The Size of the World

The Size of the World – Branco Andic

First Published: In Serbian as Velicina sveta, by Prosveta, 2008

This Edition: 2015, Geopoetika Publishing

From the back of the book:  “The Size of the World offers a finely structured story about a world long gone but forever existing in its protagonists. It depicts Andic’s experience of growing up and coming of age in the former Yugoslavia, from the early 1960s till the late 1980s, presenting an image of a typical Yugoslave childhood of the time, with some notable differences that formed the author’s character and his world-view…This portrait of the artist as a young and somewhat older man is a pleasure to read.”

Thoughts:  I picked this book up in one of many busy, bustling bookshops in Belgrade. As our book stores dwindle in the UK, it was refreshing to watch people milling around the stands, picking up titles and inspecting them carefully before making their choices. My own choice was somewhat restricted by the fact that I cannot read Serbian, but a selection of translated prose gave me access to some modern and classic works, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

I’m still not entirely sure if this book is fiction or not. If it is not, then it is a piece of non-fiction written in the style of fiction, and it works fabulously.

The protagonist is now an adult, but reflections on his own childhood act as a background for reflection on his son’s coming of age as, his own ever-increasing maturity and the early experiences of his father.

A sporting theme recurs throughout, from trying to engage his teenage son, to idolising his dad as one of the finest swimmers on the beach. How can you not be one of the greatest when you’re wearing hand-decorated swimming trunks? But the sport really serves to illustrate the subtleties of family relationships. The trophy on the cabinet: Do you allow your son to believe it was from an Olympic race, or admit that perhaps dad isn’t the champion you think he is?

Alcohol is another topic to create a wake-up call. Surely, from a family of wine-makers, the traditions and tastes will be passed through the generations? How is Dad supposed to act then, when his son’s first alcoholic request (and the second, and the third,) is for beer?

Some of the memories visited are touching, and some made me cringe. There is a finely portrayed moment where the child gets it so wrong. But that’s what happens as you grow up, sometimes you put your foot in it, and it’s unfair to expect a little person to understand the difference between having some money and being a millionaire. Still, the scene on holiday where the penny drops recalled to my mind moments in my own childhood where a misunderstanding left me confused and wondering why people were pulling funny faces at my comments.

The tiny moments of victory experienced within a family are cherished in this book. When your own festive calendar doesn’t match with celebrations authorised by the state, it must be a huge internal struggle. But reading about how the family managed to balance what had to be done, with what they felt they should do, really makes me grateful for never having encountered such dilemmas.

I am very pleased with my random selection, and will keep an eye out for other translations from Geopoetika.

Edibility Rating: 3 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Only amateurs and self-important tourists count miles. For travellers by trade, they just fill in the space from here to there.”

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The Living Mountain

The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

First Published: 1977, Aberdeen University Press

This Edition: 2011, Canongate Books

From the back of the book:  “Awe-inspiring, poetic and philosophical, The Living Mountain is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century nature writing.”

Thoughts: This book is beautifully written. From the descriptions of the scenery to the immersive way Shepherd walks you through the Cairngorms, it’s a delight to read. The only drawback is its brevity, at only 108 pages long, I could have read more. I would, however, skip reading the introduction. It is almost as long as the main text, and although an interesting look into the context of the book, I feel like Robert Macfarlane gives away most of the precious lines before you have a chance to reach them yourself. I’ve learnt my lesson there.

From years spent wandering in the mountains, Shepherd divides her thoughts into logical chapters, from plant-life to the humans that inhabit and appreciate  them. Her observations of the living world are astute yet poetic, and peppered with subtle commentary on human nature that give this book its substance. If I were to spend a week in the Cairngorms now, I would be looking out for the wonderful characters that she meets on her adventures, even though she forlornly added that most had passed away prior to publishing.

Her descriptions of the living world are never dry. When writing about the experience of walking through heather, the scent “like too much incense in church, it blunts the sharp sense of adoration, which, at its finest, demands clarity of intellect as well as the surge of emotion.” Each time a tiny fragment of the scenery is described in this way, I couldn’t help but stop and think ‘wow, I would never have thought to put it like that.’ And so, I spent a lot of time thinking about how clever the writing was, in addition to enjoying the reading.

The manuscript was finished in 1945, but lay unpublished until the late seventies. Whether this was due to a lack of confidence in it, indicated through letters discussed in the introduction, or the lack of market, I don’t know. But I wonder whether she would have attempted publication earlier had she known that The Living Mountain would become one of the true nature writing classics?

Edibility Rating: 4.5 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “But they are not in the books for me – they are in living encounters, moments of their life that have crossed moments of mine.”

Buy The Living Mountain Here