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West on Books: Norman Douglas and Freya Stark Revisited

By Richard West

Musica  letitiae comes medicina dolorum: “music is the companion of joy, the balm of sorrow.” And so are certain books, especially so when they are great ones returned from obscurity.  So an appreciative flute of Tattinger Brut Millesime ’02 (perky, intelligent, with a hint of money) to Tauris Parke Paperbacks for reprinting, to date, 88 iconic travel narratives of the past.  No matter the author, in each one you’ll find an inexhaustible fund of erudition, wit, and literary style.  Three of my favorites:

Old Calabria, by Norman Douglas.  First published in 1915, it remains the best book ever written on the toe of Italy’s boot, a vivid evocation of life, language, history, and customs of this ancient land. A brilliant observer, a scientific humanist, a true homo mediterraneus, Douglas knew everything  about this region.

Ionia: A Quest, by Freya Stark.  That’s Dame Freya Stark, one of the two great English Mid-East explorers (the other, Wilfred Thesiger), who lived 100 years, learned Persian and Arabic, and traveled into western Iran and southern Arabia before any non-Arab.  “Ionia,” an account of her 1952 travels through western Turkey, was one of three books resulting from her following  in the steps of Alexander the Great.

Siren Land: A Celebration of Life in Southern Italy, by Norman Douglas.  Again, Douglas, unsurpassed writing about this region, this time on the Bay of Naples and the island of Capri, where he died 55 years after first buying a villa in Naples. It was his first travel book, first published in 1911, and in many ways  his best, showing on every page a wide and Gibbonian outlook. “Capri’s beauty, though vital and palpitating, is now cramped and impaired by the encroachments of humanity. Rocks are blasted away for driving roads; shrubs are cut down; high walls and houses everywhere invade its primitive comeliness.” Imagine his thoughts today.

RICHARD WEST spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.

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1 Comment

  1. Allie McCoy
    November 9, 2010 at 2:44 pm — Reply

    When I went to college in Philadelphia we read Freya Stark. That was in the 1950’s and yet I still remember her as a vivid writer and an intrepid traveler. She was an inspiration to all of us girls!

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