Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Edith Durham’s High Albania

Edith Durham was a British traveler of the early twentieth century who focused much of her travel and writing on Albania. At the time, the West knew little about Albania – the country was largely unexplored. In her travelogue, High Albania, Durham notes at times the gross inaccuracy of the maps she’s traveling with, giving some sense of just how unknown the region was.

Durham occasionally delves into anthropology, but High Albania is a book best read as the travel diary of a woman in love with the Albanian people. There’s some discomfort here for a reader visiting the book over a hundred years after it was first written, as Durham frequently offers cringe-worthy statements about the childlike nature of the Albanians, or broad criticisms of the Muslims she encounters on her travels. (Though she never goes as far as the Christian Albanians, who claim you can always tell when a Muslim is in the room by the stench.) But read with a sense of the time at which it was written, and a knowledge of Durham’s unabashed love for Albanians – that other famous female chronicler of the Balkans, Rebecca West, criticized Durham for returning home “with a pet Balkan people established in their hearts as suffering and innocent, eternally the massacree and never the massacrer” – this is a stunning glimpse at Northern Albania just before the first World War.

I usually keep my reviews out of the realm of the personal, but in the case of High Albania I’m not sure there’s a way to do so, or even a reason to try. One of the things I most loved about Durham’s writing was that it highlighted so many of the things I felt and experienced when I lived in Macedonia, over a hundred years after she made the trip she writes about in this book. There is something awing about getting a glimpse of the continuity of a regional culture, and to see that for all the aspects of life that have changed in Northern Albania (and also in Western Macedonia – I’m extrapolating, because although there a number of real distinctions between the Albanian cultures and religions in the two countries, and between Macedonian Muslims and Albanian Muslims, there are also a lot of commonalities, broadly speaking) there are many that are just the same. When Durham eats at a sofra, for instance, I was drawn back to my first time eating at a sofra with my host family in Debar, and to some of the traditions they explained over the two years I lived with them.

The women brought warm water in an ibrik and soap, and a clean towel for each. We washed our hands, the sofra was spread with the men’s dinner. We squatted round (I am always classed with the buck-herd) and the women withdrew to a respectful distance.

The soup, fowl, eggs, and milk were excellent. We ate with wooden ladles from a common platter. The Kastrati took the breast-bone of the fowl and held it against the light, scrutinised its markings, and declared it foretold no evil to this house – which was very polite of him.

[…]

We washed our hands and rose from the sofra. The women hurried up and carried the remains to the other end of the room, where they devoured them. (64)

Edith Durham

High Albania is composed of moments like this. There’s no real organizing principle evident behind Durham’s writing; at points, there is even a jumpiness to the text that suggests a direct transcription of notes she made while traveling. Durham’s shifting from describing travel conditions to a blood feud (one of her main focuses as she writes) to a traditional story gives us a vivid portrait of Albanian life. That Durham chose not to attempt better organization was actually one of my favorite aspects of the book, as the crush of information about all aspects of Albanian life so closely mirrors the actual experience of moving to a new country and attempting to assimilate cultural traditions and history and habits all at one moment.

In recounting traditional stories, Durham also offers a glimpse of the sort of favorite stories that will rarely show up in a history book, and that highlights some aspects of the Albanian character that we might otherwise miss. She includes perhaps five or ten stories of a few pages each in High Albania, but there are also briefer examples of this type of story – here’s one.

The tribesmen love a joke. It is usually a tale of a successful swindle. Thus: A man bought a donkey at the bazar and led it away. Two thieves followed him. One slipped the halter from the donkey, and went off with it. The other put the halter on his own head, and followed the man. When the first thief had had time to escape with the donkey, the second began to pull and groan. The astonished man looked back, and found the donkey gone and a man in its place. “Where is my donkey?” he asked. “Alas!” cried the thief, “I am that luckless being. A wicked magician turned me into a donkey for fifteen years. The time has just come to an end. I have nothing, and know not where to go.” The kind man then released him, and gave him some money. (212)

