Reading books in situ – Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore

by |February 1, 2011

When I was very young, my favourite book was Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and it wasn’t just for those adorable pink frilly petalled skirts or the thrilling fear of the Banksia Men. No, it was because I knew exactly where the book was set. May Gibbs brought everything to life so clearly that she must, surely, have written it in my own favourite patch of bush, down in the hill from my own backyard. At least, that is what I believed as an eight year old.

Considerably older and wiser now, I still hold a candle for books that I have read while actually being in the place (or as close as possible) in which they are set. Andrew MacGahan’s The White Earth has a special palpability when read on the black soil of the Darling Downs. Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country reads better in central Queensland than it does in Tasmania. I read Tim Winton’s Breath while watching surfers ride breaks from a bleak coastal cliff top – admittedly it wasn’t off the coast of Western Australia but at least it was off the coast somewhere.

I have, on my occasional travels out of the country, tried to apply the same principal. An Angel at My Table (Janet Frame) in New Zealand, Madame Bovary (Flaubert) in northern France and The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe) in New York. I gave up on reading Arthur Phillips’ Prague in situ when chapter after chapter was irritatingly set in Budapest. I’ll have another shot at it if I ever do make it to Budapest, although I suspect I will be re-reading Sandor Marai’s Embers instead.

Of course, for the few books that I have been lucky enough to read in a suitably appropriate location, there are hundreds that I haven’t. Have any of you read The Master and Margarita in Moscow? What about Washington Square in New York? Half of a Yellow Sun in Lagos? Leave your comments and make the rest of the world jealous – unless of course you are a Muscovite, New Yorker or Lagotian (?) in that order.

All of which leads me to Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore, which is being published next month and is available to pre-order now. This was my constant companion for a fortnight during a recent visit to that most inspiring,  maddening and perplexing of cities. First things first – this is a brick of a book. Don’t be put off. Yes, it is meticulously researched and enormously detailed, but Montefiore could give Bryce Courtney or Ken Follett a run for their money when it comes to historical drama, tales of derring do, rape and pillage, sweeping saga and brilliant characterisation.

This is the perfect platform for Montefiore, who has already won critical acclaim for his Stalin and Catherine the Great among others. However, his pedigree for this assignment is ideal. Having gone backwards and forwards between the UK and Jerusalem all of his life, he is himself descendant from the famous Rothschild and Montefiore families who played key roles in both European finance and the re-population of Jewry to what was then an outpost of the Ottoman empire in the nineteenth century.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Montefiore’s take on Jerusalem is both a physical and spiritual chronology. And what a subject! Could there be any place on earth that has been so fought over, so prized by so many different people’s across three millenia? I don’t think so.

In many ways, Jerusalem: The Biography is a history of the western world. All the names are there – from the Hebrew Bible, from the Christian Bible, from Islam, from just about every empire that has ever risen and fallen from before the Egyptians to the Crusades, to Napoleon, the Czars, the Ottomans, the competing colonial powers to the present day not to mention the famous and the infamous – Cleopatra to Herod, Sulemein the Magnificent to Rasputin.  But the author’s peculiar skill is to  bring it all so alive with the detail of characters and their particular traits – and let me tell you, if you like to trawl through the depths of human behaviour, you only need read this to get your fill of just about everything. That city has witnessed more varieties of violence and depravity that most of us could ever imagine.

From the preface:

Jerusalem is the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples. The temple of three religions and she is the only city to exist twice – in heaven and on earth. The very face that Jerusalem is both terrestrial and celestial means that the city an exist anywhere: new Jerusalems have been founded all over the world and everyone has their own imaginary Jerusalem. It is the universal city. Prophets and patriarchs, Abraham, David, Jesus and Muhammed are said to have trodden these stones. The Abrahamic religions were born there and the world will also end her on the Day of Judgement. Jerusalem, sacred to the Peoples of the Book, is the city of the Book: The Bible is, in many ways, Jerusalem’s own chronicle and its readers, from the Muslim conquerors to Crusaders and today’s American evangelists, have repeadedly altered her history.

Pre-order Jerusalem: The Biography.

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