When you’re leaving someone you love and you’ll be separated for a long, long time, you want time itself to slow down.
You want to spin out those last minutes, sitting at a table drinking tea, watching the clock for the appointed moment when you should get on the coach or go through immigration at the airport, thinner and thinner, longer and longer.
You quietly revise past conversations, revisit memories of past times and try to remember everything you want to or needed to say, you make tentative plans for future contact, wishing that conversation alone could postpone the inevitable parting.
I’m like that with some books. You start reading, and you are drawn in to such an extent that you really don’t want to leave it. You know it will be a terrible wrench and then a cavernous empty hiatus with nothing available that remotely matches up. So the reading gets slower because if you read at the usual pace you will finish it – and that is no longer the goal. the goal is just to keep drinking the words you relish and enjoy. You’re reading so slowly, you forget where you were – and it scarcely matters because you’ll revisit chapters and chunks of text anyway just to savour the writing. Which explains why I’m still only on page 351 of Paul Theroux’s “Riding the Iron Rooster.”
It feels like you’re travelling with Theroux. I went around the Islands of Oceania with him in his collapsible canoe. I was there with him looking at beaches thick with refuse, drinking herbal remedies with the locals, peering into the depths of clear blue ocean.
Now I’m waking up with him wearing pyjamas in a hard sleeper, pushing a curtain to one side revealing ice on the inside of the window pane, peering past the crystal patterns on to the foreign landscape of Mongolia or perhaps northern China; the sound of Chinese being spoken as people wake and dress, go find food.
Maybe the novelty is because I’m not much travelled. Maybe it’s the writing. More likely the combination of both and what seems like his total honesty. I feel like I trust him. I haven’t felt like this since I read A. S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden. I may finish it by the end of October but I’m in no rush.
A couple of extracts to whet the appetite:
“Some Chinese in Canton asked me what I wanted to see there. I said “How about a commune?” and they almost split their sides laughing. The Chinese laugh is seldom a response to something funny – it is usually Ha- ha, we’re in deep shit or Ha-Ha I wish you hadn’t said that or Ha-ha I’ve never felt so miserable in my life – but this Cantonese boffo was real mirth. The idea of visiting a commune anywhere in Guangdone province was completely ridiculous. There were none! And didn’t I know that Deng Xiaoping had officially declared the commune experiment to have been a failure? Didn’t I know that everyone was now paddling his own canoe?”
“As we rounded the bend, the engine came into view – a big black locomotive, squawking and blowing out smoke and steam, a fat kettle on wheels.
“The air was so still on the Mongolian plain that on the straighter stretches the smoke from the engine passed my windows and left smuts on my face, and I was eighteen coaches from the smoke-stack.
“By hot yellow noon, the landscape had wrinkled mountains behind it, but they were bare and blue, and somem earer hills were only slightly mossy. There were no trees. There were ploughed fields everywhere, but nothing sprouting.
“In the villages there were mud walls around every house.You would not have to be told you were in Mongolia – this was about as Mongolian as a place could possibly be.”
Positively the last extract…. he’s on Tian Hu, (named after a rebel in The Water Margin, a Chinese classic) a 1,000 passenger ship sailing across the Bohai Gulf to Shandong province.
“The Tian Hu was full of spitters – something to do with the sea air, perhaps, and the wish to have a good hoick. I had resolved that I was going to ignore them, but it was on this ship that I realized what had been bothering me about Chinese spitting. It was, simply, that they were not very good at it.
They spat all the time. They cleared their throats so loudly they could drown conversation – they could sound like a Roto-Rooter or someone clearing a storm drain, or the last gallon of water leaving a jacuzzi. With their cheeks alone they made the suctioning: hhggaarrkh! And then they grinned and positioned their teeth, and they leaned. You expected them to propel it about five yards like a Laramie stockman spitting over a fence. But no, they never gave it any force. They seldom spat more than a few inches from where they stood. They did not spit out, they spat down; that was the essential cultural difference that it took me almost a year in China to determine. It was not one clean shot with a ping into the spittoon, but a series of dribbles that often ran down the outside of the revolting thing. They bent low when they spat, there was a certain bending of the knees and crooking of the back that was a preliminary to Chinese spitting. It was not aggressive propulsion. It was almost noiseless. They just dropped it and moved on. Well, it was a crowded country – you couldn’t just turn aside and hoick a louie without hitting someone. But after the snarkings, the mucus streaking through their passages with a smack, Chinese spitting was always something of an aimless anticlimax.”
I never want as really good book to end….
What was the last one you felt like that about, then Pseu?
I’m still reading it, Jan!
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. ( I read The Poisonwood Bible a few years ago and that too was very good.)
I rave about Lolita as the writing is so brilliant, though it is a difficult subject.
Thanks. I’m going to remember those for future reading. Lolita is one of those books I heard so much about that I avoided reading in case it was all hype. Obviously not! 🙂
PS Have you visited here:
http://kateshrewsday.com/ – some jolly good writing you may enjoy
I’m subscribing post haste. A bright and jolly website as well as jolly good writing – and I like the irises and mention of the bike race in London which just might have been the Tour of Britain climax (about to catch up with what I’ve missed on the TV tonight).
Thanks Pseu. Some jolly good writing here, just as you said there would be. Beautifiul writing, especially for a hedonist who is only part time 🙂
Thanks for following the link. Keep an eye on Jan she’s vair amoozing.
‘Course, now you’ve said that I will be dire. 🙂
Hi Kate. Love the website. See you there – and maybe even here! 🙂
Bootyful, more please.
What was the last book you didn’t want to end, then, Val? I’m collecting the for my “to read” bookshelf on Goodreads.
I think I was more conscious of not wanting books to end when I was a child. I wanted The Faraway Tree to go on for ever. Maybe its the books I read now don’t inspire me in such a way.
The extracts you’ve included sound good 😀
I haven’t read that one. The first book I literally couldn’t put down was The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. I must have been ripe for a real pot-boiler. The film was a big disappointment as they were all so much more beautiful/handsome in my head and I’d got a huge sense of sexual tension from the book but nothing from the film. Ah well. I’m posting another fantastic extract of Theroux but don’t read while having your tea – it’s about spitting. 🙂
It was by Enid Blyton. Not a great literary work but enchanting to a child. I remember the Thorn Birds, and Flowers in the Attic – that was a bit dark for a fourteen year old 😀
By George, I should have known that! Flowers in the Attic looks like the stuff of nightmares. I’m a bit vulnerable to influence at the moment so I’ll leave that one just now. Had terrible nightmares after watching Dr Who the other week. Goodness knows how kids cope.
I felt just like that when I read his book The Great railway Bazaar, and then was hideously disappointed when I read somewhere that he didn’t really rate his travel writing.
As for A S Byatt, I had requited love affair with Possession twenty years ago.
I saw him at Hay Festival and he didn’t say anything about not rating his own travel writing. He had a wonderful time. He seemed to feel fortunate to have been able to do it. I certainly feel fortunate that he was able to! 🙂
Good tip about the Great Railway Bazaar. I should read that next. It will encourage me to finish this one without suffering a sense of loss.
Ah, Possession. Excellent, elegant writing.
It was a long time ago. Maybe it was a youthful(ish) phase. I understood he wanted his fiction to be what he was known for, but his publisher and the buying public liked his travelling writing better.
I am saving the newest ASB for a future treat.