When I think of the books I really love, the ones I rant about and buy spare copies of so I can give them away, I do not associate many of them with the place where I first read them. I extol an author’s language and humor, a particularly memorable character, the ideas that make the book hum, the sense of place imparted on the pages between the covers. For the most part, what I’m reading is much more important than where I’m reading it.
One notable exception to this dates back to 1998, when as a college student I had the good fortune to participate in Semester as Sea (back before MTV sullied the program’s reputation). I had already gotten a taste for travel and the narratives it inspired by authors like Jan Morris and Paul Theroux. Before leaving for four months at sea, I knew I needed the right book. I found it in The Size of the World, Jeff Greenwald’s recounting of his journey around the world without ever leaving its surface. Utilizing any available mode of ground transport, Greenwald put together more than just a travel story, and I will never forget reading it during my time on that ship.
I’m writing this in Granada, Spain, the Alhambra’s foreboding exterior walls hulking above the hills visible from my window. I knew I would be here for close to a month and had this very much on my mind as I ferreted around for a book to bring along. I wanted something big, entertaining thoughts of War and Peace or Mason & Dixon, maybe JR. The end of the harried week prior to departure found me at Posman Books in Grand Central (my first New York City employer), not wanting to rush my decision but also feeling a self-imposed pressure to get home, finish packing, tidy up the apartment and leave town the next day.
I fondled all of the books I had considered but none of them felt right. With my list out the window, I started looking at books I haven’t read by authors I like. This didn’t work either. No stranger to such bookstore dilemmas, I defaulted to books published by houses I admire: FSG, NYRB, Vintage, New Directions, Dalkey Archive. I was getting warmer. Great Russian World War II novels didn’t seem right, neither did woeful contemporary tales of struggling writers. But then a spine that read Balcony of Europe caught my eye. I liked the cover: Roman arches holding up a great black edifice – housing the title and author’s name, Aidan Higgins – seemingly floating on the mountain-rimmed Mediterranean, two semblances of sail boats, triangles of red and yellow. The back cover copy declares the book a long-unavailable masterpiece, based in “a village on the coast of Spain,” which the table of contents pinpoints to Andalusia. I was sold.
Andalusia comprises the bottom chunk of Spain between Portugal and the Mediterranean. It contains several provinces, including Granada and Malaga at the region’s southern most reach. Nerja, where a great deal of Balcony of Europe takes place, is located in Malaga province. While the euro and technology have radically changed this part of Spain compared to the novel’s early 1960s setting, the craggy coastline and hilly interior dotted with remnants of Roman and Muslim conquests remain the same. At its core, this novel is about history, as the W.B. Yeats epigraph attests: “I begin seeing things double – doubled in history, world history, personal history.”
From early 1962 until the summer of 1963 Irish painter Dan Ruttle, the narrator, and his wife Olivia live in Nerja, a coastal village reluctantly awakening to the advent of tourism that helped spur Spain’s “economic miracle.” Attracting expatriated artists, writers and eccentrics eager to live cheap and focus on art and pastimes, the Ruttles work, read, swim and haunt local bars and cafes with other Europeans, Canadians and Americans. Chief among them are Bob and Charlotte Bayless, he a native Californian writing a scholarly book about Shelley and Byron and she a Lower East Side Jew, beauty her greatest craft.
Dan Ruttle and Charlotte Bayless have an affair. And in one sense, that’s the book. But though the affair is physically consummated, it exists mostly in Dan’s mind. He is obsessed by thoughts of their handful of assignations and how national, political and cultural histories cut their characters out of time’s fabric. The ghost of World War II is inescapable: Franco’s unfulfilled pledge of alliance to Hitler; drunken ex-Nazis; American “we saved your ass” bravado; Jewish identity; “American bombers” constantly flying exercises, contrails embroidering the clear skies. There are also Joycean weaves of history, bobbing in and out of myth and time as read from mountains and sea changes.
From what was and what is and what could be, all of the individuals in this book fill time and waste it. Both Olivia and Bob realize their spouses’ infidelities, but most of their reactions only ever exist in Dan’s head, his interpretation of glances and body language, how they echo the first time Bob slept with Charlotte years before in San Francisco. More than once, Olivia does raise the issue of Dan’s none too subtle preoccupation with Charlotte, but he never responds to her. Dan internalizes everything, and is aware of it, asking himself, “Would my sensations be forever intellectual?”
Interestingly, the characters solidify based on wonderfully descriptive and repeated details of physical traits and personalities. Charlotte doesn’t carry change because it is bad for the ovaries; Schiller kept rotting apples in his drawer because the smell inspired him. Such details are reported over and over again, sometimes more than once on the page, other times two hundred pages apart, providing a perspective like a fly’s: multi-faceted visions that form a whole.
Such repetition might suggest boredom or lack of anything better to say, but the opposite is true, as this book insists: “If a thing is boring, keep repeating it.” Nothing is boring or insignificant by virtue of its existence, and characters like Dan Ruttle tower over most fictional figures, able to create a worldview that synthesizes personal quirks with two thousand years of history. His attitude renders him a passive character, to be sure, but for Dan that’s the rub of history, all experiences are a return to a time that is and was, now and forever. Watching a tipsy old man search for a key to unlock a door, Dan thinks, “I sensed his discomfort; he did not want to go in, though by staying out he could not alter anything. He looked for neither truth nor the likelihood, stood there play-acting, making me feel uncomfortable. How well I understood how he felt, deforming himself, deforming habit and custom. But nothing would change.”
Of course, change is inevitable and constant. Today in this part of Spain there are more tourists, no language is uncommon to hear, no one bats an eye at topless sunbathing. But, dinner is still eaten very late, and breakfast is often accompanied by beer, the church bells still clang and the Sierra Nevada stand tall, dimpled with snow even in summer’s hottest months.
There is no doubt that reading this book at home in New York, riding the train and before bed, would be memorable, but reading it here, covering some of the same ground as these characters, makes it lasting. Watching patterns of swifts cross the sky, the movement of sand on the sea floor, flamenco guitar strings plucked as bright and crisp as the sun – these qualities of place have shaped my reading of Balcony of Europe.
The other day I pulled a stone out of the Mediterranean. It has probably not been dry for a very long time. I will return home with this soft, weathered stone, carrying its history, most likely older than human history and our constructs of space and time. In creating Dan Ruttle, Aidan Higgins has deftly distilled a great many ideas into one very important one: a place defines history, but history cannot be contained by a place.
What book has made an impression on you because of where you read it?