'To be alone by choice is one of the great luxuries of the world.'
While I was staying alone by choice in L’Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine at le Barroux last week I read Mary Lee Settle’s book Spanish Recognitions from which the quote above is taken. Mary Lee Settle has never been a fashionable author, explaining: 'I don’t write about being vaguely unhappy in Connecticut'. Instead she produced epic works such as the five novel Beulah Quintet, and her wise and graceful travelogue Turkish Reflections.
Her latest book Spanish Recognitions continues the style of her highly acclaimed Turkish travel volume. The context is unlikely; an eighty-two year old American writer tackles southern Spain armed with a hire car and laptop. But this is most definitely not travel writing in the ‘look at the silly things I did on my travels’ style of Bill Bryson. This is great travel writing equal to the best of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Jan Morris and Paul Theroux. This is travel writing that uses fine prose. This is travel writing that is meticulously researched. It makes you think, and most importantly it makes you want to be there.
Mary Lee Settle’s own reasons for returning to Spain also sum up her philosophy of travel: 'So I yearned to go again, and learn, and be there, if even for a few days, as one who lived, ate, slept, made habits as structures for my stay, however short. I think that is the only way of beginning to know a place, instead of seeing from outside, like a perpetual stare through a window'.
Spain has a unique position in European history. Much of it was occupied by Muslims between the 8th and 10th centuries. (The picture at the head of the post is the Alhambra in Granada which was built for Mohammed ibn Yusuf ben Nasr in the 13th century). After the Christian Reconquista was completed in the 15th century the Catholic church was not subject to the Reformation that changed the face of northern Europe. Mary Lee Settle’s linking of Spain’s Muslim past to our troubled present is the high point in what is consistently an outstanding book, and is the reason why the volume is subtitled The Roads to the Present.
My own words are inadequate here, instead let me quote the author again: 'No one in the new millennium should ignore what happened in Granada in 1492. Al-Andulas, Analucia, Spain – it was one of the first places mentioned as having been stolen from the Muslims in an early televised Osama Bin Laden (above) tirade of bitterness and intent. Few in this country knew where it was or what he was talking about. He was using ancient hurts, ancient trials, ancient brutalities to fuel his own modern hatred.'
As William Faulkner wrote: 'The past is not dead. It isn’t even past'. It just takes an author with the skill of Mary Lee Settle, and a book as fine as Spanish Recognitions to remind us of that.
I wrote this article in the sun-filled cloister of a Benedictine monastery in France. I didn’t have access to the news media. When I returned to England I learned that while I had been reading Spanish Recollections Mary Lee Settle (right) had died at the age of eighty-seven. Let us not mourn her passing. Instead let us celebrate her talent.
Alhambra, Granada - Photo Atlas
Osama Bin Laden - Biografias y Vidas
Mary Lee Settle - West Virginia Humanities Council
If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to Musicians against nuclear weapons