The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier

Seldom read travel memoirs. But this one has so many gems of passages.

The Way of the World, by Nicolas Bouvier. Translated from French by Robyn Marsack.

On travelling:

Travelling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you – or unmaking you.

On foreign aid:

practising charity demands endless tact and humility. It is much easier to rid a village of malcontents than to change its ways, and no doubt it is easier to find Lawrences of Arabia and agitators than technicians who are also good psychologists. … We know that the Americans are the most generous people in the world. We also know that they are often ill-informed, that they like things done in their own way, and that their hearts are warmed by results that appeal to their sentimentality… It is not so easy to admit that what works at home mightn’t work abroad; that Iran, that old aristocrat who has known all about life – and forgotten much – is allergic to ordinary medicines and calls for special treatment. Presents are not so easy to give when the children are five thousand years older than Santa Claus.

On sensibilities. The author was plagued by a riddle and asked his student:

‘Please explain to me, awhite-castle-without-doors”: what could it possibly be?’

‘An EGG’, she said immediately. ‘Couldn’t you guess? It’s easy, even a child knows that.’ And she sat back, as though to savour the significance of her answer.

An egg? I didn’t see how. De Chirico himself couldn’t have worked that one out, yet the least of my pupils could see the association at once. As neither their eggs nor their castles were so very different from ours, it had to be their mentality that was different. And I had accused them of a lack of imagination! No, it was just that they exercised it in a totally different realm.

On that indescribable moment, the passage that got me interested in the book:

The widening light caught the plumage of quails and partridges… and quickly I dropped this wonderful moment to the bottom of my memory, like a sheet-anchor that one day I could draw up again. You stretch, pace to and fro feeling weightless, and the word ‘happiness’ seems too thin and limited to describe what has happened. In the end, the bedrock of existence is not made up of the family, or work, or what others say or think of you, but of moments like this when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love. Life dispenses them parsimoniously; our feeble hearts could not stand more.

Who writes/translates like this? I’m smitten.

Feeling inadequate with words to express how I feel now, I borrow these lines from the film History Boys:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

I contentedly let my hand be taken.


3 thoughts on “The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier

  1. Jin Jee

    Thanks for sharing those lovely passages. Andrew Harvey’s ‘A Journey in Ladakh’ is the only other recent read I’ve had that comes close in terms of ability to evoke such a mood, a state of mind, a feeling of wonder and beauty.


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