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Recent Reads – The Surprise of Cremona by Edith Templeton

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Since I very rarely get a chance to leave home, travel books have always been a big favourite of mine. I love the fact they can take you to a different country, but also to a different time. The best sort, I find, are those which not only make you feel you’ve actually *been* the place, but also which are narrated by someone you’d love as a travelling companion. “The Surprise of Cremona” came very highly recommended by Vulpes Libris, and so I was delighted to find a lovely Companion Book Club edition in a local charity shop for just £1. Edith Templeton sounds like she had quite an intriguing life, as Wikipedia tells us:

Edith Templeton (1916, Prague – 2006, Bordighera) was a novelist, who also wrote under the pseudonym Louise Walbrook. She was educated at the French lycée in Prague and left the city in 1938 to marry an Englishman. Her short stories began to appear in The New Yorker in the 1950s. Over the next several decades she published a number of novels as well as a popular travel book, The Surprise of Cremona. Edith Templeton left England in 1956 to live in India with her second husband, a noted cardiologist and the physician to the king of Nepal. Her novel Gordon was first published by Olympia Press in 1966 under the pseudonym Louise Walbrook and was subsequently banned in England and Germany, and was then pirated around the world. She lived in various parts of Europe and made her final home in Bordighera, on the Italian Riviera. She died in June 2006.

Cremona is in Northern Italy, and if I’m honest I didn’t think I’d heard of it before this book. Templeton’s journey begins there, after arriving on a sleeper coach, and goes on to take her through several places, ending up Arezzo. The opening of the book is a hoot, as Edith settles down with her sleeper companion for the night, a strange ‘Valkyrie’ maiden who seems surprisingly innocent in some ways. Templeton pokes fun a little at her, but never in a really nasty way. As she travels, she encounters a variety of people, from ‘Owls’ (learned Professors and the like who can answer her questions about art, mosaics, history etc) through sassy waiters and a variety of hotel keepers, via some very crabby policemen, to the “Tired Ones” – professional men who are tired of life and spend all their time pursuing foreign females!

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Templeton’s an engaging woman, not afraid to say what she thinks about a town, a landscape or a work of art. As a woman travelling alone in Post-War Italy (the book was published in 1955) she seems unconcerned about any risks and is more than a match for any Italian man! It’s a real delight to read her snarky comments about some of the buildings and places, but she’s not a complete hard nut – when faced with a love letter from Byron she’s moved to tears. One of the loveliest things about following Edith’s journey is seeing her discover unexpected joys; finding out how to really *see* a mosaic; stumbling upon an unexpectedly good trattoria; and of course racing off round the country with the “Tired Ones”, who simply want to be seen around with an English woman!

“The Surprise of Cremona” *was* a surprise in that it was unlike any travel book I’ve read before; most of those written by women have been Virago Travellers, so from the early pioneering days when survival was just enough; and the male writers often have a different angle. But Templeton mixes the personal and the professional, and it’s usually her unique worldview that wins out, giving the reader a joyously vivid image of the journey she’s taken. Because she’s a woman, the people she meets on her travels react to her differently than they would to, say, an Eric Newby, and so what she perceives and what she is shown has a fresh perspective. The book is peppered with digressions, stories about her family (particularly her mother, who sounds quite formidable), reflections on art and architecture and unusual analogies. And at the end, we find suddenly that she was due to meet up with a family member (an odd time to announce this) and Edith sails off out of our view to carry on her journeying…

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Templeton’s writing is excellent – forthright, funny and packed with information, it’s easy to read but stimulating prose, in a very funny, conversational style. She’s adept at one liners – for example, this self-deprecating one, when trying to change a cheque in a foreign bank:

“(The clerk) digs out some printed forms, fills them in, and tears them up once they have been written. This is a well-known creative process known by writers as ‘warming up’.”

And when, having eaten a meal, she considers Plato she states: “Plato says: ‘You feed your body which is mortal. How much more should you feed your soul which is immortal.’ I have never yet disagreed with anything of Plato’s. The only trouble about this body and soul business is that body can make itself much more unpleasant than the soul when hungry, and in a much shorter time. The soul can always wait. Perhaps the soul is so patient because it knows that it has all eternity before it.”

And I have to agree with Edith about her assessment of the best way for books to be stored:

“On the following evening I go to visit Professor Mirelli and am shown into his study. The bookshelves and furniture are all made of the same chestnut-brown wood, and the books look too well behaved for my liking, bound in matching leather and neatly ranged along the walls. They are neither crammed together nor piled on top of each other, nor do they overflow onto the floors and tables.”

I know which description tallies best with my books…..

When “Cremona” was published, Templeton was already an established novelist; as the jacket of my edition points out, ” her three novels… were all notable successes”. Despite the scandal of “Gordon” and the reissuing of her earlier novels, she’s still not a very well-known name, which is a great shame. Certainly, on the evidence of this book she could have made a nice living as a travel writer, and I’ll definitely be checking out her novels (though maybe not “Gordon”…..)!

Incoming! ….plus a new collection begins….

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Well, by my standards, it’s been quite a quiet week for book acquisitions – which is probably a good thing, really…

The Cheyney on the left came from an online source – I’m not exactly sure why, except for the fact that the cover is wonderful, and it is apparently set around Pevensey which I’ve just been reading about in another book (there will be a review later this week)! The Ransome and the Innes came from the Samaritans Book Cave – I’ve never got round to reading “Swallows and Amazons” so this year will be the one I do. And any Innes is usually worth picking up!

As for the new collection – well, I’m a sucker for book lists and the like, and while I was flaneuring across the InterWeb this week I stumbled upon a list of “Roth’s Writers from the Other Europe”, which had some fascinating titles on it. Excitingly enough, I have four of the books listed (and have read one of them) so this rather encourages me to check out some of the other ones….

Somehow (and I can’t recall how – that’s the nature of online wandering!) I came across another little collection of Central European Classics, which had been put out by Penguin a couple of years ago in lovely bright colours. I guess they bombed a bit (which is a great shame), because I can’t see that they ever put out any more and they’re only now available second-hand. So a couple have made their way to the Ramblings:

I’m quite surprised I haven’t noticed these before, because I’ve been keen on reading Capek for a while. However, I’ve found them now – there’s only ten – and they’re mostly not expensive. Oh dear – I can hear the bookshelves groaning in anticipation!

As for my current reading – the very spiky and wonderful “The Surprise of Cremona” by Edith Templeton. And there was a surprise in store when I looked her up online – I recognised one of her book covers and realised I have picked up this:

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in a charity shop and it was hidden in my stacks. Truly I need to sort these books out and get them into some sort of order and actually make a (very big) list of what I have to read!!

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