I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Your language or mine?

Michael Cronin
An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day, by Alexander Beecroft, Verso, 320 pp, £19.95, ISBN: 978-1781685730 At 15,600 feet the porters decided they had had enough. The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and his three companions ‑ Bonpland, Montúfar and José ‑ had no option but to continue their ascent of Chimborazo in the Andes alone. Their feet and gums bled, their hands froze and they became increasingly dizzy. But they never made it to the top. At 19,413 feet above sea level, faced with a huge uncrossable crevasse, they had to turn back. In early afternoon of June 23rd, 1802, though they conceded defeat, they also realised that no one had ever come this high, not even the early balloonists in Europe von Humboldt so admired. Another more lasting realisation came to the German scientist as he looked down from the mountain. He began to think of all the plants, rock formations and the measurements he had taken in the Alps, the Pyrenees and on the island of Tenerife. What he saw was connections, linkages. He later expressed this vision in a sketch of Chimborazo in cross-section where, as his most recent biographer, Andrea Wulf, puts it: “Humboldt showed plants distributed according to their altitudes, ranging from subterranean mushroom species to the lichens that grow below the snow line. At the foot of the mountain was the tropical zone of palms and further up, the oaks and fern-like shrubs that preferred a more temperate climate.” This Naturgemälde, or “painting of nature”, showed that nature was a global force containing corresponding climate zones across continents. Von Humboldt was less interested in taxonomic differentiation ‑ the prevailing paradigm ‑ and more attuned to climactic connectedness. In other words, he noted how similar conditions could produce strikingly similar responses in very different parts of the world. Alexander Beecroft is similarly impatient with attempts to survey the literatures of the world driven by the lure of the taxonym. He claims that the ordering of the different writings of the planet using the convenient shorthand of geography (“Latin American writing”) or the slide rule of time (“Renaissance Prose”) obscures more than it reveals. Moreover, previous attempts by Franco Moretti and Pascale Casanova to sketch out the literary landscapes of the planet largely either ignored the pre-modern and the pre-Western or, as in the case of the Harvard scholar David Damrosch, were…



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