seclusion

After I’d unpacked, hung up the clothes I’d brought, plugged in my tea kettle and my electric toothbrush, and turned on my phone to find no messages, I started to wonder what I was doing there. This very basic question can occur to anyone, anywhere, at any moment in his life, but there’s no denying that the solitary traveller is especially vulnerable. If Myriam had been with me, I’d still have had no good reason for being in Martel, yet the question simply wouldn’t have arisen. A couple is a world, autonomous and enclosed, that moves through the larger world essentially untouched; on my own, I was full of chips and cracks, and it took a certain amount of courage for me to slip the information sheet into my jacket pocket and go out into the village.

Michel Houellebecq, Submission, 71

 

revenant

Travel can induce such a distinct and nameless feeling of strangeness and disconnection in me that I feel insubstantial, like a puff of smoke, merely a ghost, a creepy revenant from the underworld, unobserved and watchful among real people, wandering, listening while remaining unseen. Being invisible—the usual condition of the older traveler—is much more useful than being obvious. You see more, you are not interrupted, you are ignored.

Ghosts have all the time in the world, another pleasure of long-distance aimlessness—traveling at half speed on slow trains and procrastinating. And this ghostliness, I was to find, was also an effect of the journey I had chosen, returning to places I had known many years ago. It is almost impossible to return to an early scene in your traveling life and not feel like a specter. And many places I saw were themselves sad and spectral, others big and hectic, while I was the haunting presence, the eavesdropping shadow on the ghost train.

Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, 5-6

narrative

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, 79

aftermath

I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However … who said that thing about “the littleness of life that art exaggerates”? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life. But time … how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time … give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, 77

 

growth

We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories. There is the question of accumulation, but not in the sense that Adrian meant, just the simple adding up and adding on of life. And as the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase. Had my life increased, or merely added to itself? This was the question Adrian’s fragment set off in me. There had been addition—and subtraction—in my life, but how much multiplication? And this gave me a sense of unease, of unrest.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, 73 

 

price

“We’ve been defeated, and now we have to pay the price. We should leave the rest of it for the future.”

“The Arabs’ worst enemy is themselves.”

“Their rulers, you mean.”

“The entire government system, more like it.”

“Everything depends on the Arabs being able to work as a unified entity.”

“On the fifth of June 1967 at least half the Arabs won.”

“Start on the inside, that’s what we have to do.”

“Fine! Religion then. Religion’s everything.”

“No! Communism’s the answer.”

“No! Democracy is what we need.”

“Responsibility should be taken away from the Arabs altogether.”

“Freedom … freedom!”

“Socialism.”

“Let’s call it democratic socialism.”

“Let’s start off with war. We’ll have time for reforms later.”

“No, the reforms have to come first, then solutions can be worked out some time in the future.”

“No, the two must go hand in hand.”

And so on and so on, ad infinitum.

Naguib Mahfouz, Karnak Café, 75 

steppe

For anyone who has never lived in the steppe, it is hard to understand how it is possible to exist surrounded by this wilderness on all sides. But those who have lived here since time out of mind know how rich and variable the steppe is. How multicoloured the sky above. How fluid the air all around. How varied the plants. How innumerable the animals in it and above it. A dust storm can spring up out of nowhere. A yellow whirlwind can suddenly start twirling round the air in the distance in the same way that women spin camel wool into twine. The entire, imponderable weight of that immense, heavy sky can suddenly whistle across the becalmed, submissive land…

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake, 29

 

vain

And as I looked down now on the crowds in Oxford Street and stroked Mars’s head I felt neither happy nor sad, only rather unreal, like a man shut in a glass. Events stream past us like these crowds and the face of each is seen only for a minute. What is urgent is not urgent for ever but only ephemerally. All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, like itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing. Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and the future. So we live; a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop that ends all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.

Iris Murdoch, Under the Net, 249

solitude

I hate solitude, but I am afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a café will provide. I have never wanted a communion of souls. It’s already hard enough to tell the truth to oneself.

Iris Murdoch, Under the Net, 27

 

thisness

I took my time, trying to find the right words.

“I always feel like I’m struggling to become someone else. Like I’m trying to find a new place, grab hold of a new life, a new personality. I guess it’s part of growing up, yet it’s also an attempt to reinvent myself. By becoming a different me, I could free myself of everything. I seriously believed I could escape myself–as long as I made the effort. But I always hit a dead end. No matter where I go, I still end up me. What’s missing never changes. The scenery may change, but I’m still the same old incomplete person. The same missing elements torture me with a hunger that I can never satisfy. I guess that lack itself is as close as I’ll come to defining myself. For your sake, I’d like to become a new person. It may not be easy, but if I give it my best shot, perhaps I can manage to change. The truth is, though, if put in the same situation again, I might very well do the same thing all over. I might very well hurt you all over again. I can’t promise anything. That’s what I meant when I said I had no right I just don’t have the confidence to win over that force in me.”

“And you’ve always been trying to escape that force?”

“I think so,” I said.

Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun, 161