[ilds] the real protagonist is the city herself

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Wed May 6 04:48:57 PDT 2009


Malcolm Pryce's top 10 expatriate tales

 From Graham Greene's novels to Thomas Cook's timetables, the novelist 
settles on the best rootless reads

Malcolm Pryce
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 6 May 2009 11.59 BST *

> Malcolm Pryce finished his first novel on a cargo ship off the coast 
> of South America and has spent much of the past 10 years abroad 
> somewhere, writing a series of comic private detective novels set in 
> Aberystwyth. His latest novel, From Aberystwyth With Love, documents 
> the search for Hughesovka, a legendary replica Aberystwyth built in 
> the Ukraine in the last century.
> "All my life I have been fascinated by tales of those vagabond souls 
> who go off searching for promised lands and Shangri-las. People who 
> sailed beyond the dawn driven by the belief that the other man's grass 
> skirt was always greener. It's probably why I have devoted my life to 
> chronicling those spiritual misfits, the people of Aberystwyth."

> 1. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
> Ostensibly it is about the eponymous quiet American – a naive and 
> idealistic CIA agent in Saigon during the French colonial war of the 
> 50s. But what lingers is the relationship between the world-weary 
> newspaper correspondent, Fowler, and his beautiful girl Phuong. Greene 
> perfectly skewers the superfluity of western notions of love that 
> invariably inform such situations. Undermining the idyll is the 
> mercenary elder sister, painfully aware of the need to use Phuong's 
> beauty to secure a provider for the family while her beauty still has 
> currency.

> 2. A Woman of Bangkok by Jack Reynolds
> One night in Bangkok, so the song goes, makes a hard man humble. The 
> city is, in fact, a combine harvester for the ex-pat male heart. Jack 
> Reynolds captures the ethos perfectly in this, the definitive account, 
> written 50 years ago. A young and unworldly Englishman is posted to 
> Bangkok and falls for a beautiful dancing girl in the Bolero 
> nightclub. The girl requites his love by spit-roasting him with scorn, 
> and turning him into a chump. Reynolds chronicles the various stages 
> of his downfall, without mercy. Read it before you get posted, but 
> don't expect it to save you.

> 3. The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
> After reading this many years ago I vowed never to visit the city. How 
> could it possibly live up to its fictional portrayal? An unnamed 
> English teacher on a Greek island looks back on his sojourn in 
> Alexandria between the wars. He considers the intertwined fates of the 
> people he met there; they are numerous, but the real protagonist is 
> the city herself, exquisitely presented in all her shifting moods and 
> lemon-tinged light. Some tastes might find the relentlessly extended 
> languor a touch too much, in which case John Crace's satirical 
> digested read 
> [http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/nov/29/digested-classics-justine-lawrence-durrell] 
> of the first book, Justine, is a perfect antidote.

> 4. The Discovery of Tahiti; a journal of the second voyage of HMS 
> Dolphin round the world under the command of Captain Wallis, RN, in 
> the years 1766, 1767, and 1768, written by her master George Robertson
> He didn't actually settle there but his description of the island set 
> the tone for the innumerable vagabonds, beachcombers, castaways, 
> mutineers, buccaneers, poets, lovers, dreamers, romantics, and 
> novelists from Aberystwyth who have since fetched up on those 
> parakeet-coloured shores. The salt-rimed tars who had spent six months 
> in the foetid wooden hold of the HMS Dolphin suddenly found themselves 
> in a land where sex was offered to weary travellers as naturally as 
> food. Each one found a sweetheart and all she asked in return was a 
> ship's nail. All was bliss until the ship fell apart. I went there 
> with a ship full of nails but the price had gone up.

> 5. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
> "Mum, I'm nineteen and I've decided it's time I sought my fortune. I 
> will walk to Spain. I'll land in Vigo and walk the breadth of the 
> land, playing my violin, getting drunk on sherry and sleeping under 
> the stars with a sloe-eyed sweetheart in my arms.
> "Sounds like a good plan, son, I'll make you some treacle biscuits."
> And off he went. That's it in a nutshell, but it's well worth reading 
> the whole thing.

> 6. The Gentleman in the Parlour by Somerset Maugham
> You stand in a sun-dappled, bee-throbbing English churchyard, reading 
> the graves. Curiously, everyone in this town seems to have died in 
> their thirties. The dark-skinned priest waves and you remember with a 
> start you are in Sri Lanka. The headstones were made in Glasgow and 
> shipped out, like the lives they commemorate. I always picture 
> Somerset Maugham as the eponymous gentleman in the parlour. He sits on 
> the verandah at Raffles, chronicling the desolate fates of the broken 
> souls washed up on the remoter shores of Empire; their lives pickled 
> in gin and quinine.

> 7. Thomas Cook European Railway Timetable
> You shouldn't travel without a book of poetry, and this is mine. 
> Foreign railway stations are a spiritual 'home' for the exile. Trams 
> glide round equestrian statues outside; food kiosks, information and 
> cambio booths rub shoulders in dusty cathedrals smelling of salami and 
> Czech beer. Most of the romance has gone, but some still survives 
> fossilised in the pages of the Thomas Cook timetable.

> 8. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
> Nabokov writes an elegy to his lost childhood in pre-revolutionary St 
> Petersburg; the backward lens of time imparting a particularly golden 
> hue to such remembered exotica as Pears soap, Golden Syrup and 
> countless other marvels shipped out from London. The prose is 
> wonderful and occasionally sublime, especially in the child's eye view 
> of the five-day train journey each summer to Biarritz.

> 9. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
> Another dissolute ex-pat drinking himself methodically to death in a 
> sun-blanched land. Mexico on the Day of the Dead, his ex-wife turns up 
> to shake some sense into him but he's not in the market for sense. 
> Instead he drinks. It's hot; there's an incident with a whore; he has 
> an argument with a police captain, never a good idea but that's 
> probably why he does it. Then the Day of the Dead comes to an end, and 
> so does he. Someone throws a dead dog into the ravine after him. I've 
> read it countless times and am still not sure quite why I like it so 
> much. But I've ordered the dog for my funeral.

> 10. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
> Hemingway in Paris in the 20s. Starving, living in a garret with his 
> wife, but somehow able to write in the morning and go to the races 
> every afternoon. It all seems so achingly romantic that it comes as a 
> shock in later years to find out it was mostly bollocks - he wasn't 
> really starving but had loads of money. Ah well. The bits about 
> sharing the place with Ezra Pound, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox 
> Ford, John Dos Passos, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein are true. As is 
> the sage advice he gave, that when writing one should always leave a 
> bit over for the next day; stop before one has finished what one was ...

Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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