comedy, tragedy and the surreal abound in the tales of people and places as they do in the best plays: the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine is born and dies on the same day in 1939 in Norman Davies’ ‘Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe’; islands such as Kerguelen, Tristan da Cunha and Rapa Nui/Easter Island, with their tales of shipwrecked servants, vanished tribes and would-be kings lie beautiful and isolated on the pages of Judith Schalansky’s ‘Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I have Never Visited & Never Will’ – the escapist daydreams of an East German teenager hauntingly typeset and illustrated to award-winning effect.
Who doesn’t dream? Well, nobody I hope.