Come, Tell Me How You Live
by Agatha Christie Mallowan
So you think you know Agatha Christie? Just as we Christie fans can’t really know the famously private author without reading the romantic novels she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott (possibly the closest Christie ever came to public revelation of her inmost feelings), we also can’t know her until we read her sole comic work, Come, Tell Me How You Live. This short memoir cum travel book is the record of the years she spent with her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, between sifting happily (more or less) through the sands covering the ancient cities of Iraq and Syria.
Published in 1946, it is a record of Mallowan’s archaeological digs of the 1930’s, written nostalgically during the Second World War, while Mallowan was posted to Egypt and Christie was living alone in London. It is one of only two books she published under the name “Mallowan,” and comprises a love letter of sorts to her then-absent husband.
Christie and Mallowan met at an archaeological excavation site, the ancient Sumerian city known as Ur, south of Baghdad. (The illustration for today’s post is taken from his 1930 article in National Geographic Magazine, “New Light on Ancient Ur.”) Christie at the time was divorced from her first husband, Archibald Christie. She claims in her autobiography to have been astonished when the much younger Mallowan proposed to her after a relatively short acquaintance, although given Christie’s typical reticence about her private life, the proposal may not have been entirely unexpected.
Believing that extended absences were one of the reasons for her divorce from Archibald, she seems to have been determined not to make the same mistake in her second marriage. Each year, as Mallowan left England for a new expedition, Christie traveled with him.
Personally and professionally, the digs proved fruitful for both. While he worked on (and later directed) excavations at Nineveh, and several other sites in Syria and Iraq, Agatha added archaeological backgrounds to the settings for her mystery stories, beginning with Murder in Mesopotamia, a fictionalized record of the Ur site where the two met.
Ever artful, Christie collapses several seasons of excavation into what appears in Come, Tell Me How You Live to be a single expedition.
In contrast to today’s headlines from Syria, the Syria of Christie’s record, Syria seems blissfully exotic, its worst dangers a malady known as “Gippy tummy” and a tendency to discombobulate the inner workings of fountain pens and watches.
“The desert is not kind to watches,” she writes. “After a few weeks there, one’ watch gives up steady everyday work. Time, it says, is only a mode of thought. It then takes its choice between stopping eight or nine times a day for periods of twenty minutes, or of racing indiscriminately ahead. Sometimes it alternates coyly between the two.”
Suitably prepared (on her part) with a plentiful supply of watches and on Max’s part by suitcases filled primarily with books, the pair start off, crossing the Channel by ferry and boarding the Orient Express to Istanbul (the setting for a favorite Christie mystery). From Turkey, the pair embark in a further series of trains and hired vehicles, arriving at last in Palmyra, where her description serves as an epithet to a place now synonymous with horror and ruin. “…the charm of Palmyra—its slender creamy beauty rising up fantastically in the middle of hot sand. It is lovely and fantastic and unbelievable, with all the theatrical implausibility of a dream.”
Alas, its Roman-era ruins are all modern for Mallowan, who craves more ancient ruins. And so he and Christie continue their travels, deeper into the past.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a January of true adventures with Agatha Christie’s Come, Tell Me How You Live.)