Six great holidays in literature to escape with this summer


Throughout the long and arduous months of the working year, many of us spend our time pining for those few short weeks of relaxation at the edge of the horizon: the annual holiday.

It's no surprise then that some of literature's best authors have found the holiday — a much fetishised and dreamed about event — to be a fruitful setting for their work.

Whether it's a quiet period of personal reflection, or a short window of action creating a heightened sense of reality, the holiday provides writers with a convenient microcosm of everyday life.

There's no shortage of holidays in literature, but this list focuses on examples that best capture the particular, and often strange, atmosphere holidays can evoke.

Needless to say, few are as carefree and fun as their respective protagonists might have hoped.

Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann

Mann's classic novella is a lot of things: a treatise on creativity, a literary thriller and a nuanced unpicking of Europe as it collapsed into the First World War.

It's also the gold standard when it comes to holiday writing.

A writer of great renown, Gustav von Aschenbach, decides to treat a stubborn bout of writer's block with a trip to the Lido di Venezia.

While there, he spies the beautiful and mysterious child Tadzio and becomes immediately obsessed.

For von Aschenbach, Tadzio and the surrounds represent true artistic freedom — the unattainable state of total creativity that he so desires.

But as a choleric plague closes around Venice, von Aschenbach's obsessions become similarly unhealthy.

This holiday is the very opposite of one you'd want to go on, but the telling does beautifully deconstruct ideas around desire, freedom and what we need to be happy.

The Rocket, by Ray Bradbury

This short story is a timeless and heart-rending reminder that the very concept of a holiday is unattainable to much of the world's population.

Set in a future in which the world's rich holiday on Jupiter and Saturn, while the rest fritter away their time on earth, this sci-fi short story's main character (Bodoni) spends sleepless nights wistfully looking up at a sky illuminated by countless rocket tails.

Obsessed with taking his family on an interplanetary getaway, Bodoni ends up spending his life savings on an essentially useless, but life-size rocket shaped model, much to his wife's chagrin.

The twist at the end of this gem of a story might, in another writer's hands, be twee.

But Bradbury's simple and oddly timeless prose render it a beautiful and moving reflection on what it means to escape.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again cover

Non-fiction travel writing is an enormous genre in its own right.

But the pick of the litter when it comes to the modern holiday must be Foster Wallace's hilarious (and horrifying) dispatch from on board a luxury cruise ship.

Ostensibly a piece of reportage about the cruise industry as it was in the mid-1990s, it's also a lurid, damning and hilarious reflection on the capitalist condition, shown through the lens of our obsession with leisure.

No other writer can capture the carnivalesque horror of contemporary America in the way Foster Wallace can:

"I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters and watched a woman in silver lamé projectile-vomit inside a glass elevator."

The laughs are tempered, though, with a deep and abiding sense of anxiety and scepticism.

In true Foster Wallace style, the essay will leave you leave wondering whether our passion for relaxation and 'leaving the world behind' is as innocent as it seems.

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

Of all the holiday tropes, the honeymoon is probably the richest with expectation and ceremony. And it's these expectations that motivate this slim but potent novella.

As the book opens, its two main characters, Florence and Edward, are sitting down to their first meal as man and wife, looking out their hotel window at the sparkling pebbles of the titular beach.

What follows is an insightful and, at times, hypnotising account of how time spent outside of the daily grind can irrevocably change the way we view our lives.

The book is also a fabulously nostalgic evocation of a tradition all but disappeared: the English seaside holiday.

As with all McEwan's work, On Chesil Beach encapsulates the way small decisions have huge consequences and how small moments can reverberate throughout the rest of our lives.

The Evening of the Holiday, by Shirley Hazzard

This Australian novelist's work is increasingly being recognised as some of the most important in the 20th century.

The Evening of the Holiday provides an excellent entry-point to Hazzard's exacting and romantic style.

On the surface the novel is an archetypal holiday romance: the young British ingenue, the hardened and arrogant continental, and a love affair against the backdrop of the Italian countryside — it ticks all those Mills and Boon boxes.

But within this, frankly, tired structure, Hazzard's wry self-awareness and masterful control of language builds an arresting, moving and unusual reflection of the thrills and emotion that come with transient passion.

After all, the worst thing about holidays is that they have to end!

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

The Summer Book cover

Unlike many of the books on this list, Jansson's book, a collection of small vignettes, focuses less on the philosophy of being away and more on the sensual experience of it.

A young girl and her artist grandmother while away the long, warm days on an island in the Gulf of Finland, as they recover from the death of the young girl's mother.

What sets The Summer Book apart is its spare, almost spiritual descriptions of an unknown and seemingly mystical landscape.

Its first lines contain what must be one of the most evocative descriptions of, an admittedly European, summer ever written:

"It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened."

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