Perseus in the Wind

I went to the Double Bay library book fair a few weeks ago. It was a rather pleasant Sunday — Mass, then the book fair, followed by an amazing hot cross bun from a local café, and finished with Jamie’s Italian for the $10 pasta special (I had vegetarian bolognese, made with lentils. It was delicious, especially once some dried chillies were added), supplemented by some pleasant wine. The book fair itself was fun; for the most part, there was little that really grabbed me, till I stumbled on Perseus in the Wind, by Freya Stark. The title immediately caught my eye, though I had never heard of this ‘Freya Stark.’ I flipped through a few pages, and was immediately hooked, hence the blog post.

Firstly, Freya Stark was a travel writer from the 20s and 30s. She ventured into the Middle East on many occasions, and it was she who discovered the Valley of the Assassins. Her numerous travels were documented in a few books, none of which I have read, but apparently are quite well loved. Stark did some work for the British propoganda office during the War, convincing Arab tribes and city dwellers that, if they didn’t want to join the Allied war effort, then they really shouldn’t be joining the Axis. Stark returned to a family villa in Italy, immediately after it was captured, and Perseus in the Wind is a collection of essays she wrote while living in her villa. The name, by the way, refers to the constellation of Perseus, which she once saw covered in swiftly-blown clouds as she crossed the Persian mountains.

Som Perseus in the Wind. As mentioned, it is an eclectic collection of essays, on topics ranging from death to education to memory to beauty to love and more. The essays are fascinating; the common pattern is an anecdote from her travels, followed by bringing the anecdote to a comparison with her chosen topic, before setting out to discuss the topic. The writing is, honestly, great. It draws the reader in, with wonderfully evocative descriptions of scenes of Stark’s travels, to grand metaphors. In an essay on sorrow, Stark comes briefly to describe a Rudyard Kipling short story, in which a man remembers his earlier incarnation as a Roman galley slave, on a ship that sunk — Kipling describes (apparently well, though I have only this information second-hand from Stark) the sunlight piercing through the thin veil of water that has just covered the slave’s head, his last vision of the sea before the ship to which he is chained drags him to the darkest depths. Stark mentions “I have known a moment like that” and describes a sunny day in Italy during her youth, sitting on her apartment’s balcony, watching a brothel across the road as she waited for bad news. Stark ends with:

“The afternoon was wearing towards evening, and, as I waited there, the swallows came out. They flew above the small tiled roofs that cover each chimney pot, and high into the sky above the line of Apennine beyond: in their aerial tumult, with needle wings, they embroidered a network constantly vanishing, constantly renewed, behind which the sunset unfolded its roll of gold. The late hour rested like a hand in the roofs of the town, and into my grief a certainty of inviolable peace came fleeting and eternal. The news that I had waited for reached me, and broke upon me as the wave broke on the men chained to their oars — as it breaks upon us all: days and weeks and months followed, lost in forgetfulness; but the memory of that afternoon survived with it strange peace. In it all was unified, painted as it were in a picture — the darting swallows and the young men in the street and the brothel windows and my own passion, reconciled with each other in a sheaf of earthly light long pardoned by time.”

I love that paragraph. The description of the coming evening, of the small things, and the whole event. I love it, the way it rolls off, painting a beautiful image, and carving her memory into our own minds, bringing in her grief and, skilfully, drawing her grief to Grief that we all know.

I can’t comment on every single essay in the book, but I can say that each is beautifully written, each contains a feeling of truth, even when one may disagree. Stark writes pleasantly, and always manages at least one memorable quote per essay: “Religion is all an adventure in courage, and superstition a print of adventuring footsteps in the past, though it is apt to become more coercive than a footprint and to freeze, if it can, the exploring spirit from which itself was born.” When talking of Aphrodite, or Love, at the end when she returns, “The waves will laugh and cover the bare rocks and worn shabby places of our hearts; and we shall know how to welcome her, because we have known her long ago.” There are many more, but to discover them, I must implore the reader to seek out a copy for the reader’s own self, so that the reader may delight in the pages, the style, the thoughts, and experiences of Freya Stark.

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