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
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
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
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
Because memory and sensations are so uncertain, so biased, we always rely on a certain reality—call it an alternate reality—to prove the reality of events. To what extent facts we recognize as such really are as they seem, and to what extent these are facts merely because we label them as such, is an impossible distinction to draw. Therefore, in order to pin down reality as reality, we need another reality to relativize the first, yet that other reality requires a third reality to serve as its grounding. An endless chain is created within our consciousness, and it is the very maintenance of this chain that produces the sensation that we are actually here, that we ourselves exist But something can happen to sever that chain, and we are at a loss. What is real? Is reality on this side of the break in the chain? Or over there, on the other side?
Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun, 155
I was always attracted not by some quantifiable, external beauty, but by something deep down, something absolute. Just as some people have a secret love for rainstorms, earthquakes, or blackouts, I liked that certain undefinable something directed my way by members of the opposite sex. For want of a better word, call it magnetism. Like it or not, it’s a kind of power that snares people and reels them in. The closest comparison might be the power of perfume. Perhaps even the master blender himself can’t explain how a fragrance that has a special power is created. Science sure can’t explain it. Still, the fact remains that a certain combination of fragrances can captivate the opposite sex like the scent of an animal in heat. One kind of fragrance might attract fifty out of a hundred people. And another scent will attract the other fifty. But there also are scents that only one or two people will find wildly exciting. And I have the ability, from far away, to sniff out those special scents. When I do, I want to go up to the girl who radiates this aura and say, Hey, I picked it up, you know. No one else gets it, but I do.
Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun, 31
She was learning, quite late, what many people around her appeared to have known since childhood—that life can be perfectly satisfying without major achievements. It could be brimful of occupations which did not weary you to the bone. Acquiring what you needed for a comfortably furnished life, and then to take on a social and public life of entertainment, would keep you from even being bored or idle, and would make you feel at the end of the day that you had done exactly what pleased everybody. There need be no agonizing.
Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness, 272
Miss Spence broke a long silence by saying meditatively. “I think everyone has a right to a certain amount of happiness, don’t you?” “Most certainly.” But what was she leading up to? Nobody makes generalisations about life unless they mean to talk about themselves.
Happiness: he looked back on his own life, and saw a cheerful, placid existence disturbed by no great griefs or discomforts or alarms. He had always had money and freedom; he had been able to do very much as he wanted. Yes, he supposed he had been happy—happier than most men. And now he was not merely happy; he had discovered in irresponsibility the secret of gaiety.
Aldous Huxley, Mortal Coils, 56
“That small family ceremony was the only time politics entered our house. When my father came home from work, and the table was laid with rice, soup, kimchi and pickles, which we ate with every meal, my mother waited for me to say: ‘Thank you, Respected Father Leader Kim Il-sung, for our food’ before we picked up our chopsticks. But over dinner my parents chatted only of personal matters, or family. There was usually plenty of innocuous family news from Hyesan to talk about. Serious topics were never discussed. I learned to avoid them in the way children acquire a sense for the dangers of the road. This was for my own protection, and we were no different from other families in that respect. Since there was no aspect of life, public or private, that fell outside the authority of the Party, almost every topic of conversation was potentially political, and potentially dangerous. My parent would not risk an incautious remark that might be repeated innocently by me, or misunderstood.”
Hyeonseo Lee – The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, 157
“This was the first time in America that I had to give someone the news of a fatal illness, but it felt like the first time ever. It was as if in Ethiopia, and even in Nairobi, people assumed that all illness – even a trivial or imagined one – was fatal; they expected death. The news to convey in Africa was that you’d kept death at bay. Those things that you couldn’t do, and those diseases you couldn’t reverse, were left unspoken. It was understood. I don’t recall an equivalent word for “prognosis” in Amharic, and I’d never tried to speak for a patient about five-year survival or anything like that. In America, my initial impression was that death or the possibility of it always seemed to come as a surprise, as if we took for granted that we were immortal, and that death was just an option.”
Abraham Verghese – Cutting for Stone, 443