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27 December 2016

Polymath at large: revisiting the travels of Andrew Solomon

Solomon’s gifts are so wide-ranging it can be hard not to believe he comes from an earlier century.

By Erica Wagner

“I was a frightened little boy,” Andrew Solomon writes in this wonderful collection of essays. You would not guess it from reading the tales collected in this satisfyingly fat volume. If there is one quality that binds the book’s contents it is the author’s fearlessness. Solomon goes to places – Libya, Myanmar, Moscow during the coup attempt of August 1991 – where many might hesitate to venture at all. When he gets there he plunges right into the thick of things, whether that is hanging out with Russia’s avant-garde
artists as tanks move towards Red Square or meeting, in 2006, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, ­Muammar Gaddafi’s smoothly besuited son. (When Solomon asks why Libya is not proceeding more swiftly towards democratic reform, Saif says admonishingly that he must “be patient”.)

Solomon’s gifts are so wide-ranging it can be hard not to believe he comes from an earlier century, when the division between the arts and the sciences was less rigidly drawn. He is the president of PEN American Centre and a professor of psychology at Columbia University. He has the broad vision of the men and women of the Enlightenment – which is certainly not to say that there is anything old-fashioned about him, or his work. Rather, he has for many years been a groundbreaking writer. His 2001 book, The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression, has been published in 24 languages: generous and insightful, it approaches the subject from the perspective of one who is both a student and a sufferer. In Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, which won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2014, Solomon used his own experience, as a man who spent years coming to terms with being gay, as a base from which to examine how differences between parents and
children affect the lives of both.

A few pieces from both books make appearances here in somewhat altered form. It’s fair to give warning that all of the essays have appeared somewhere or another, but Far and Away never has the feeling of something recycled. Solomon visited Greenland to see how depression affected the Inuit people there, work that was published in The Noonday Demon; an update to the piece shows that things have not improved in the 15 years that have passed, not least because of the effects of global warming. “The loss of that landscape of ice,” he writes, “is not merely an environmental catastrophe, but a cultural one.” His urgent reportage from Libya is followed by a clear-eyed discussion of the catastrophe that has overtaken the country since Gaddafi’s fall – and why it was impossible to escape such a catastrophe.

A tale of this kind from Libya, or Solomon’s accounts of gay life in Moscow before the ferocious crackdown on LGBT rights, can induce a feeling of Schadenfreude in the reader; but Solomon himself never evinces such an emotion. What is striking about him as an author is his willingness, always, to learn. He knows that however much research he may have done about a place, he may never quite understand it: we stand at his shoulder, always hoping, as he does, to learn more. He is as inquisitive about the legacy of the Rwandan Genocide as he is about the extraordinary variety of Chinese food he encounters on a gastronomic tour of Beijing and Shanghai with the fashion designer Han Feng.

If that sounds like going from the sublime to the ridiculous in the space of a single sentence, then yes, this collection occasionally makes some strange juxtapositions. The pieces are organised chronologically, and because Solomon writes for such a variety of outlets – from the New Yorker to Travel + Leisure – horrors and delights sometimes appear side by side. That said, there is no need to read Far and Away straight through: keep it by your side, dip in and out, and you will be richly rewarded over and again.

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Solomon begins by recounting how his father told him about the Holocaust. He was about seven, he recalls. The Solomons are Jewish, though they fled eastern Europe long before the Second World War. He was struck, as a little boy, by the way in which some non-Jews had helped their Jewish friends. “I came to understand that you could save yourself by broad affections,” he writes. “People had died because their paradigms were too local. I was not going to have that problem.”

And so this frightened child determined to make himself into a bold man. It is a boldness that reveals itself not in physical bravery (though he has learned to dive, he tells us, and has even gone skydiving), but in moral and emotional courage.

Such courage seems especially welcome, now. He travelled to Afghanistan in 2002 and met a group of artists. Hafiz Meherzad was one of them, a miniaturist working in a traditional form, a man who said he did not believe in innovation in his field. “You in America can innovate because your past is safe. Here in Afghanistan, we need to secure our past before we begin to create a future.” Solomon’s voice, in this book, is wise and humane, not least because he allows voices such as Meherzad’s to be heard.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and the editor of “First Light: a Celebration of Alan Garner” (Unbound)

Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change – Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years by Andrew Solomon is published by Chatto & Windus )578pp, £14.99).

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This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016