‘ I just have to read a travel story or a novel by a writer to make his territory, his memories, my own.’ Jean-Claude Izzo
We’re going on a journey – reading our way around some of Europe’s most wonderful cities. A kind of twenty-first century ‘grand tour’ but without the annoyance of having to take our shoes off at the airports or the stress of not knowing the Serbo-Croat for ‘Where’s the toilet?’ We know, from past experience, that reading books set in a city before you go there really does enhance the visit and helps you get well and truly under the skin of the place. And if you already know the city, it can help you understand it more deeply.
We’re taking a fresh look at some old and very dear friends – Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Rome, London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Athens … – and getting to know passing acquaintances better. We’re hoping, in association with guest writers, to include thirty European cities and their best books by the end of the year.
Yes, guidebooks are vital for finding your way around, but rarely do they get to the heart of a city in the way that the subtle observations and thoughtful knowledge of writers will. Putting together a series of city anthologies for Oxygen Books more than convinced us of this. Even cities we thought we knew well took on new colours and deeper excitement when we were reading so many books set in those places in order to choose ‘the best bits’ for the anthologies.
Our great cities are their history – and their literature, and their art, and their music, and their great buildings and institutions and the people who made them. Franz Kafka didn’t write vivid descriptions of the streets of Prague, but a visit to that city is almost unimaginable without at least some knowledge of Kafka’s work. Besides, it’s impossible to escape meeting the city’s most famous son when you go there – if only in the ready availability of mugs and tee-shirts bearing his portrait.
Visitors to Amsterdam usually try to visit Anne Frank’s house. The story of the courageous people who hid the schoolgirl and her family during the Nazi Occupation, and of their eventual betrayal and concentration camp deaths – and the survival of Anne’s ‘Diary’ – is told at this most moving of museums.
But how much more the visit will mean having read Anne’s account of their time in hiding – her description of looking out of the attic on a glorious February morning, watching the seagulls whirling and diving, and gazing longingly out of the open window, over the rooftops of Amsterdam, as we can still do, and her heartbreaking response: ‘ “As long as this exists,” I thought, “this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?”‘
Who can fail to have their experience of stepping out into a glorious June morning in London enhanced by having accompanied Virginia Woolf’s eponymous Mrs Dalloway on her walk – or to have a visit to Istanbul enriched by Orhan Pamuk’s portraits of his city? And even the not-so-famous have plenty to offer when the writing really ‘hits the spot’.
Australian writer Janelle McCulloch, in La Vie Parisienne, drew my attention to Paris being arguably more beautiful in the colder months, when, under a sky of Dior grey,’ you can see the “bones” of the city‘ through the bare trees.
There are a number of wonderful books on Europe as a whole: we’ll be taking some of them with us and reading the relevant bits as we go. One of the most entertaining is Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There in which he roams all over the continent and, with his inimitable sense of humour, gives us a feel for a whole host of cities. Born in America, Bryson tells us, early on in the book, that one of the marvels he discovered on his first trip to Europe was that the world could be so full of variety.
On one level, Europeans were so like each other – they’re ‘universally bookish and cerebral, and drive small cars, and live in little houses in ancient towns … and have chilly hotel rooms‘ – and yet are so unpredictably different from each other. And so are their cities.
Another book that will accompany us on our travels is eminent Dutch writer Geert Mak’s In Europe: travels through the Twentieth Century. This is for when we want some really well-written historical background. It’s fairly weighty but gives brilliant insights. And about halfway between Geert Mak and Bill Bryson is Jan Morris’s Europe: an intimate journey. Morris is probably our favourite travel writer, managing to combine depth with lightness of touch and vivid description.
As for the books on individual cities, our choice will concentrate on good fiction, but also include memoirs, diaries, letters, and so on. We’ll sample a range – from great classics to contemporary detective fiction – and while we’ll be as objective in our recommendations as possible, you’ll have to forgive a few outbreaks of rabid personal enthusiasm.
We’re not confining ourselves to local authors writing for a homegrown readership: sometimes it’s outsiders who can provide us with the kind of insights we, as outsiders ourselves, can make use of when visiting a city. And it isn’t always the most literary works that give the most vivid pictures. Detective fiction and murder mysteries often provide atmospheric description.
Take, for example, American writer Cara Black’s murder mysteries set in Paris, or the vivid French mysteries of Claude Izner (Murder on the Eiffel Tower, The Montmartre Investigation, and so on), or Ruth Rendell’s colourful description of London’s Portobello Road in Portobello, Philip Kerr’s powerful evocation of war-time Berlin and Prague in The Prague Case, and not forgetting Kate Mosse’s conjuring up of such key Parisian locations as the Montmartre cemetery and the Opéra
Garnier in Sepulchre.
Where relevant, we’ll mention films based on the books. And we’ll also suggest literary pilgrimages. Some people find these kinds of visits a bit ‘naff’, but we’ve never forgotten our visit to Strindberg’s house in Stockholm (you had to wear something like shower-caps over your shoes in order to enter) which really did increase our knowledge and understanding of his work.
If you’re in a book group (or work in a library) we’ll also be including ideas and suggestions to help make your reading journeys even more enjoyable,
So, without more ado, we’ll make our way to St Pancras Station and board the Eurostar for Paris. Come with us!
Heather Reyes and Malcolm Burgess
Heather Reyes and Malcolm Burgess are the publishers of Oxygen Books’ city-pick series, featuring some of the best writing on favourite European cities