Friday, June 09, 2006

Fiction that fed Dutch's wanderlust

When he is not advising the blog on Australian cultural issues, Friend of the Blog "Dutch" is a diplomat in the service of a major world power. He is also an inveterate reader.

Those characteristics have conspired to produce a wonderful essay about books that have colored his wanderlust. "Dutch" writes:

The novels of Arthur Upfield probably ignited my biggest bout of wanderlust, in this instance to head out for Australia. It's a fair bet to say that those books changed my life decisively, more so than any other I've read. Though, I couldn't know that at the time and certainly not for anything having to do with the novels themselves.

I dug into them immediately and I still remember the delicious feeling of being transported across thousands of miles and decades of time. I remember so many nights laying on my single mattress on the floor in my graduate student hovel, blissfully transported to outback Australia with Bony, the half-caste detective. The descriptions of the clarity of the piercing cerulean sky and its contrast with the red dirt made me want to see the Land Down Under. His descriptions of the night time sky there as a deep blackness shot through with billions of bright and shiny diamonds made me ache to see that for myself and stare at its immensity.

When I did finally get there it was nothing like an Arthur Upfield mystery, of course, since his were set in the parched and isolated rural Australia of the 1940s and 1950s. I was spending all my time in modern 1990s suburban Canberra and urban Sydney. But that began a whole new love affair of a different kind and on several levels of meaning, too. I still think it's a pretty wonderful place to stare at the sky night or day and to do so many more things closer to earth. I doubt I could ever live in the outback after spending just a short time there, but now I also know I'm probably happier in urban/suburban Australia than anywhere else in the world.

Reading Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series has really whetted my appetite to return to Edinburgh for a stroll through New Town. And while I'm sure John Harvey's Nottingham is not a great tourist wonder, I'd pay quite a lot to sit at the Italian espresso stall in the city market and have a coffee and talk with his DI Charlie Resnick.

Patricia Highsmith in her Ripley series creates a wonderful sense of place in the French countryside. The mental pictures her prose created made me long to walk through Tom's scenic village, call in at the tobacconist for the evening papers, share an espresso with Tom (while of course absolutely never turning my back on him). I've never really spent much time in France, but she makes it sound wonderful. I'm not sure I'd feel safe being an overnight guest, but Tom's country estate also seems like a place that would be beautiful to see. I remember thinking how civilized—what an odd word choice to associate with a sociopath, I know—it would be for Tom and me to go through the French doors leading to the slate terrace to sit and have a pre-dinner aperitif while we gazed out at the woods beyond and discussed his collection of Derwatt paintings. The Talented Mr. Ripley is, of course, a wonderful book, but its portrait of Italy is also pretty darn seductive.

Alan Furst ignites a similar wanderlust for me for Paris, in addition to making me wish we had time machines, to go back to the Paris of 1937-1942 era. Of course, we do have them and they are Alan Furst novels!

Reading the great Nick Hornby's High Fidelity made wish I lived around the corner from Championship Vinyl in London, so I could hang out there. I'm sure Barry would have quickly banished me forever though since my musical tastes would have surely offended him.

The reverse of wanderlust, whatever that might be called, happened for me when I visited Buenos Aires. I'd never read any Jorge Luis Borges, but wandering the bohemian and cosmopolitan streets of B.A., hanging out in the cafes in Palermo Viejo and Recolleta, eating the food, admiring the stunning architecture, savoring the quality of everyday life there, meeting the warm and proud Portenos, eavesdropping on their animated conversations, drinking the wine--all of it made me fall in the love with the city and the country and want to read their great master and come to know through his eyes and writing the city he loved so much. Did I mention the food?!

Here's a great Larry Rohter article from the New York Times along those lines.

Alan Judd's Short of Glory made me long to see the world from a perspective as a diplomat. He is such an entertaining (and underappreciated) writer. I remember laughing so hard at certain points in the book that I was crying. The fictional African country he creates, which is supposed to be South Africa I believe, is so real and wonderful and yet heartbreaking that it made me want to set out and see it for myself. The world of a diplomat he creates is equally seductive. Alas, now that I've been doing it for 12 years I realize what a load of crap that was, but there are certain nights when I have captured a bit of Juddian Glory. I remember an especially interesting dinner party where I was sitting with a wonderfully engaging group of dinner companions. The conversation and wine flowed freely and joyously. The laughter from really good stories still echo in my memory.

After reading Alan Judd and then finally making it into the Foreign Service, I thought that every night of my life would be like that great dinner party. Of course, life is not like that and my life as a diplomat is very far removed from that. Ninety-nine percent of our time we are simply bureaucrats, just like any other, only we get Dengue Fever and lots of fun intestinal parasites, the office building where I work is intermittently attacked by mobs of muslim fanatics, and people shoot my colleagues and blow them up in bombings. Even if every night can’t be like an Alan Judd novel, there’s still a mountain of books waiting to open new worlds to me, and that’s a very comforting thought, indeed.
That's a wonderful essay.

I've read many of the books "Dutch" recommends here--at his urging--and can attest to the quality of his recommendations.

Many thanks to "Dutch" for sharing those insights about fiction and travel.

--Marshal Zeringue