Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Liquid Continent by Nicholas Woodsworth

Have just finished reading The Liquid Continent by Nicholas Woodsworth.

It is a travel book - the authors meandering journey from Alexandria to Syria to Venice to Istanbul.  It was a book I was looking forward to reading, inspired by a review in the Daily Telegraph by Stephen McClarence (the cutting dated 8th March 2008, so it has taken me a long time to get round to it).  But ultimately I found the book disappointing - perhaps no book could live up to five years of anticipation.

The premise of the book is flawed - that the Mediterranean has created a cultural affinity among the cities and ports on its shores that transcends nationalities.  This is a sort of reverse Pirenne thesis (Pirenne argued that the Mediterranean world was united until the Arab invasions of the Middle East and North Africa).  This flaw would not matter if there were not more profound let-downs in the book.

The Alexandria section is excellent, and the subsequent journey to Syria superbly uncomfortable (both physically and emotionally).  But his arrival in Venice leads to pages describing episodes that seem to have been generated by the equivalent of the local chamber of commerce - dull people on yachts, dull delivery teams, dull museum personnel.  The Instanbul section is little better - dull trips on boats, dull custodians, dull fishermen.

One suspects that the author has been very careful not to offend any of the people he has met and named, and thus we have one-dimensional portraits that are inoffensive but also very boring.

Also it is an endurance to have to read about the author's wife.  She may be beautiful and charming and intelligent.  But the author is hardly an impartial witness, so he should have left all this out.

And the chapter endings each have an irritating tease of the "little did I know what was to happen next" variety.  One or two might be relevant.  But every single chapter is a bit predictable, and one gets the impression that the author added them in after the first draft.

Anyway, I did like parts of it. 

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