I’ve been thinking about the last two books I finished. Usually I would hardly consider a fiction and a non-fiction book together but they had something in common – aside from being featured in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust To Go that is. The fiction: Peter Cameron’s The City of Your Final Destination and the non-fiction: Georgina Howell’s Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.
The City of Your Final Destination is set in Uruguay, although it won’t satisfy the armchair traveler as it is mostly takes place within a big house in Uruguay
“Here I am in Uruguay, but I could be anywhere. I could be in Kansas. Although the air smelled different: there was some sort of warm, dusty scent that seemed vaguely exotic.”
That’s Omar thinking out loud. He’s a scholar trying to get authorisation to write a biography about the writer Jules Gund. Omar’s kind of a strange one, or at least his girlfriend Deirdre makes him out to be a strange one. He doesn’t seem to really push himself to do things, instead she does the pushing – she tells him to go to Uruguay to get the authorisation. And he does.
The story didn’t quite jell with me for a while, until Omar meets Caroline, Jules’ wife (who lives in the same estate as Jules’ mistress and brother – yeah it is complicated):
“She turned away from the window. ‘Of who I would seem to be if a biography were written of Jules. If, let us say, you were to write a biography of Jules. Who would I be? A mad Frenchwoman, who had been married to Jules Gund, painting in an attic.'”
And then I realised what this book was about. This biography of a man who is no longer alive would change them all, perhaps especially Omar:
“Suddenly it seemed exhausting, impossible: How do you write a biography? he wondered, when there is so much, when there is everything, an infinity, to know. It seemed impossible. It was like compiling a telephone book from scratch.”
And that then is my reason for connecting this review with that of Gertrude Bell’s biography. For indeed, how do you begin a biography? Especially with a woman who has lived such a life? A woman who once used to be more famous than T.E. Lawrence (who was a good friend actually), who travelled the Middle East, at a time when women rode side saddle (she had an apron sort of garment made to cover her pants), who climbed mountains (taking off her skirt to do so!), who was daring and brave and adventurous – at a time when women tended to keep to the home.
“Constrained and compartmentalised at home, in the East Gertrude became her own person.”
Howell does a great job piecing together her life, from letters, from other accounts of her, from the many works Bell wrote, essentially to figure out:
“By what evolution did a female descendent of Cumbrian sheep farmers become, in her time, the most influential figure in the Middle East?”
A gung-ho spirit, a fierce determination, wit and charm helps. As does knowing the right people! If you’re in the mood for a biography, may I suggest this one. Gertrude Bell, she astounds me.
Alright, to finish off this post, here’s a little music to think of biographies by (or to listen to with your favourite biography?). Richard Julian‘s A Short Biography