Sunday, September 15, 2013

Happy Birthday Agatha Christie: Come, Tell Me How You Live[d]

". . . as Victoria Station is left behind, exultation springs up once more. We have begun the lovely, exciting journey to Syria."

That is a sentence written by Agatha Christie Mallowan in 1942 or so about a journey to an archaeological dig she took with her second husband, Max Mallowan, in 1933. The small memoir/travelogue, entitled Come, Tell Me How You Live, is an invaluable peek into the woman who is the best-selling novelist of all time, as well as a fascinating first-person experience of the Middle East during the days of the Empire.

Agatha Miller was born on September 15, 1890, in Torquay, Devon England, to an English mother, Belfast born Clara Boehmer, and an American father, Frederick Miller.

I've come to admire Dame Christie a good deal. I have done my share of contributing to the 4 billion dollars of her sales, reading through the Poirot and Miss Marple canons and enjoying them immensely.

But I love even more connecting with the woman in her autobiographical writings. Her intellect, wit, general observations, and emotions are deep and rich, and the details of her life from late Victorian England to the turbulence of the 1960s make her a compelling first-person witness to the major events of the 21stcentury. Her travels to the Middle East of the Empire give details and flesh and bone to what to an American is just a sweeping idea of a bygone era, and her musings on how "You've got to hand it to Victorian women: they got their menfolk where they wanted them" and "The position of women, over the years, has definitely changed for the worse" is worth a post on itself.

The Foreword:  Nimrud, Iraq, 2 April 1950
Christie began writing her main memoir, simply called An Autobiography, while living in Iraq. That alone sets her apart from the pantheon of English literary journalists. Also unusual is that she wrote the book over 15 years, between 1950 and 1965, but deemed it would only be published after her death. She died January 12, 1976, and her memoir was published in 1977.  She had very clear ideas about controlling her life story when she could.

"I ought to be writing a detective story, but with the writer's natural urge to write anything but what he should be writing, I long, quite unexpectedly, to write my autobiography.

On second thought, autobiography is much too grand a word. It suggest a purposeful study of one's whole life. It implies names, and dates and places in tidy chronological order. What I want is to plunge my hand into a lucky dip and come up with a handful of assorted memories."

"I like living. I have sometimes been wildly despairing, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing."

What brought her to the Middle East the first time, more than two decades earlier, was fate, plan and simple.

After 14 years of marriage to Archie Christie, Agatha was devastated when he confessed an affair and that he had fallen in love with her and wanted a divorce.

It was 1926, and Christie's beloved mother had died earlier that year. Not claiming direct causes and effect, but this is the year Christie "disappeared" for 9 days. Much has been written about the mystery of the mystery writer, but not by her. She speaks eloquently of the end of her first marriage, but she took that specific detail to the grave.

I'll just note here that there was an article about her disappearance on the front page of the New York Times, where they wrongly call her "the American writer of mystery novels." Good grief. Her father was an American, but her nationality is British, to the core.  The front page of the NY Times is also known for publishing an obituary for Hercule Poirot, the only time a fictional character was given such an honor.  I wrote about that mini literary mystery in August.

Two years later when the divorce was final, Christie felt the need to get away and she booked travel to the West Indies through Thomas Cook & Son. Two days before she is to leave, she is at a dinner party,and meets Colonel and Mrs. Howe, just back from Baghdad, who speak about how entrancing the city is. Agatha asks if you have to go by sea, and the Colonel says, "You can go by train--by the Orient Express."

"The Orient Express?' All my life I had wanted to go on the Orient Express."

The next morning Christie rushes over to Cook's, changes all of her travel arrangements, and makes a reservation for the Simplon-Orient Express to Stamboul; from Stamboul to Damascus, and from Damascus to Baghdad across the desert.

A Real Traveler
I have been lucky to do some travel myself, but nothing like what Agatha did. By herself. In 1928. It wasn't glamorous. She talks of bed bugs, and mice and roaches, of rest houses in the Middle East with blankets on the floor for beds, of crossing the hot desert in seven-hour drives.

"Traveling in Iraq was my introduction to a somewhat strenuous way of living. We visited Nejef, which was indeed a wonderful place: a real necropolis, with the dark figures of black-veiled Muslim women wailing and moving about it. It was a hot-bed of extremists, and it was not always possible to visit. You had to inform the police first, and they would then be on the lookout to see that no outbreaks of fanaticism occurred."

This travel, the itinerary of which was set through friends of friends kind of thing,  took her to the dig at Ur, where she met Leonard Wooley's assistant Max Mallowan, and the second act of her life began. She and Max married in 1930, when she returned to the Middle East with him on his own digs.

The Empire Between the Wars, During War World II
And so while Max was posted to Egypt and she was alone in London during World War II she penned some memories of their earlier archeological digs that was published in 1945 as Come, Tell Me How You Live. The publisher insisted on her using Agatha Christie Mallowan so that no one thought it might be a new mystery from the Queen of Crime. Good thing, because it could seem dry to a broad audience.

"Our interest begins at the second millennium B.C., with the varying fortunes of the Hittites, and in particular we want to find out more about the military dynasty of Mitanni, foreign adventurers about whom little is known."

"On to Alep. And from Alep to Beyrout, where our architect is to meet us for our preliminary survey of the Habut and Jaghjagha region, which will lead to the selection of a mound suitable for excavation.

There is something frightening, and yet fascinating, about this vast world denuded of vegetation. It is not flat like the desert between Damascus and Baghdad. Instead, you climb up and down."

And then, after seven hours of heat and monotony and a lonely world--Palmyra!"

Christie was no simple "Wife of an Empire Builder" as she calls herself at the beginning of her travel book, but an active member of the dig teams, learning to professionally photograph and tag pieces, among other tasks.

Her literary output during the war is exceptional: besides this small travel memoir, she wrote the final cases of both Hercule Poirot (Curtain) and Miss Marple (Sleeping Murders), although both were put in a bank vault, and not published until decades later; Sad Cypress, One, TWo, Buckle My Shoe; Evil Under the Sun; N or M; The Body in the Library; Five Little Pigs; The Moving Finger; Towards Zero; Death Comes as an End; Sparkling Cyanide.

While she was working in a dispensary for the war effort.

Wow. Yes, a woman to admire.

Christie did not like change, so I don't imagine that she would have embraced blogging had it arisen in her lifetime. But she would have been a natural. From the beginning of Come, Tell, when she is shopping for clothes to bring:

Life nowadays is dominated and complicated by the remorseless Zip. Blouses zip up, skirts zip down, ski-ing suits zip everywhere. 'Little frocks" have perfectly unnecessary bits of zipping on them just for fun.

Why? Is there anything more deadly than a Zip that turns nasty on you? It involves you in a far worse predicament than any ordinary button, clip, snap, buckle or hook and eye.

I am so glad I read past the detective novels to meet the amazing woman behind them.

(Top picture; Palmyra)