Dear Ella

At one stage we had the album of that name playing, Dee Dee Bridgewater doing some justice to Ms Fitzgerald; but there was a bit too much big band in it at the time, and something more soothing was needed, being a  bit sensitiv to noise as we sometimes are.

I turned to another Ella, Maillart, and her journey with Annemarie Schwarzenbach which I have mentioned before.  The Cruel Way was first published in 1947, but re-issued recently by Chicago University Press following the fresh interest sparked by the English translation of Schwarzenbach’s journey.  In the original format Maillart dedicated the book ‘To Christina, In Memoriam’.  For the troubled Annemarie, who had passed away before Maillart began to write, was then incognito.

Each time I opened the book I read a marvellous bon mot – “Good friend, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”

The new edition comes with a splendid introduction from Jessa Crispin, and that alone gives the background to the events.  Our two travellers set off for Geneva, bound for Afghanistan, in a new Ford.  There are some of Maillart’s pictures, one of said Ford tied into the bow of a caique, and when I get back to base and have a scanner handy I might just treat you.  Another snapshot is described as ‘radiant manhood of a fair-eyed shepherd’.  I’ll keep you in suspense for that one.

From Crispin’s foreword we learn something of Annemarie’s ails.  Her health as not good; she was stick-thin and pale.  But her troubles ran much deeper than that.  She had been married to a diplomat, convenient for both, and visas were readily obtained.  ‘She drifted along, sometimes a writer, sometimes muse, sometimes archaelogist.  Sometimes boy, sometimes girl.

As with most journeys to be read about we have the physical travel and the inner road travelled.  Maillart was intent on saving her friend, hence the northern Afghan road avoiding cities where opium may be just too readily available for her friend to resist.  She had recognised writing talents, and the road to life.

And so two young female travellers, one Swiss and one German, set out less than three months before war ravaged Europe.  By the time the war was over even a period in what we would today call rehab, in New York, could not give new life to the ailing German.  Maillart writes of both journeys beautifully.  The physical is peppered with history from parts of the world overloaded with lore.  Through Istanbul to Trebizond, Armenia, past Ararat and through troubled Persia, we reach the Afghanistan we have heard so much about more recently.  We learn of Ghengis and Alexander and Timur the Lame, and we travel with the Polos amongst others.  Baptised Mongols convert to Islam, and imams an mosques guide our way.

And through it all we have care and concern, and dealing with policemen and customs; tents and caravanserais and driving a Ford over some brutal terrain.  It pretty much has everything you might look for in a travel book, but enriched today for Schwarzenbach’s account and with Crispin’s foreword.

And Maillart brings me words like ‘prognathous’.  I might need to note that down and use it sometime.  There’s a couple more of Ella Maillart’s works on the shelf.  Turkestan Solo was re-published a few years back by TPP and it’s certainly worth a second read.  I’ve an old copy too of The Forbidden Journey, which might just find a place on the bedside table before long.

And that little bon mot on my  bookmark?  Well those are the words of Mr Mark Twain, and the marker comes from a certain bookshop in Biggar.  It seems ideal for the outdoor life under the sun of Limburg; and it reminds me that the second volume of Twain’s autobiography will be available in a month or two.

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