As Durham writes, the idea of the trickster is such a common one in Balkan stories – it is these characters, in fact, who are the “heroes” of the story. In the despairing way in which they speak of the Turkish government, and of the possibility of having greater rule and fewer blood feuds in the Northern region, there is a sense of why this tale of the swindle is such a central one in Albanian culture. For a group of people so removed from government, who may have heard of the great workings of the West or the Ottoman Empire but saw no evidence of them in their own lives, for people who might work hard every day but have their lives changed by one instance of good or bad luck, the notion of a man tricking his way into a better situation must have been an apt one. Durham does a fantastic job of pointing the reader to this, and to so many other factors influencing the lifestyles and mindsets of the Albanians she meets.

High Albania is a great read for anyone into old-timey travelogues, the Balkans, or casual anthropology. I may well write more about this work, but no fears – anything more in-depth will find its proper place on my other blog, where I probably should be writing about all my research reading to start with. (But hey! It’s my blog, I make the rules around here!)

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Review: Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs

Oh, Maisie Dobbs! Where do I begin? I read the first novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s mystery series about an investigator-slash-pyschologist in inter-war London over one gorgeous day on my balcony. I think I put it down, a couple times, for meals.

The first novel in the series, titled simply Maisie Dobbs, follows Maisie as she opens her detective agency in London and struggles to find clients. With help from her benevolent former employers (along the lines of Downton Abbey’s Lord Granthom), she soon finds work on a number of minor cases. One of these cases forces Maisie to look at her own past, and to uncover the wounds World War I has left on her and on so many former soldiers from England, including the son of her former boss, Lady Rowan Compton.

Maisie Dobbs isn’t a mystery novel in the strictest sense of the term, because there is so much here that has to do with Maisie’s personal development, and with the changes to British society during the wars, rather than with the investigations she is hired to carry out. In making the novel as much about culture and loss and moving past personal histories, though, Winspear gives us something so much more valuable than a simple whodunnit: a novel that takes its central mystery as a way to consider World War I and its lasting impact on soldiers and society as a whole.

As the novel opens, Maisie is hired by a man who believes his wife is cheating on him. In following his wife, Maisie stumbles over a larger mystery: that of how a retreat for wounded soldiers is being run, and why several men living at the retreat have died in the past years. In addressing this mystery Winspear relies heavily on coincidence, and there’s an air of Nancy Drew here as Maisie tools around in Lady Compton’s “smart crimson motor car”, but watching Maisie and her assistant, Billy, work to learn the truth behind this retreat is a pleasure.

The middle third of the novel is devoted to Maisie’s past. It’s here that the novel loses some steam, but also where Maisie’s character – and the characters of those she works with and has lived with – are developed. After her mother dies, Maisie has to work as a maid in the home of Lady Compton. After her employer discovers Maisie’s thirst for learning, she is supported in her studies and as she goes to university. Not long after the outbreak of war, though, Maisie leaves school to train to be a Red Cross nurse. In the course of things, she falls in love with a doctor, Simon; it’s this story that shapes Maisie’s own, including her interest in investigating the soldiers’ retreat. Although her tone is often light, Winspear does an admirable job of coloring the war for her readers, particularly the ways that war overlaps with the daily lives of those still living at home. Before she decides to train as a nurse, for example, Maisie is passing through a train station:

The station was a melee of khaki, ambulances, red crosses, and pain. Trains brought wounded to be taken to the London hospitals, nurses scurried back and forth, orderlies led walking wounded to waiting ambulances, and young, new spit-and-polished soldiers looked white-faced at those embarking.

Despite its faults as a mystery novel (namely, that no reader could hope to solve the mystery before Maisie herself does), Maisie Dobbs is a total pleasure of a novel, beach reading for the person who wants something some depth in their reading. Watching Maisie move through London ten years after the war is enthralling, as is watching her work through her memories in the course of her work. It is real fun to trip in Maisie’s shadow as she works not only to solve the central mystery, but to find some closure for her own memories and wounds (physical and otherwise) of the war.

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