22nd November 2014
Us by David Nicholls: novel set in Europe. Longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker...
For those who love mountains – whether clinging by their fingertips with rock inches from their nose, or at a safer, picture-postcard, distance – there is much to fascinate in Mountains of the Mind, a travelogue set in Europe, China, and Nepal. The mountains are real enough; it’s the story of their impact on the human imagination that is Robert Macfarlane’s subject. Today, many of us are irresistibly drawn to the spectacle and challenge that mountains afford, but it was not ever thus. Until the eighteenth century, mountains were places that most people, apart from Greek deities and Old Testament patriarchs, feared and avoided. Indeed, wealthy travellers in the seventeenth century paid to be led across the Alps blindfold lest the terrifying prospect of the peaks and precipices overwhelm them. As an academic and a mountaineer, Macfarlane is expertly qualified to document this transformation, and he interlaces beautifully the geological, historical and literary strands of the story with his own up-close and dangerous experiences of snow and ice in high places.
On a recent visit to the Alps, where I set eyes for the first time on the massif of Mont Blanc, I fully appreciated Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime as a pleasure evoked by terror at a (just) safe distance. And I marvelled at the exploits of Albert Smith, the English entrepreneur who climbed the mountain in 1851 supported by a prodigious team who carried with them over seventy bottles of wine, three of cognac and two of champagne. We are not told of the view, if any, he was capable of gaining when he reached the summit, but for anyone who shares the fascination that Macfarlane chronicles, this book will lead to enthralling new vistas from its many heights.
Adrian for the TripFiction Team