Monday, September 14, 2020

Freya Stark in Iran and Wright Morris abroad - travel with meaning - the beautiful world, full of surprises

When I read Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps (1936), about a walk through the Liberian forests, I wondered about the pointlessness of the trip itself, aside from getting material for a book, and I am hardly arguing with that. Sylvain Tesson openly writes his books to finance, and possibly make sense of, his adventures, his life as a traveler. But I also recently read a couple of travel books that seemed more purposeful. 

Freya Stark’s The Valley of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (1934) is her first book. It is about several expeditions to the Iranian frontier, to the mountains north of Tehran, in part to visit the ruins of the fortresses of the legendary medieval Order of Assassins (borrowed Wiki photo to the left) and to exotic Luristan, a border area with Iraq just barely under the control of the central government, which is, when Stark is, building the region’s first road and cracking down on headgear. Hats, everyone had to wear the right hat.

Anyway, the point of these expeditions, somewhere between anthropology and espionage, was that Stark was completely in love with West Asian culture, and wanted to know everything about it. Language, literature, geography, history, everything. That’s how she spent her life, abandoning Europe for Iraq and Iran, learning Arabic and Persian and any other language that crossed her path, just absorbing it all.

[Fatima] and I amused ourselves by feeding a family of hens in the speckled shade of the young trees: her uncle gave us glasses of pale tea. Along the dusty road cars sped by: two British officers in sun helmets: they would be shocked if they noticed me sitting here like a gipsy. Luckily I was beneath their notice: I was free of all that: the empty Persian plains were around me, and crested Mountain ranges: the beautiful world, full of surprises, rushing through space we know not whither, was mine to do what I liked with for a while. (p. 162, Modern Library edition) 

That passage, abuse of colons and all, is not typical of Stark’s prose, but is typical of her attitude. What a life. 

Wright Morris’s Solo (1983) is a study-abroad memoir by an old man remembering his youth. Morris spent the year after graduating from college – in 1933, fifty years earlier! – in Austria, Italy and Paris, learning everything a young American thinking about becoming a writer might learn. I have not read any of Morris’s many novels, and I assume my enjoyment of Solo would be greater if I knew how he converted his experiences into fiction – his bizarre winter in a castle owned by a French lunatic must have been turned into a novel – but the good-humored, open-minded portrait of American innocence, or ignorance, is enjoyable regardless.

Morris and a buddy are bicycling across Italy. They run into trouble with the police, who knows why. It is 1934:

Bouncing along in the car, the lights flickering up ahead, it occurred to me that we were having a bizarre adventure, one of those that we would long remember. For the first time I was wearing handcuffs! “Had run-in with the Fascisti!” I would write on the postcards showing the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The word for this sort of thing was lark. We were having a lark. I had not yet read the stories of Hemingway, so I did not recognize the characters. (145) 

Three nights in Mussolini’s prisons is highly educational, as long as it is only three nights. “We found our biciclettas right where we had left them, but everything that could be unscrewed had vanished, including the chains” (151). The education via tourism resumes. Paris awaits.


  1. I read Stark's Southern Gates of Arabia a few years ago before going to Oman. I remember liking it pretty well. What a life indeed.

  2. You make both sound quite appealing.

  3. I read a chunk of Stark's Valley of the Assassins in the last year or two and was enjoying her justifications for looting antiquities and such until the library asked for the book back. "Somewhere between anthropology and espionage." Bravo, sir, bravo! Both books do sound appealing, by the way.

  4. i've been to the fjords with Ms. Stark and it was enlightening, but i've failed to find her other works at a reasonable price... may have to bite the financial bullet. i ride bicycles and the Morris sounds great; i'll look for it, tx...

  5. Southern Gates of Arabia, Stark's next book after Valleys of the Assassins, is in my mitts. I hope to get to it soon.

    Stark's looting tendencies are not exactly her most appealing feature. But is it ever characteristic of the time. Dig it up, send it home.

    Which fjords did Freya stark visit, I wonder? Yes, mudpuddle, read the Morris book. It is a real bicycling book, or at least the middle section in Italy. A lot of attention is given to the bicycle.

    The two books share a similar intellectually curious openness to experience.

  6. Sounds like an entertaining pair of possible reads - I'll keep an eye out....

  7. The Wright Morris was a little surprise. The Freya Stark is a classic of its type.