Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Grand Tour

From mid 16th century to mid 18th century, the well-to-do young graduate, usually male, would embark on a leisurely journey across Europe. Following Richard Lassels’s The Voyage of Italy, a tour of the key cultural capitals was considered vital to attain the level of "an accomplished, consummate Traveller".

A rite of passage into public life, one could improve one’s understanding in four areas: the intellectual, the social, the ethical and the political.
In reality, the experience was rather more hedonistic, allowing a nascent aristocrat a few years of intoxication, gambling and sexual abandon. (Much like InterRail.) “With nearly unlimited funds, aristocratic connections and months (or years) to roam, they commissioned paintings, perfected their language skills and mingled with the upper crust of the Continent. No one knows who came up with it, but their adventures soon had a perfectly appropriate name: the Grand Tour.” – Matt Gross (New York Times)

Words with JAM, no strangers to abandoned hedonism ourselves, would like to play Cicerone (that’s Cicerone, not La Cicciolina) and guide you in sampling some of the literary joys Europe has to offer. So pack your letters of recommendation, ensure your undergarments are laundered and the valet has labelled your trunk First Class, and let us depart these shores for The Grand Tour. Perhaps you should bring along a journal to record your Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents, just like William Beckford, a most extraordinary sort.

As we sail away from the white cliffs, let’s read Matthew Arnold’s Dover, which includes the line, “Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land” to get us in the mood.

In the Netherlands, we’ll start with a challenge. The Jewish Messiah by Arnon Grunberg tells the blackly humorous story of Xavier Radek against a backdrop of recent European history. It also serves as a salutary warning – never get circumcised by a myopic cheese salesman. WWII looms over Tessa de Loo’s The Twins, in which two sisters, separated at six years old, meet by chance seventy years later. Their respective experiences range across the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany and their attempts to understand each other makes for touching, enlightening reading.

Step off the train at the Gare de Nord, and for the full sensory impact of Paris, immerse yourself in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, or Andrew Miller’s Pure. Both set in the 18th century, these books bring the scents and stenches, colours and tastes, depravity and filth of the city in that period to brilliant life. More modern Paris and partly set in Vienna, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. This explorative memoir of his family history and the events which led to the preservation of 264 netsuke carvings is wonderfully detailed and will encourage a whole new appreciation of all things artistic.

And onto Switzerland. Time for some action in Geneva with Robert Harris’s The Fear Index. A fast-paced chase around the city with an ingenious plot and behind-the-scenes insights into the financial industry. Back to 1880, and Mark Twain’s endearing mixture of fact and fiction in A Tramp Abroad. Mountains, stories, observations and sketches and an appendix entitled The Awful German Language, this is a perfect Grand Tourist’s companion.

Through the San Bernadino Pass and into Italy, first stop Venice. For crime lovers, pick up any one of Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti series. Or delve in the atmospheric vision of the place as described by Thomas Mann in his novella, Death in Venice. It has an exquisite inevitability, much like the city itself. Don your white panama, and allow Thomas Harris to introduce you to Florence, in pursuit of Hannibal. Dr Lecter is up to his Machiavellian tricks in the cradle of the Renaissance. So much to see in Rome, one can get easily distracted, so short stories are in order. Settle down in a quiet square, order a Prosecco and indulge in some Rome Tales, giving you a glorious array of perspectives on the Eternal City.

Last stop before we return home to become fine upstanding members of society is Naples. So many books we could choose from, such as Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, which details his experiences of violent organised crime. But we want to end our trip on an up note, so it has to be A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. True, only one section is set in Naples, but it is such a terrific book, you’ll thank us anyway.

If you are the sort of person who likes to explore a place in a literary as well as physical sense, grab yourself one of the City Lit Series. Don’t forget to send us a postcard.


By JJ Marsh – author, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. Short story collection out now.

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