Shards, Sweepings, Stealings, Sayings, Secrets

Month: August, 2012

A Spanish Restaurant

Nooteboom is a tremendous writer, and he’s my kind of writer: dense without being heavy; intellectual without being stuffy; witty, poetic, acutely observant. Try this paragraph for its lucid style, its wit and its close description of Spanish manners. Is this not the very essence of a backcountry Spanish restaurant? It’s a blazing hot afternoon in Teruel and, as usual, all the churches, shops and museums are shut:

“It’ll have to be the restaurant, then. Low-ceilinged, dimly lit, joints of ham, black sausages stuffed with rice, flitches of bacon, rabbits, thick dark wine in earthenware jugs, large loaves from a different age. The next table is occupied by an extended Spanish family more like an army. The children are all wearing glasses and gaze respectfully at the mighty paterfamilias at the head of the table. What is to become of the Latin world when man-the-father is annihilated, after the northern example? Further along, a classic scene of two Spanish gentlemen having lunch. One of them is a Charles Aznavour type with eyelashes so long a child could sit on them, the other is more of a Visigoth (here all races and pedigrees have been preserved through the ages), upright, stern and silent, surrounded by the trappings of everyday Spanish life, their huge jug of wine, their joint of mutton, their black cigarettes with which they smoke the meat, and eventually their black, harsh coffees and large balloon glasses of syrupy anís, voluminous enough for a fair-sized goldfish. One of them talks and gesticulates, the other listens, the children cry Papá — accentuating the last syllable so as not to confuse him with the pope — and I can see all of us sitting here in the infinite expanse of the Spanish continent.”

Cees Nooteboom Roads To Santiago

The Power Of Place Names

“No one before me has visited those places with their strange names. I will be welcomed by villagers with bread and wine. Staring at the map, I trickle the Spanish names over my tongue . . . La Almunia de Doña Godina, Alhama de Aragón, Sistema Ibérico, Laguna Negra de Urbión. Like a necklace of jewels those villages, mountain passes, plains and streams converge on the dry, brief sound of Soria, each name deliberately created at some point in time and now just a casual utterance passed on from one person to the next: ‘I will go to Soria this evening,’ ‘I come from Soria.’ It is impossible to fathom all that is compounded in those names, how many thousands or millions of times a word which now merely denotes a place has been spoken and recorded, in what forms it lingers on in cadastres, loiters on letterheads and ordnance survey maps, crops up in private correspondence and diaries, title-deeds and invoices, flies up from the lips of children, nuns, murderers: “I will go to Soria tonight,’ ‘I come from Soria.’ It has a certain power, such a word: it will be repeated, later, in an inconceivably distant future, by mouths that do not yet exist even in the imagination. And make no mistake, you are never in a place that is nameless, in a town without a name — you always find yourself in some word invented by others — others never seen, long forgotten — before it was recorded in writing. We are always in words.”

Cees Nooteboom Roads To Santiago

Apart from being a travel writer, Nooteboom is also a poet and a novelist, and I think you can tell that from the above extract.

Roads To Santiago

Through Andy‘s blog Pilgrimpace I was nudged towards Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom‘s book on Spain, Roads To Santiago. I’ve just started reading it and am enjoying it immensely. If you appreciate literary travel writers such as Jan Morris and Patrick Leigh Fermor, then you’ll love this book. From a review in The Observer: “This book is a gem, or rather, like the city of Toledo, it is a jewel box. Each chapter, each digression, each detour is a delight . . . A hymn to a lifelong love affair with Spain. It will stand comfortably alongside Borrow, Starkie and Brenan as one of the great books about [Spain].” Well, I haven’t read Walter Starkie‘s books (I think I must), and George Borrow‘s The Bible In Spain is at the top of my “must read” pile (I’ve read his Wild Wales which is madly eccentric and entertaining), but I have read Gerald Brenan‘s evocative, unputdownable South From Granada, the best book on Spain I’ve ever read. So far . . . Already Nooteboom is high up there in contention.

In Chapter 1 Nooteboom captures brilliantly in one paragraph the essence of Spain. I know exactly what he means here:

“Spain is brutish, anarchic, egocentric, cruel. Spain is prepared to face disaster on a whim, she is chaotic, dreamy, irrational. Spain conquered the world and then did not know what to do with it, she harks back to her Medieval, Arab, Jewish and Christian past and sits there impassively like a continent that is appended to Europe and yet is not Europe, with her obdurate towns studding those limitless empty landscapes. Those who know only the beaten track do not know Spain. Those who have not roamed the labyrinthine complexity of her history do not know what they are travelling through. It is the love of a lifetime, the amazement is never-ending.”

Cees Nooteboom Roads To Santiago

I consider myself most fortunate and privileged to have walked long stretches of rural Spain three times — and to have discovered, at least in part, the raw, real, hidden heart of the country.

A Free Choice

“I had been right, I was still right, I was always right. I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done this thing and I had done another. And so? ”

Albert Camus The Outsider

The Benign Indifference Of The World

“I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world.”

Albert Camus The Outsider

The Authentic Self

In my late teens and early twenties I became fascinated with the philosophy of existentialism, which appeared at the time to provide an excitingly new mode of living. The existentialist belief in the prime importance of individual experience and the free (within limits) “authentic” self, the idea that existence precedes essence (we create our own essence out of our uniquely personal existence, a reversal of traditional Platonic philosophy), the acknowledgement that the world is fundamentally absurd, amoral and meaningless, the recognition that anxiety, anguish and despair inevitably arise in a godless world — all these concepts seemed brave and truthful, and to a large extent still do.

Apart from brief but illuminating forays into the works of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the two books about existentialism which affected me most were both novels: Jean-Paul Sartre‘s Nausea and The Outsider by Albert Camus. I’m reading The Outsider again at the moment. I began reading it in French some weeks (probably months) ago. This was rewarding but slow, as I had to look up so many words and phrases in the dictionary. Now I’m racing through the English version translated by Joseph Laredo and published by Penguin Books.

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.”

Albert Camus The Outsider

A Simple Pleasure

“I certainly feel, looking back on my life, that few pleasures I have known have excelled digging with a wooden spade in wet sand.”

John Cowper Powys Autobiography

The Creative God Within Us

“Interest, drama, meaning, purpose are qualities given to events by the individual mind. We are ourselves the gods who create the values of our life — what is essential, what is symbolic — and it is left to chance to provide the occasions for the application of these meanings and purposes.”

John Cowper Powys Autobiography

The Will And The Imagination

“I have always believed that the imagination and the will have a creative power. What a person wills and what a person imagines become a mysterious part of what is. It is madness to spend your days trying to eliminate what your own will and spirit and imagination are perpetually adding to the mystery of life.”

John Cowper Powys Autobiography

A Spartan Comfort

“A journey is not a cure. It brings an illusion, only, of change, and becomes at most a Spartan comfort . . . To ask of a journey, Why? Is to hear only my own silence.”

Colin Thubron To A Mountain In Tibet